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.