Our voting system is a disaster
By now, we should all be familiar with the “Maggie Simpson” election map from just two years ago. This map exemplified the worst of First Past the Post; a starkly divided nation split between two different parties. From first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking those two parties were the SNP and the Conservatives. This is so far from the mark, it could be funny if it wasn’t so serious. The blue and yellow, dominating the country, have 59.5% of the seats shown (Bercow is blue) but the two parties only gained 41.5% of the vote. Using Scotland as a case example, I’ll show that, not only is FPTP unfit for modern politics, there is a fairer way to do things
When FPTP was first used, the majority of the country was politically illiterate, and illiterate in general. Women couldn’t vote, neither could non-land owners. There were only two political parties and gaining information on either’s policies was not easy. There are currently nine different parties in Parliament and neither gender nor wealth are barriers to voting. The biggest change, however, is the accessibility of politics has changed radically. Even in the past few years, it’s now possible to Tweet your local MP and possibly have a response in minutes. But before that, any blunders or policy announcements (let’s face it, it’s usually the former) would be reported online within minutes and widespread within hours. Outside of the internet, a political gaffe could be the headline on the evening news and everyone would know by the next day, as Gordon Brown learnt the hard way when he forgot his mic was still on.
First Past the Post was designed for a time when news took days to spread and the few who could vote had only to switch from Whig to Tory or vice versa, politics is much less simple in the 21st century and the most basic of voting systems can’t keep up with radically changing times. With access to information at its simplest, even the most complex voting system doesn’t present a challenge for the majority of the electorate. Take the local elections ran under STV in Scotland for example; it’s in each party’s interest for their voters to understand the system and vote correctly so all their election material contains a guide to voting. For those who are still confused, there exist election helplines, run by local councils with assistants briefed in the most complex aspects of the system. Votes are counted electronically to save on time and prevent errors after hours wasted on difficult maths.
Local elections in Scotland have moved into the 21st century, it’s time Westminster elections did the same, or the 20th century at the very least.
While, across the UK, the inconsistencies of FPTP tend to even themselves out, a smaller area with many competing parties, the results can vary drastically. The 2015 election in Scotland, shown in the map above produced some of the worst results in FPTP. The SNP were the clear winners on 50% of the vote but they won 95% of the seats, 56 in total. Scottish Labour got half as many votes but only one seat (1.7% of seats), same as the Lib Dems and Tories, who got 8% and 15% respectively. This is FPTP at it’s worst, the majority of people didn’t get the MP they voted for and 50% of votes became 3 MPs. Compare this to the result had the election been based on D’Hondt lists (using roughly the Scottish Parliament boundaries), the SNP would fall to 34 seats, just over half while Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems would see large rises.
The 2017 election would also see significant changes, instead of the Tories have almost double the seats Labour won, Labour would have one more. Labour and the SNP would be equal in Glasgow (Labour currently hold one out of 7) and, the best part if you ask me, is the Tories would win 17 seats or 28.8% of seats compared to their 28.6% of the vote. Under this system, 94.3% of Scots would have an MP they voted for compared to 40.7% at the moment, a huge improvement. While it is difficult to compare between parliaments but, in Holyrood, only 9% of voters didn’t have an SNP MSP and every part of the country had a Labour or Conservative MSP. In addition, a lot more parties have been represented in Holyrood, as well as the four main parties, the Greens, the Socialists, the Senior Citizens and two independents have found themselves in the Scottish Parliament. The only MP outside of the main parties elected to Westminster in Scotland over the same period was Michael Martin, the Speaker and former Labour MP for Glasgow North East.
Not only does a proportional system (AMS or a pure list system like I’ve used above) mean more people have their representatives in Parliament but proportional systems can keep up with different parties and can adapt when a new party arises.
Because FPTP stifles smaller parties, voter turnout is lower in countries that use FPTP than other proportional systems. The average voter turnout in the five highest ranking countries on the Democracy Index was, in their respective last election, 81.4%. These soaring heights haven’t been achieved in the UK since 1951. In fact, that’s only one of two elections where the turnout topped 80% postwar, the other being just 20 months prior. The average turnout in the most democratic countries using FPTP (to use as comparable sample as possible) was just 68.6% at their last elections. Another startling difference is with what the Democratic Index calls “democratic participation”, with the average country using PR comes in at 8.89/10, significantly higher than the average FPTP score of 7.22. Norway, the most democratic of all, score 10/1o for democratic participation.
So, why the lower voter turnout? Well, if you look at the percentage of the electorate who voted for the largest two parties (not just of those who turn out to vote), there’s only a small difference between the percentage received in PR countries compared to FPTP countries. This means, instead of voting, almost 13% of voters know their vote won’t count so, instead of picking another party, decided to stay at home. When we should be encouraging more voters to come out, our voting system is asking voters who don’t want Labour or Conservative to stay at home. There is another option; change our voting system so that all voters can feel the system represents them.
There are a lot of arguments for abolishing FPTP, some quite bizarre but the need for a new voting system cannot be overstated. As times have changed, our country can cope with a new system, the change necessary wouldn’t put voters off but would, in fact, help encourage more voters come out to polling stations and vote for the party that represents them. Outside of election time, PR systems mean voters of smaller parties, or a voter who feels their MP does not treat their query appropriately, still have MPs feel they can approach. If we want our politics to keep up and move into the 21st century, our voting system must change too.
As an aside, my personal preference would be for the AMS system to be used UK wide or an open list system as a close second. I don’t believe the “constituency link” is important as most don’t know the name of their MP but the majority do vote and the majority do need their voices heard.