How proportional was Norway’s election? Lessons for Westminster

Norwegian flag – (Pixabay)

By Richard Wood

On Monday 13 September, Norwegians elected their new parliament (called the Storting).

The big stories of the night were the success of the left and centre parties, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitting defeat, and the fall in support of the controversial right-wing populist Progress party.

The election may not have hit the headlines across democratic world in the same way as the upcoming Canadian and German elections, but it has been a significant election for Norway – ending 8 years of right-of-centre governance.

But what voting system does Norway use? How proportional was its recent election and what lessons can we learn in the UK?

Norway’s electoral system explained

Unlike the UK, Norway uses a form of Proportional Representation (PR) to elect its parliaments. This means that, unlike at Westminster, how people vote at the ballot box is accurately reflected in the parliament. Without a form of PR to elect representatives, unlike Norway’s Storting, the House of Commons is semi-representative at best.

At the last UK election, the Conservatives got 43.6% of the vote but thanks to the UK’s First Past the Post system, they won 56% of seats in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems won 11.6% of the vote but only 3% of seats available while the Green Party of England and Wales won 2.7% of the vote but only one seat.

The UK’s voting system clearly distorts the link between seats and votes, unfairly advantaging larger parties and wasting countless votes.

This is not the case in Norway.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs Proportional Representation now

The vast majority of OECD countries use some form of Proportional Representation to elect their MPs and Norway is one of them.

Norway uses a form of Open List PR with a 4% threshold to elect 169 MPs across 19 constituencies. This includes levelling seats to further ensure national party proportionality. Voters also have a say over the ordering of party lists in their constituency for the party they vote for, empowering voters more than in a Closed List PR system (such as the one previously used for UK elections to the EU parliament where lists were inflexible) or First Past the Post.

More about the voting system can be read on the Electoral Reform Society’s site here.

Norway’s 2021 election results

The country’s voting system ensures that seats broadly match votes. The full results for the 2021 election are show below.

  • Labour: 26.4% of the vote (48 seats), 28.4% of seats)
  • Conservatives: 20.5% votes (36 seats), 21.3% of seats
  • Centre: 13.6% of the vote (28 seats), 16.6% of seats
  • Progress: 11.7% of the vote (21 seats), 12.4% of seats
  • Socialist Left: 7.5% of the vote (13 seats), 7.7% of seats
  • Red: 4.7% of the vote (8 seats), 4.7% of seats
  • Liberal: 4.5% of the vote (8 seats), 4.7% of seats
  • Green: 3.8% of the vote (3 seats), 1.8% of seats
  • Christian Democrat: 3.8% of the vote (3 seats), 1.8% of seats
  • Patient Focus: 0.2% of the vote (1 seat), 0.6% of seats

On the back of these results, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg admitted defeat and it now looks likely that a left of centre government will be formed – led by the Labour Party. Analysis suggests that complex coalition talks are expected to follow the vote.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP calls for electoral reform

How proportional was Norway’s 2021 election?

Put simply, Norway’s latest election results were very proportional. The proportion of seats won by each party strongly correlates with the proportion of votes cast for each party as shown by the above results. This is in stark contrast with UK election results such as the 2005 election where Labour won a majority on just 35% of the vote or the 2015 election where UKIP won just 1 seat on 13% of the vote.

Overall, there is a strong link between seats and votes at Norwegian elections. However, it is worth caveating that seats are distributed so that rural areas have slightly more representation per person than urban counterparts, slightly skewing the link between seats and votes.

Furthermore, although thresholds are common in PR systems, the 4% threshold in Norway means that elections are not purely proportional – this may be reduced to 3% in the coming years. This is for information purposes and the merits of thresholds in such systems can be debated elsewhere as the purpose of this article is to highlight how much more representative a PR system is than FPTP. For more about the ins and outs of Norway’s election system, please read the Electoral Reform Society article on PR in Norway.

After eight years of a Conservative-led government, Norway has voted for a change. The Labour Party may have lost seats in this election but PR means that government formation is not about who is the biggest party. Instead Nowegian parliaments accurately represent how people vote with governments formed by whichever coalition of parties can command a majority in the Storting. In this case, the governing right-of-centre parties lost seats overall while the left and centre made gains. All in all, the distribution of seats fairly reflects votes cast at the ballot box.

Norwegian elections are highly proportional and have limited wasted votes. Norwegian votes matter – all thanks to Proportional Representation.

Westminster should learn from countries such as Norway and adopt Proportional Representation to upgrade UK democracy.

Upgrade Holyrood is a Scottish politics site dedicated to improving Scottish democracy while at the same time being an advocate for PR and other democratic improvements at the UK-level.

Read more about Upgrade Holyrood here.

Follow Upgrade Holyrood on Twitter: @UpgradeHolyrood

READ MORE: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight (via Politics.co.uk)

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