• 19 . 05 . 10
  • There has been a recent groundswell of support for electoral reform in the UK. This piece describes why you are probably in favour of it – even if you don’t think you are.

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Why You Probably Support Electoral Reform

It’s been heartening to see a sizeable and noisy push towards meaningful political reform in England. While the coalition has made a number promises on changes to the Lords, to constituency sizes and electoral reform, including a referendum on the alternative vote, there is still sizeable resistance in the Commons on both sides of the aisle, particularly to the latter policy. We need to continue to put pressure on our elected representatives to follow through with at least that much.

There are many misconceptions about the the concepts of electoral reform, proportional representation and the alternative vote and a number of arguments are regularly raised in opposition to any proposed changes. A sample of those arguments follow. This is something of a straw man piece, but the statements rebutted below are absolutely representative of what is being written in more conservative articles and blogs around the UK that support the existing system and are resistant to change.

This piece isn’t targeted at everyone in the UK; only those who don’t live in marginal constituencies and whose vote doesn’t really matter because they live in a “safe” constituency. So only 95% of us then. Hell, even the Eurovision Song Contest is more proportional than British elections. Imagine if each member state only had one vote in that competition. We’d be on nul points for eternity (deserving or not).

First past the post works, it’s easy to understand and we don’t need to change it

First past the post (FPTP) is absolutely a legitimate method of polling people, but it is far better suited to competitions where there can be a single winner, like presidential elections. For large populations, it can lead to peverse results where the loser in terms of the popular vote still commands a majority in the House of Commons. Being easy to understand is an admirable goal, but having an elected member who is representative of the majority of his or her constituency is far more desirable. The majority of seats are currently won with a plurality of votes. Politicians could claim a much better mandate if they had more than 50% of their local vote.

If you prefer the idea of your vote counting, rather than clearly understanding that your vote won’t count, you support electoral reform!

If you don’t live in a marginal constituency, politicians don’t bother to seriously campaign in your district and you wonder what the point of voting is because “Labour / Conservatives / Lib Dems always get into power”, you support electoral reform!

Gordon Brown was an unelected Prime Minister, and his successor would have been an unelected Prime Minister

As stated even by David Cameron himself, we have a parliamentary system in the UK, not a presidential one. We do not vote for Prime Ministers, we vote for local representative MPs. Those MPs choose the party leader, and they can choose him or her at any time. The leader of the party who can command the confidence of the House of Commons by having a majority of seats is the Prime Minister. If you don’t like this, you support electoral reform!

A government made up of the second and third place losers would have been an illegitimate “Coalition of Losers”

Any party that can command a majority in the House of Commons is by definition a legitimate government. For completeness (though it doesn’t actually make any difference under the FPTP system), Labour and Liberal Democrats together polled 53% of the national popular vote. If you think that the party that comes first in the popular vote has the right (not just the chance) to form a government, you support electoral reform!

Only 23% of people voted for Liberal Democrats, therefore people don’t care about Proportional Representation, so Nick Clegg should have just joined the Tories immediately

Leaving aside for the moment that it was just smart negotiating, the perceived collapse of the Lib Dem vote doesn’t imply that people don’t care about PR. (And I say perceived because they actually increased their share of the vote.) It could conceivably imply that 77% of people disagreed with the entire Lib Dem manifesto, but the truth is likely to be a little more nuanced. Using the same flawed logic, you could argue that 64% of people were specifically against inheritance tax cuts.

The current electoral system encourages people to vote deliberately against the party they like the least to guarantee they don’t get into power. This tactical voting significantly harms minority parties including the Liberal Democrats. It is likely that a significantly higher percentage of people would vote Lib Dem if they thought they could actually achieve power. A Lib Dem vote has long been synonymous with “a wasted vote”. In recent polls, a significant percentage of people have been in favour of PR (62%) compared to those against (13%). They might not consider it the most important issue, but they still want reform.

If you think that achieving 36% of the popular vote, for 13% of the available seats (as all but the main parties achieved) is undemocratic, then you support electoral reform!

Proportional Representation leads to hung parliaments

The response to this can be summarised in three parts: not necessarily; so does FPTP, and; so what? Australia has the alternative vote system for its House of Representatives, which is more proportionate that FPTP and it currently has a majority Labour government. The second and third largest parties, the Liberals and the Nationals are in a coalition in opposition. Given the recent results, nobody can now argue that FPTP doesn’t also lead to hung parliaments. And who’s to say hung parliaments are bad anyway? Germany is the strongest economy in Europe and has had coalition governments for decades. The negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories has blunted the edge of what might have been a supremely austere conservative backlash. While nobody is perfectly happy with the outcome, you could perhaps make the argument that everyone is less unhappy than they might have been. Right-wing conservatives might well be upset about the inheritance tax cuts vanishing, but it’s a much better outcome for them than not being in government. Progressive voters aren’t going to be too keen on the cuts that are coming, but the concessions that the Lib Dems extracted are much more palatable than a minority Conservative government.

If you believe that government should represent the wishes of all the people, and not just people like yourself (and admittedly, this is the hardest one to sell), and if you believe that compromise is a necessary and honourable part of life, you support electoral reform!

And if you do support it, let your local MP know about it.