Britain needs electoral reform.

Will Cameron care?


Britain’s skewed general election results have rekindled the debate about the country’s electoral system — but don’t expect reform any time soon.

Last week’s general election sent ripples through Britain’s political landscape but it failed to break the dominance of the country’s two biggest parties. Pre-election polls proved not only wrong but irrelevant for small parties unable to convert national support into parliamentary seats. The Green Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) both claim they haven’t failed — it’s the UK’s electoral system that has failed them. Their voters (about 5 million combined) and civil society groups reacted to the election results with a swell of protest on Twitter and an online petition for electoral reform which garnered 117,000 signatures within a few days. The debate about Britain’s electoral system is back on the table.

Questionable results

In the present electoral system (called First-Past-The-Post) every voter has one vote and the candidate getting the most votes in absolute terms is elected whereas the votes cast for other candidates are lost. Critics say that this formula, though simple and clear, is out of touch with the political realities of modern Britain. Their main argument is that beyond its other shortcomings, FPTP inherently favours the two biggest parties while leaving millions of voters without representation in parliament.

The Electoral Reform Society, an independent organisation campaigning for an overhaul of the electoral system in Britain, has published a set of data supporting these claims. According to their figures, 15.4 million out of the total 31 million people voted for losing candidates in this election — i.e. about half of the total votes were lost. That hurt especially the smaller parties like the Greens or UKIP whose support base, though significant nationally, is spread across constituencies. The electoral system also produced an abysmal mismatch between the wins of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and those of UKIP and the Greens. While the SNP won 56 seats with just 1.5 million votes in Scotland, the 3.8 million votes cast for UKIP and the 1.1 million votes for the Greens meant only 1 seat for each. On the top of the table, the Conservatives won a governing majority with just 37% of the vote while almost half of the elected MPs got less than 50% of the vote in their respective constituencies.

The ERS has also calculated the average number of votes each party needed to win a seat. See the infographic here.

Don’t expect reform soon

Predictably, the Green Party immediately called for electoral reform while UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell argued for direct democracy to complement a revamped voting system. But however loud the campaigns, an electoral reform is unlikely during the next parliament.

The main reason for that is the vested interest of the two big parties (and even the SNP) in maintaining the status quo. There are plenty of pretexts for the second Cameron government to ignore the issue. First, they never promised electoral reform in the first place — neither in speech nor in their manifesto. Second, they can make the (rather sound) argument that Britain already rejected the Alternative Vote (a more proportional system where the voter would create a priority list of candidates) in a referendum in 2011. Back then, David Cameron campaigned vehemently against Alternative Vote which he dismissed as chaotic and unfair. While there might be other formulae like the d’Hont method or Single Transferable Vote (STV) to provide the alternative, the government is unlikely to give up an electoral system that secured them a majority with 37% share of the vote. Labour has a similar rationale to avoid reform — especially as UKIP is fast-emerging as the main challenger of safe Labour seats in the North of England. A system that would count in votes for second places could be disastrous for Labour and minimum costly for the Conservatives (UKIP came second in 118 of the UK’s 650 constituencies).

Another good reason to steer clear of electoral reform in this parliament is the already jam-packed agenda of the two big parties. The governing Conservatives are facing huge tasks such as the devolution of powers (to Scotland and possibly other British nations and regions), the EU-renegotiation topped with a referendum, controversial welfare cuts, the shoring up of Britain’s health services and a range of major decisions on infrastructure — to name just a few. In the meantime, Labour will be looking for a new direction under a new leader after a catastrophic election defeat — and the last thing they want is to risk dozens of seats that UKIP and the Greens would no doubt have grabbed from them already under a proportional electoral regime.

In 5 years time, Britain might be a very different place than it is today — it may become a much more federal partnership of nations living together and outside the EU; it could become even more meritocratic with an even wealthier upper crust and a more Dickensian underbelly. All those changes would point toward more fragmentation and a multiparty democracy.

Yet all other factors suggest that the next general election will still be won and lost by either of the two big parties in marginal constituencies whose voters (by merit of postcode) are a little bit more equal than others.

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