It is now a year on from the UK’s 2019 general election where we saw the Conservative Party strive to victory whilst almost 50% of voters were left ignored (1). Having voted in my first general election in 2019 I was disheartened to realise that my vote was of no value. Living in a safe seat constituency rendered my vote incapable of having any meaningful influence on the future of the UK government. This made me question our electoral system and whether it really expressed the true choices of UK citizens. As a country who is ranked 14th in the Democratic Index (2) produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit is our electoral system a disaster for democracy? The Electoral Reform Society (3) has been heavily critical of our current voting system and has been campaigning to bring about democratic reform that ensures “every voice is heard, every vote is valued equally, and every citizen is empowered to take part”.
In a nutshell, the system we use in the UK is called First Past the Post (FPTP) (4). It begins with voters receiving a ballot on election day with a list of candidates standing to be MP to represent their area. Voters then mark a cross next to one of these candidates whom they wish to elect to become their MP. The candidate with the most votes wins the seat for that area and becomes the MP of that constituency. Across the UK there are 650 constituencies each with one seat at Parliament. Once all the votes have been counted if a party has obtained at least 326 seats they are declared the winner: forming the government for the new term. In cases where no party is seen to have acquired over half the seats, we reach a hung Parliament which can be resolved via a coalition as seen in 2010 between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Party.
This plurality-majority system seems fairly straightforward and simple so why are so many demanding a change in our electoral system? Whilst there are a multitude of issues with FPTP like many other electoral systems, the key issue is the degree of disproportionality. Analysis of the 2019 General Election showed that the Conservative Party managed to take victory by simply having just 1.2% more of the popular vote allowing for a swing of 48 seats (5). With the present system discarding so many votes it isn’t surprising that our voter turnouts are so low with a drop from 78% in 1992 to 69% in 2019 (6). As someone who has only had the opportunity of voting once in a general election, I already feel that there is little value in the voting process leaving me less inclined to vote in future elections. Voter alienation proves to be growing across the UK as many citizens begin to feel as if their voice does not matter as parties are able to maintain their seat within a constituency despite a significant drop in the popular vote. Many people like me who would have either just recently reached the voting age or been voting for some time, are realising that a significant proportion of the electorate is being ignored as a result of FPTP; they are choosing to give up on voting as they see little benefit to it. A lack of turnout not only hinders the idea of democracy as many claim the election results lack legitimacy but also undermines a political party's electoral mandate.
Given the criticisms the FPTP system has faced, Britain has had several attempts to change its electoral system in the past. The most recent attempt being in the 2011 referendum (7) where voters had to decide upon adopting a new system known as alternative vote or AV. In the AV system, voters must rank candidates in order of preference. This motion was defeated as the national turnout was at an all-time low of only 41% with 68% voting against it. The resounding no came as a result of the multitude of problems (8) AV caused. The system itself was seen as severely complex in comparison to our current FPTP system leaving it to be a fairly dismal compromise. No one seemed to be in favour of the system and those voting yes simply did it in a desperate attempt to eradicate the current unequal structure.
The defeat of the AV referendum and long reign of FPTP both suggest there are some advantages to FPTP for us to hang onto it for so long. Despite all its criticisms one of the most cited advantages of FPTP is that it gives rise to a single-party government with a clear mandate. Majority governments are often favoured for their ability to quickly and effectively make decisions in times of uncertainty as cabinets are not left bargaining with their fellow coalition power to come to some sort of an agreement. But is the system truly keeping up its end of the bargain in terms of providing a strong government? The elections in 2010 and 2017 all produced hung Parliaments resulting in unlikely partnerships between parties with differing ideologies.
Another argument often placed by FTPT supporters is the important link that is retained between MP and its constituents giving rise to a Parliament who clearly represents its citizens. Yet in practice, these links have been weakened over the years in the face of MPs' own personal agendas and the power of party whips in demanding party allegiance thereby discarding citizens' concerns.
Knowing the biggest downfall of FPTP resides in the multitude of votes that are wasted, many have advocated for proportional representation systems (4) to replace the current one. Proportional representation is a system where the distribution of seats is in proportion with the number of votes casted for that party. The benefits of these sorts of systems is that it avoids the unfair results we often see under a plurality-majority electoral system. Whilst there are a copious number of proportional representation systems each with their own advantages and disadvantages the main criticisms surrounds the theme of coalition governments. The tendency of proportional representation systems to produce coalition governments is arguably a cause for concern. The legislative impasse that arises due to conflicting viewpoints leads to a failure to carry out well-reasoned policies in time-pressured situations.
Whether we should invest our time and money into electoral reform still remains a widely contested issue, with the left strongly advocated for change whilst the right remains keen to continue with FPTP. All electoral systems provide a range of benefits and costs meaning that the answer to the question relies on what we hope to achieve with our electoral system. Do we want a system that fairly accounts for all citizens' voices or do we want a system that produces a strong and stable government?
DCI’s main goal is to decode encrypted news for an enlightened citizen
Niralee Shah, Warwick University
(4) Aceproject.org. 1998. First Past the Post - Disadvantages —. [online] Available at: <https://aceproject.org/main/english/es/esd01b.htm > [Accessed 13 March 2021].
(7) BBC News. 2011. Vote 2011: UK rejects alternative vote. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13297573 > [Accessed 13 March 2021].
Blau, A., 2008. Electoral reform in the UK: A veto player analysis. To keep or to change first past the post, pp.61-89.
Bowler, S. and Donovan, T., 2013. The limits of electoral reform. OUP Oxford.
(8) Clark, T., 2011. 10 reasons the AV referendum was lost | Tom Clark. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/may/06/reasons-av-referendum-lost> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
(1) Cowburn, A., 2020. Millions being ignored by ‘morally and politically bankrupt’ UK voting system, new report claims. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/general-election-voting-electoral-reform-proportional-representation-first-past-post-a9367546.html> [Accessed 2 March 2021].
(2) Democratic Audit. 2018. In comparative league tables of liberal democracies the UK’s democracy is judged to be First Division, but not Premier League. [online] Available at: <https://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/10/31/in-comparative-league-tables-of-liberal-democracies-the-uks-democracy-is-judged-to-be-first-division-but-not-premier-league/> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
(3) Electoral-reform.org.uk. 2017. What We Stand For. [online] Available at: <https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/who-we-are/what-we-stand-for/> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
(5) Frost, N., 2019. The UK's first-past-the-post electoral system is failing democracy. [online] Quartz. Available at: <https://qz.com/1766224/the-uks-electoral-system-is-a-disaster-for-democracy/> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
Gilbert, J., 2020. Only electoral reform will rid the Labour party of factionalism | Jeremy Gilbert. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/20/only-electoral-reform-will-rid-the-labour-party-of-factionalism> [Accessed 13 March 2021].
(6) Statista. 2021. Voter turnout in the UK 1918-2019 | Statista. [online] Available at: <https://www.statista.com/statistics/1050929/voter-turnout-in-the-uk/> [Accessed 13 March 2021].