Britain’s Broken Voting System
by Benjamin Studebaker
Today I’m once again continuing the Polished Politics series on YouTube, which offers my stuff in a more accessible, simpler format. Here’s the new video:
As always, I have the text version below for those who prefer reading to viewing, complete with links to sources.
The British political system is at an interesting crossroads. In the last election, the Conservative Party won a small majority in parliament, but it did so with only 37% of the vote. This is because Britain has what’s called a “first past the post” voting system. In first past the post, the candidate who wins the most votes wins the election, even if that candidate doesn’t win half of them. Take Thurrock, for example. Thurrock is a parliamentary constituency in Essex, in southeast England. Thurrock was a deeply contested seat. The conservatives got 33.7% of the vote. Center-left Labour got 32.6%, while the right wing UK Independence Party got 31.7%. Because the conservatives received the most votes, they win the seat, leaving those who voted for Labour or UKIP with no representative whose values reflect their own. And imagine if Labour had won a thousand more votes—it would control the seat even though more than 65% of the voters had voted for a right wing party.
Many British people think this is deeply unfair, and understandably so. They want to switch to proportional representation, or “PR”. Under PR, parties are accorded seats based on the percentage of votes they received nationwide. This would really help a party like UKIP—UKIP received 13% of the votes in the UK but only won a single seat out of 650. PR would change the results significantly. Under first past the post, the conservatives won 331 seats, Labour won 232, the left-wing Scottish National Party (or SNP) won 56, the centrist Liberal-Democrats won 8, UKIP won 1, and the left-wing Green Party won 1, with North Irish and Welsh parties picking up the rest:
But under PR, things would very different. The conservatives would only have 242 seats, Labour would have a mere 199, and UKIP would be the third place party with 82. The Liberal-Democrats would finish fourth with 51, and the SNP would be knocked all the way back to fifth, with 31. The Greens would still finish last, but they’d have more significant representation, with 24:
Instead of a majority conservative government, the UK would probably see a coalition between the conservatives and UKIP, pushing the government further to the right. Many British voters are tired of Labour and the Conservatives and want to see smaller parties take a larger role.
But there’s one small party that would be seriously damaged by PR—the Scottish National Party. Remember, under PR, the SNP goes from 56 seats to 31. It drops from third to fifth. The SNP is the party that tried to make Scotland an independent country. Its voters are alienated by the political process in London. They want more influence and more government benefits for Scotland, and they are deeply opposed to the austerity and benefits cuts the conservatives and UKIP want to make. Under first past the post, the SNP could win nearly every seat in Scotland, but under PR, their share is reduced to the percentage of votes they were able to win, which was a little over half. At a time when tensions between Scotland and the rest of the UK are very high, it would be very dangerous to change the electoral process in a way that could further alienate SNP voters.
So what can Britain do? To keep the Scots happy, Britain is probably going to have to embrace federalism. This means creating a new parliament for England to go with the ones in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. But what would the UK’s federal government look like? If it’s PR, the SNP will be deeply marginalized, but if it remains first past the post, UKIP, Liberal-Democrat, and Green voters will continue to be left out. One possible solution is a bicameral legislature, where one house runs on PR while the other runs on a system that elevates the voting power of the Scots, Welsh, and North Irish, in the same way that the US Senate elevates the voting power of a low population state like Wyoming to the same level of high population states like California. But in the UK, there is no division between the legislative and executive branches, so stability requires that the Prime Minister command a majority in parliament. This is much harder to do in a bicameral system. Even if the UK responded by dividing the executive and legislative powers, bicameral systems also create gridlock when the two houses disagree, or when one or more of the houses disagrees with the executive, as we’ve seen in recent years in the United States. The British may look at the United States and decide that an American-style solution is not particularly attractive. Going forward, it’s very possible that Britain may have to choose between PR and preserving the union.
Under whatever voting system, Britain would no longer be Great, in any sense of the word. (I speak as one who came to Britain half a century ago as Pacifica Radio’s London Correspondent.) The mass of the voters is now more than ever conditioned to respond to sound bites — fast food morsels served up to them by mass media which are almost entirely owned by foreign corporations with no interests in the outcome except commercial. For instance, Rupert Murdock’s tabloid The Sun supported the Tories in their English edition and the SNP in their Scottish edition.
George Orwell, in “Looking back on the Spanish War”, imagines “a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. . . . This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.”
For a rapidly expanding part of the population, we are already there. And now we are told that Cameron intends to have fully digitized voting in place by the next election, the computer software to be designed and administered by — Rupert Murdock!
“And now we are told that Cameron intends to have fully digitized voting in place by the next election, the computer software to be designed and administered by — Rupert Murdock!”
Just so you know, the Rupert Murdoch digital voting was a spoof article.
How could I have missed this?! Answer: It was posted as fact by a very knowledgeable Facebook friend.
But much of what has actually happened in Britain and the US could have been posted a few years ago on joke websites. Remember Tom Lehrer: “Satire in America became impossible when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!”
I’d say you missed it because you’re a left pessimist and doubtless have been saying similar stuff about what terrible trouble Great Britain is in, since you came here 50 years ago.
The SNP are in favour of PR, and PR (The Additional Member system) is used to elect the Scottish Parliament.
We have a parliamentary democracy. The system is based on political parties which are both the champions of different strands of political, economic and social philosophy and the authors of policy manifestos which they seek an election mandate to implement.
Democracy is about everybody having one vote, and that vote being considered equal to every other vote. It is about fairness and equality at the very basic level of voting to elect the party to form the Government.
I can understand that some Scots want independence, some may want more devolved powers, but this should not be translated into unfair electoral bias.
It’s true that the SNP supports PR, but it is also true that if PR is enacted, the SNP will lose influence in London and this will contribute to Scotland’s sense of marginalization. The SNP wants Scotland to feel marginalized because it wants Scotland to vote for independence.
The SNP recognise the change PR would have to the current level of representation at Westminster. After the 2010 election the SNP had only 6 WM seats. You also make the mistake in believing the SNP want Scotland to be marginalised. That is a unionist narrative. The SNP want Scotland to be successful and it is compared to all other parts of the UK outside London and S East. Scotland has been marginalised for over 300 years, but an SNP government at Holyrood has changed expectations by good governance. Yet with access to the revenues from all our resources we can not fulfill our potential.
One man one vote indeed — but votes cast in “rotten burroughs”, i.e. those that have been gerrymandered, are not equal to those which are equitably distributed. And “first past the post” makes millions of votes virtually wasted.
The British electoral system is totally ridiculous. I had a good moan about it here.
You’re not British and you don’t live in the UK so pardon me if I suggest you mind your own business.
Call me a busybody if you like, but I think I explained quite clearly in my post why I am interested in British politics. Geographically Britain is an island (well, several actually), but politically it is (still) part of Europe!
The views of those from outside should always be considered. Perhaps you should consider relocating to Edinburgh. Scotland would welcome more correspondents reporting for here. We recognise that we benefit from those who come to live among us
Thanks for the invitation, but I think I might find it too cold up there. 🙂
i don’t think its safe to assume that people would vote the same way under PR as they did under FPTP. many people might consider voting for a small party but reject the idea as a wasted vote because of FPTP, whereas under PR they could vote as they chose.
also how it ended up might depend on which particular voting system was adopted.
Some certainly would vote differently under PR, knowing that their vote would be more than a mere gesture.
Why is everyone trying to pretend the referendum of 2011 didn’t happen? 68% didn’t want PR. Just because the Conservatives won, you claim ‘many people’ now want PR – likewise many people DON’T want PR. Why? well, fact is PR is a wishy-washy system which always forms coalition governments, there’s never any stability. Belgium and Holland have barely had a government in the past 5 years and have had repeated stalemate elections because of it. A few years ago the BNP would’ve got several seats under PR too, great stuff! Another irony is the number of complaints about the 2010-2015 ConLib coalition you’d think people would be glad for this result, but no the result didn’t go our way, boo hoo.
The 2011 referendum isn’t particularly relevant. Just because people voted against something (in many cases out of ignorance) does not imply that they were necessarily right to do so. This is a logical fallacy:
In any case, Britain never voted on PR–it voted on AV.
“There’s never any stability” is not a fair claim–a great many governments run on PR, and many of them enjoy significant stability:
That said, I will agree with you that when a country is particularly sharply divided, PR makes it difficult to form a government. That said, in the UK, PR would have likely produced a Con/UKIP coalition, which would not have been what I wanted but could well have been stable.
If you believe in democracy, you shouldn’t object to even morally disgusting parties like the BNP acquiring seats. I don’t have particularly strong democratic commitments, though. The fact that a party like the BNP would have acquired a significant number of seats at one point in time only strengthens my argument that the 2011 referendum tells us nothing of value about which voting system is more fair or more just.
I certainly don’t think PR is going to produce the kind of result I’d like to see, I’m just pointing out that if representation is important to you, a lot of people don’t get represented equally under FPTP.
Benjamin, if you want to earn a living when you finish your studies, you better curb your logic.
The problem with both PR and FPTP is that, in different ways, they allow politicians to capitalize on the invincible ignorance of the voting public.