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Voicing your views and having your say - Rachel Dineley writes about electoral reform

May 2, 2020 2:15 PM

The UK government has a majority of 80 seats, but it is a popular misconception that this reflects the wishes of majority of the nation. In fact the majority did not vote Conservative in December 2019.

The grotesque results of the "first past the post" (FPTP) system meant that they gained an extra 48 seats on a 1.3% increase in vote share. As revealed by the Electoral Reform Society's Report ("Voters Left Voiceless") published in March 2020, over 22 million votes (70.8%) were ignored because they went to non-elected candidates or were surplus to what the elected candidate needed.

Faced with FPTP, and in the absence of effective electoral pacts, many voters were left unhappy with the choices available to them. Until we have proportional representation (PR), and in the absence of formal party alliances, progressive voters should vote tactically for the progressive party with the best chance of winning. Had this been the case in 2019, the Tories' majority may not have been assured.

Analysis reveals the inherent unfairness of FPTP. It took on average only 38,264 votes to secure a Conservative seat, Labour needed an average of 50,835 votes. But the iniquity of the system is highlighted in the results for other parties. It took 336,038 votes for each Liberal Democrat seat and 865,697 votes to secure the Green party's one MP. The Brexit Party won none, despite polling of 644,255 votes, whereas the Scottish National Party needed only 25,882 for each of their MPs.

Had we had a form of proportional representation (PR) the results would have looked very different. Let's remember that between 1999 and 2019 Great Britain used" List PR", one of the most common electoral systems around the world, for European parliamentary elections (and in May 2019 the Liberal Democrats topped the local polls in the European election). So there is no room for argument that PR is difficult or won't work. It works around the world, including here.

How might the December 2019 election results have been different under such a PR system? Put simply, Parliament would be much better balanced and reflect the wishes of the majority of voters. The Report indicates that Conservatives would have 288 seats, Labour 216, Liberal Democrats 70, the SNP 28, the Greens 12 and the Brexit party 11 seats. No overall majority for any single party but overall democracy for the nation.

Bar chart

With the Covid-19 crisis we have seen the country come together. We all look forward to a "new normal" in which local communities have their say, to determine local priorities and shape how local services are delivered. That entails drawing contributions from all sections of our communities, engaging in constructive cross-party debate and reaching well informed decisions for the benefit of all. Until our electoral system is reformed, securing broad representation will, inevitably, still entail tactical voting.

You can learn more about the findings set out in the report, and their significance, in the Appendix below


Turnout and vote share: The turnout was 67% of the electorate. The Conservatives won 43.6% of the votes, Labour 32.1 %, Liberal Democrats 11.5%, the SNP 3.9 % and the Greens 2.7%. So the Conservative majority was supported by just 29.1 % of the electorate - less than a third of those entitled to vote. They won a little less than 4 times the votes secured by the Liberal Democrats, but landed 33 times as many seats. The Liberal Democrats had 3 times as many votes as the SNP, but won only 11 seats: the SNP took more than 4 times as many i.e. 48 seats.

In England Labour and the Conservatives took 98 % of the seats, notwithstanding that 18.9% of votes went to other parties. In Scotland the SNP now holds 81.4% of the seats, with 45% of the votes.

Parliamentary Representation: The UK now has 220 women MPs, 34% of the total. This is an increase on 208 in 2017, up from 191 in 2015. Good progress? Hardly. At this rate it will take another 45 years / 9 more general elections for women to achieve parity in the House of Commons.

That said, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour now have more than 50% female MPs. In contrast the Conservatives' 87 women MPs occupy just 23.8% of their total seats. Research by the ERS in February 2018 revealed that female candidates do much better under PR than FPTP. Currently "seat-blocking" by male MPs is a key obstacle to increasing the number of women MPs. (Seat blocking arises because the longer a seat has been held by an MP, the more likely it is to be held by a man. The FPTP system encourages a high proportion of "safe seats"(see below), thus blocking the election of new women MPs.)

In seats where more than 2 parties stood, the winner was often elected on a small percentage of the vote. In total 229 of the 650 MPs were elected on less than 50% of the constituency vote i.e. 35% of all MPs lack majority support.

Ignored votes: Votes cast for non-elected candidates counted for nothing. But they amounted to 45.3% of all votes ( 14.5 million people out of the 32 million who voted).Furthermore, 8.1 million votes (25.5%) were cast for successful candidates, which were surplus to what they needed, to get over the line, so these votes did not contribute to their election. Taken together 22.6 million votes (70.8% of those cast) effectively did not count. In the South East England region, the Liberal Democrats secured over 850,000 votes, and 18.2% of the total (7.7 % up on the 2017 election), but secured just one MP (down one on 2017).

Why have a PR system? Put simply, under proportional representation what you vote for is what you get. This would make tactical voting far less of an issue. The poll undertaken for the ERS between August and November 2019 (before the official election campaign) indicated that 22-24% of voters said they would choose "the best positioned party/ candidate to keep out another party/ candidate that I dislike". This went up to 30% in the final poll before the election. In a large YouGov poll conducted post-election 32% of voters said they voted tactically. Surely all voters should be free to vote for their first choice party (and its policies) without fear that their vote will not count.

As it is, under FPTP there are many "safe seats", where voters seeking a change are particularly disadvantaged. Before the election the average constituency had not changed hands for 42 years, and 192 seats (30% of the total) last changed party in 1945 or earlier. In 65 seats there has been no change in over a century. But the country has changed, the demographics of the electorate have changed. We are a much more diverse society, and it is surely time that the system changed too.

As someone who has been voting in every general election for the last 42 years, I am more than a bit fed up that my vote has never counted. Although I have worked fulltime for most of those years and paid a great deal in tax, I have not had a say in how those taxes have been spent. Or should I say misspent? Underinvestment in the NHS has been highlighted by the covid-19 pandemic, to cite just one example.

What are the alternatives? The ERS report identifies three other electoral systems, namely Party List Proportional Representation ("List PR"), the Additional Member System("AMS") and the Single Transferable Vote ("STV"). They are already in use in the UK. STV is adopted in Scottish local elections and all elections in Northern Ireland other than UK general elections. It is also being considered for the Welsh Assembly and local Welsh elections.

AMS is used in Scottish Parliamentary elections, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly. List PR was used in Great Britain for the European elections.

Modelling indicates that each system would have resulted in a much fairer spread of seats across all parties in Great Britain, represented by 632 seats, excluding Northern Ireland (see the tables below).

The detail and much fuller explanation of each system, can be found in the report, at www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voters-left-voiceless. The tables below are taken from the report.

Table 1

Table 2

Table 3

Liberal Democrats have long been committed to electoral reform, to secure a system which would be much more democratic than FPTP, encouraging more of the electorate to engage in the democratic process, in local and national elections. Sir Kier Starmer, the new Labour leader, has indicated his commitment to the pursuit of PR.

In the face of the covid-19 pandemic the country has shown a fantastic response to the call to co-operate in pursuing a way out of the crisis. The future holds many more challenges for us. In meeting those challenges, wouldn't it be great to elect a House of Commons truly representative of the electorate, with a mandate to govern for the benefit of all?

The government has taken sweeping executive powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020. Both now and when the exercise of those powers is no longer warranted, we must ensure that the government listens far better to the needs and wishes of the electorate as a whole, and not simply the 29 % of the electorate who voted Conservative. It behoves us all to hold the government to account and , when the time is right, to press for an electoral system that can fairly be called democratic.

Rachel Dineley, Diversity Officer, Chiltern Liberal Democrats