Delegates at the UK Labour Party Conference in Liverpool have today voted in favour of a motion to put changing the UK’s electoral system to one of Proportional Representation (PR) in the next election manifesto.
The vote follows years of hard work from reform activists, notably the Labour for a New Democracy campaign which includes the likes of Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
The successful vote also comes a year after a similar motion was defeated at the previous conference.
It’s worth highlighting that 60% of local Labour parties support PR. A total of 140 sent motions to this year’s conference in favour of reform.
Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar even made the case for PR at the Labour conference. The Scottish Parliament voting system may not be perfect but it does deliver broadly proportional outcomes so it’s great to see MSPs standing up for PR at Westminster too.
Great to see @AnasSarwar supporting Proportional Representation at #Lab22. Democratic renewal is necessary for social and economic renewal, this conference can bring us a step closer to it. pic.twitter.com/WoXnTt2Iuf
Sweden went to the polls on Sunday 11 September 2022, four years after the previous vote in 2018. The country uses a system of Proportional Representation to elect members of the Riksdag, ensuring that how Swedes vote at the ballot box is reflected in parliament.
The country’s electoral system is worth exploring as an alternative to Holyrood’s broadly proportional but flawed Additional Member System.
What electoral system does Sweden use?
Sweden uses a system of Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats to ensure national proportionality.
The country is divided into 29 constituencies – ranging from 2 to 43 members (Gotland and Stockholm county respectively) – to which parties present lists of candidates in each constituency. Voters get to vote for one party but also have the option to vote for individual candidates, which can alter the list ordering within their constituency. This is the open element of the system, thus further empowering voters at the ballot box.
Elections in Sweden are extremely proportional due to larger multi-member constituencies, however, what sets the country’s system apart from country’s such as Estonia and Latvia which use list PR systems, is that Sweden’s electoral system also employs levelling seats. Once all the votes are counted and seats distributed as per the voters’ wishes, parties win additional seats across the country to ensure that the overall results are as proportional as possible. Of the 349 seats in the Riksdag, 310 are distributed in the first instance while a further 39 are distributed to further improve proportionality. There is also a 4% national threshold for parties to enter the Riksdag. Sweden is not unique in this regard; Norway, Denmark and Iceland also have levelling seats to ensure proportionality overall.
How did Sweden vote at the 2022 election and how proportional was it?
The previous Swedish general election took place in 2018, which was followed by tough negotiations and even a no confidence vote in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. However, Löfven emerged to lead a minority left coalition made up of his own party the Social Democrats, as well as the Greens. Löfven resigned in 2021, making way for party colleague Magdalena Andersson, who led her party into the 2022 election.
The most recent election was an incredibly close-run contest between the left and right blocs. On the left, the Social Democrats maintained their dominant position as the largest party in parliament. however, right of centre parties managed to win a very slim majority of seats, leading to Magdalena Andersson’s resignation on Thursday. The far-right Sweden Democrats replaced the centre-right Moderates as the second largest party in parliament but the Moderate leader is likely to become prime minister due to the toxicity of the Sweden Democrats even amongst the rest of the right. What influence they will have this parliament – and in the years to come – remains to be seen.
But how proportional was the 2022 election? Thanks to Sweden’s Open List PR system, the answer is very.
The Social Democrats for example won 107 seats (30.7%) on 30.4% of the vote. The Sweden Democrats took 73 seats (20.9%) on 20.5% of the vote while the Moderates won 68 seats (19.5%) on 19.5% of the vote. Overall, results were extremely proportional with seats reflecting votes. Furthermore, voters were empowered by the open element of the allowing them to express support for individuals within their chosen party.
Swedish Election Result (6,568 out of 6,578 Districts Counted):
Social Democrats: 107 (+3) Sweden Democrats: 73 (+11) Moderate: 68 (-2) Centre: 24 (-7) Left: 24 (-4) Christian Democrats: 19 (-4) Green: 18 (+2) Liberal: 16% (-4)
How do the Swedish and Scottish electoral systems compare?
The Scottish Parliament’s broadly proportional Additional Member System (AMS) is significantly fairer than the unrepresentative First Past the Post voting system used for the House of Commons. However, it has a number of flaws that need to be addressed. Problems associated with Holyrood’s mixed-member system are listed below:
1. Regional not national PR – As list members are distributed on a regional basis only, there is no mechanism to ensure overall nationality proportionality. While regional proportionality tends to result in broadly proportional outcomes overall, there is still room for improvement.
2. Limited voter power – Under AMS voters have no power over the ordering of party lists. Furthermore, the constituency vote element limits voter power by creating safe seats and targeted marginal seats while also being “lists of one”.
3. Two types of MSPs – Due to the nature of mixed-member systems, the Scottish Parliament has two types of MSP. While in theory they perform the same functions, this can vary in practice, particularly on the casework side of things.
4. The two-vote problem – Voters have two votes, and while they should ideally work in tandem to result in proportional outcomes, it creates the opportunities for parties to exploit this by only standing in the list and asking established parties’ supporters to back them on the list. This was highlighted when Alba was established with the express intention to do this in 2021. This clearly goes against the spirit of AMS and could create highly disproportionate elections.
5. Constituency seats remain (and dominate!) – Single-member constituencies still come with many of the flaws they have in FPTP. They result in wasted votes and can lead to safe seats, as well as marginal seats which can result in parties focusing on them rather than giving attention to the wider region or country. Furthermore, the fact that constituency seats make up a significant majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, this can result in overhangs (which aren’t addressed by AMS) and skew overall proportionality – particularly if one party dominates single-member seats.
Upgrade Holyrood is committed to making the case for improving Scotland’s democracy, and that includes arguing for a review of the current system and outlining alternatives. The type of system used for Swedish elections – an Open List PR system with levelling seats – is one option that would address many of the faults of AMS.
Levelling seats would rectify the problem of limited national proportionality. And while there would technically be two types of MSP, under a Swedish model, these are given back to constituencies, minimising that problem to a minimum. Furthermore, voters would only have one party vote, ending the two vote problem, and single-seat constituencies would come to an end. Voters would also be empowered by being able to influence party lists unlike under AMS where parties present unalterable lists.
But what would such a system look like in practice?
Ballot Box Scotland is a strong advocate of Holyrood adopting an Open List PR system (with levelling seats), which they categorise as Scandinavian-style PR. For those wondering what Holyrood would look like if it adopted a system like Sweden, BBS has designed such a model for Scotland and used the most recent Scottish Parliament election results to give an indication of what seat distribution would look like.
This is shown below. Of course, it’s worth noting that the size of any constituencies in such a system if it were to be adopted would be up to the designers so it wouldn’t necessarily reflect the below. Furthermore, in terms of seat projections, the below uses the regional vote to determine how people would cast their singular Open List PR vote. In reality, many who voted ‘SNP constituency and Green regional’ might instead have use their one vote for the SNP although this is all speculation of course. In addition, the type of voting system used very much determines how people vote and so how people may have voted under this system could be completely different (e.g. smaller parties may be more considered).
So, what support is there for a Swedish-style system among Scottish parties? The Scottish Greens support a Scandinavian-style system while the Lib Dems favour the Single Transferable Vote (which again would be better than AMS if designed effectively), as do the SNP while Labour and the Conservatives are largely missing from this debate (although figures such as Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP recognise the faults of the current system).
That all said, a Sweden-like system is not the only alternative to the current set-up at Holyrood. Two other alternatives would be the Single Transferable Vote (which would address many of AMS’ problems, ensure proportionality and vastly improve voter choice and power) and a modified mixed-member system with open lists and guaranteed overall proportionality (similar to Bavaria’s electoral system).
Sweden’s election provides just one model that Holyrood – and perhaps Westminster (although that seems far less likely and possibly undesirable for such a large populous) – could adopt to improve electoral outcomes. Reform is needed, and to achieve change it is vital that we look to other parliaments for guidance.
The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all gained their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The famous Baltic Chain of Freedom of 1989 was vital in ending Soviet control of the region, paving the way for three independent republics.
There are striking similarities between the three Baltic democracies and some crucial differences too. All are republics, all use list systems to elect some or all of their MPs who have four-year terms, and all have written, codified constitutions.
Having recently visited Latvia and Lithuania (previously visiting Estonia in 2019), I’ve taken the time to highlight the electoral systems of each of the Baltic state and comparing them to Holyrood and Westminster.
Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and is most northern of the three Baltic states, bordering Latvia to the south, as well as Russia to the east.
Since gaining independence in 1990, the Estonian Parliament – the Riigikogu – has had eight elections. Members are elected via a Closed List Proportional Representation system with multiple constituencies and no levelling seats, a model similar to what was used to elect UK Members of the European system. It also resembles the expected new system for the Welsh Parliament, as proposed by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.
A total of 101 members are elected to the Riigikogu across 12 electoral districts ranging from five to fifteen members. This gives the country highly proportional elections while also retaining a reasonable degree of local representation. The three largest districts by representation cover Tallinn (the country’s capital and home of the national parliament) and the surrounding area.
It’s worth highlighting here that unlike at Holyrood and Westminster, when an MP joins the Estonian government they leave they stop being an MP. This gives a more formal separation of the legislature and executive than what we’re used to in the UK. The idea is an intriguing one although it only works due to the country’s list system: when an MP joins the government, the next person on their party’s list replaces them as an MP. This of course has the consequence that when a minister returns to the legislature, their substitute MP vacates their seat.
The country last voted in 2019, following which a coalition was formed led by the centre-right Centre Party. However, the government collapsed less than two years later; liberal Reform Party, led by Kaja Kallas, subsequently formed a cabinet with the Centre Party as the junior coalition partner. That arrangement didn’t last long either, but Kallas remained prime minister, after forming a coalition with the conservative Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party. The next election is expected to take place in March 2023.
As an independent, democratic republic, the country also has a non-executive president as Head of state. Unlike some other European countries with a similar set-up, Estonia’s president is elected by members of its national parliament rather than by a nation-wide vote. Its Baltic neighbours have also have non-executive presidents, but more on that below.
Latvia has a population just shy of 2 million, and like its less populous northern neighbour, the country uses a closed list proportional system to elect its members. The Saeima, the country’s parliament, has 100 members, one short of Estonia’s Rijikogu, and is based in the capital city of Riga.
Proportionality is a key principle in Latvian democracy. So much so that Articles 6 and 7 of the country’s constitution enshrine it in law:
6. The Saeima shall be elected in general, equal and direct elections, and by secret ballot based on proportional representation.
7. In the division of Latvia into separate electoral districts, provision for the number of members of the Saeima to be elected from each district shall be proportional to the number of electors in each district.
Latvian Constitution (Article 6)
While Latvia uses a Closed List PR system like Estonia, the system is rather different in design. The Saeima’s 100 members are spread across just five electoral districts. The capital Riga elects 36 members – that’s over a third of representatives. The other four districts elect 26, 13, 13, 12 members respectively.
This voting system leads to highly proportional elections, however, local representation is less than in Estonia, especially in the super-constituency of Riga.
The next Latvian election is scheduled to take place on 1 October 2022. The previous election saw three previously unrepresented parties gain representation in the Saeima. The pre-election governing coalition led by the centre-right, agrarian Union of Greens and Farmers since 2016 lost significant support, leading to a new government. After months of negotiations, a five-party coalition was formed with the centre-right New Unity’s Krišjānis Kariņš becoming prime minister in early 2019. New Unity is the smallest party in parliament, making Kariņš very much a compromise prime minister for the diverse coalition he heads.
Two final things. Like in Estonia, Latvian MPs formally exit the legislature when they join the government, making way for substitute MPs. And finally, Latvia’s non-executive president is elected by members of its national parliament just like in Estonia.
In line with it having the largest population of the three Baltic states (2.8 million people), Lithuania’s parliament (called the Seimas – not to be confused with Latvia’s Saeima) has the largest number of members of the three Baltic states. The country votes for 141 deputies every four years. However, unlike its northern neighbours, Lithuania doesn’t use what can be characterised as a proportional system.
The Seimas’ has 141 members (although the chamber has 142 for the sake of symmetrical design!) are elected in two ways. Just over half of MPs, 71, are elected from single-member districts. Candidates are only elected if they win a majority of votes in their constituency; if no candidate does then a run-off is held two weeks later to determine the elected representative.
The remaining 70 members are elected via proportional lists with a 5% threshold. There is also a degree of openness to the list element where voters can express a preference for a candidate of their choosing.
Unlike similar systems used in the likes of Scotland, Germany and New Zealand there is no link between single-member seats and the proportional element. This results in a Mixed-Member Majoritarian system where overall results are only somewhat proportional. This is also known as parallel voting.
This limited proportionality is best shown via the Gallagher Index, which provides a standardised measure of proportionality to compare different systems at different elections. The closer to 1 an election is, the more proportional it is. The 2019 Estonian and 2018 Latvian elections yielded Gallagher scores of 5.28 and 5.51 respectively. Lithuania’s score was 9.49 overall. Lithuanian elections therefore have proportional elements but are far from fully proportional.
The 2020 election led to the formation of a government headed by popular independent MP Ingrida Šimonytė. This is an interesting situation, which follows the 2019 non-executive presidential election (which unlike Estonia and Latvia was a nationwide election) which Šimonytė lost. However, she remained a popular figure, winning the most preference votes in the 2020 parliamentary election, and has a strong relationship with the centre-right Homeland Union. She now leads a centre-right cabinet consisting of independents, the Homeland Union, Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party.
When it comes to comparing the electoral systems of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Westminster, the Baltic states come out on top. Even the semi-proportional Lithuanian system is significantly more representative than First Past the Post.
Of the three Baltic states, Estonia has the best balance of proportionality and local representation whereas Latvia’s mega-constituencies reduce local links and Lithuania’s mixed-member majoritarian system limits proportionality. Of course, all three are significantly more representative than First Past the Post, which distorts the link between seats and votes, leads to countless wasted votes and encourages tactical voting.
Were Westminster to adopt any of the three systems from the Baltics, representation would improve significantly.
The situation is somewhat different when making comparisons with the Scottish Parliament, which has used the proportional Additional Member System (AMS) since the advent of devolution in 1999. Unlike the mixed-member majoritarian system of Lithuania, Holyrood’s AMS is mixed-member proportional (MMP) as the constituency election results directly impact the distribution of list seats to compensate for lack of proportionality. The system has some significant flaws – which I’ve written about extensively here – but overall it delivers broadly proportional outcomes. Take a look at the most recent Scottish and Lithuanian elections. The Gallagher score for Scotland was 7.03, making it more proportional than Lithuania’s 9.49.
However, when comparing Scotland’s Gallagher scores to Estonia and Latvia, it is clear that the northern Baltic states have more proportional elections. This highlights the flaw that Holyrood elections are only broadly proportional (due to the balance of MSP types and the fact that votes are only regionally representative).
That said Scotland’s AMS means better local representation that Estonian and Latvia (with all constituents eight MSPs – one constituency MSP and seven regional MSPs). I should say here that I am of course in no position to call for reform in other countries, but the purpose of this to to show comparisons between Holyrood and Westminster with electoral systems around the world.
First Past the Post is significantly flawed. The UK needs to adopt a proportional alternative. Scotland’s AMS is a significant improvement but is in need of reform. When looking to make democratic improvements it is vital to look outward and see what other countries offer. That is a key part of the Upgrade Holyrood mission.
France is going to the polls no fewer than four times in 2022, first for the French presidential election (the first round held on 10 April and the second on 24 April) and two months later for the parliamentary election (again split into two rounds on 12 and 19 June).
In 2017 Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist Party minister, built his own centrist movement and won the first round before going on to beat far-right Marine Le Penn to become president. Then two months later, his party won a majority of seats in the French parliament.
It’s been a turbulent five years in French politics – not to mention politics across the rest of Europe – but Macron is likely to make it into the final round in 2022. Whether Macron secures a second term likely depends on who he his up against although it’s looking more and more likely that 2022 will be q repeat of 2017. Here’s how French presidential elections work.
France’s two-round presidential system
As already said, the French presidential election is split into two rounds. In the first round the French public vote for their preferred candidate. In the extremely unlikely event that any candidate recieves over 50% of the vote then they become president without the need for a second round. If no candidate recieves this then all but the top two candidates are eliminated and two weeks later they go head to head. In 2017, Macron secured 24% of the vote, just ahead of Le Pen’s 21.3%.
The system is designed to ensure broader mandates for presidents than under a simple First Past the Post system. Ultimately, in 2017 Macron won 66.1% of the vote ahead of Le Pen’s 33.9%, handing him the presidency.
While this is fairer than First Past the Post, the two-round system is not without its flaws.
Tactical voting is still present as there is an incentive for voters to support candidates likely to make it into the second round. Furthermore, while mandates are broader than under FPTP, many voters will have held their nose to vote for Macron to keep Le Pen out.
There is also the risk that two popular extremists can get into the final round if mainstream parties are split. Say if four very similar candidates each get 15% of the vote, two very very different candidates could get 20% each and get into the final round. The optimum preference of all voters could be somewhere in the centre but voters of the middle four would have no one to back in the final round.
Again, this system is better than FPTP (for single member positions) but there remain significant flaws.
So what’s the best model for single-member positions?
There is a simple answer to this and that is the Alternative Vote, or ranked choice voting (instant run-off) where voters get one ballot and rank candidates in order of preference. This gets rid of the need for two rounds, largely eliminates wasted votes and ensures that the most popular candidate overall takes the position available.
This is used to elect the non-executive president in Ireland and could be used in France to elect its executive president.
Mayors and presidents – what can the UK and Scotland take from this?
Unfortunately the UK Government are taking away the closest thing we have to the two-round system and AV by legislating to impose First Past the Post for mayoral and PPC elections in its Elections Bill. This a terrible move for UK democracy.
Instead of introducing this regressive reform, the UK should look at France and learn from Ireland for electing single-member positions. If we are to have elected positions such as mayors and PPCs, or even one day a non-executive president like in Ireland, then we should use the Alternative Vote. The same goes if Scotland ever introduced elected mayors or other single-member elected positions.
UK democracy is broken. We must learn from around the world to address our democratic deficit. France shows just one better, but imperfect, alternative.
The citizens of Malta voted for a new House of Representatives on 26 March 2022. Unlike elections to the UK’s House of Commons, how Maltese vote is actually reflected in parliament due to the country’s system of Proportional Representation (specifically, the Single Transferable Vote).
Scottish and UK politics have much to learn from Malta.
In 2017, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party won 37 seats (on 55% of the vote) ahead of the National Force’s 30 (on 43.7% of the vote). Unusually for a country using Proportional Representation, Malta has a fairly consistent two-party system.
The country changed prime minister’s in 2020 and at the recent 2022 election, Labour held on to power by winning one more seat than it achieved at the last election. Here’s what happened in 2022 and how Maltese elections work.
Malta uses the Single Transferable Vote to elect its representatives. The country is split into 13 constituencies, each with five members, and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. This leads to largely proportional outcomes and a significant degree of voter empowerment.
Unlike in other countries using STV, a two-party system has dominated Malta for decades, with only a handful of third parties gaining representation despite the relatively low barriers of entry to the House of Representatives compared to the challenges they face in countries using majoritarian and pluralitarian systems such as First Past the Post.
Malta’s STV also has a final twist that doesn’t exist in places such as Scotland, Ireland and Australia’s Senate. Under standard STV it is still possible for the party with the most first preference votes to win fewer seats than an opposition party. The Maltese system addresses this by giving additional seats to the party with the most first preference votes across the whole of Malta. This is a sensible solution to addressing one of the flaws of an otherwise representing and empowering electoral system, one which could even be built upon for STV elections in Scotland and the UK.
Due to STV and the Maltese twist on it, elections in Malta are highly proportional.
At the 2022 election, the Labour Party won 38 (56.72%) seats on 55.11% of first preference votes. The Nationalist Party secured 29 (43.28%) seats on 42.74% of the vote. There was clearly a strong link between seats and votes.
But looking at the overall figures only offers one level of analysis.
One tried and tested way to measure proportionality, and crucially compare proportionality of different systems, is to calculate the Gallagher index for an elections. More on the mathematics behind the indices can be read here, but the closer to zero the index is, the more proportional it is.
In Malta’s case, elections are highly proportional with indices consistently around the 1 mark for elections in the 21st century. The election result in 2017 was similar to 2022 (Labour won 37 seats on 55.04% of first preference votes while the National Party won 28 seats on 42.12% of the vote). The Gallagher Index for that election vote was 1.01. In fact every Maltese election since 1987 has had a Gallagher index less than 2, showing just how proportional Malta’s electoral system is.
In comparison, Scottish Parliament elections are largely proportional – the Gallagher index for 2016 was 5.6 while the index for 2021 was 7.03. However, UK elections are highly unrepresentative thanks to First Past the Post, for example, the Gallagher Index for the 2019 elections was 11.80.
Elections in Malta are highly proportional while and empower voters to a high degree. The Single Transferable Vote is far superior to First Past the Post, used to elect MPs in the UK, and more representative, and empowering, than the Additional Member System used at Holyrood. What’s more a version of the “Maltese twist” on the traditional STV is one worth considering when it comes to UK elections.
At the last UK election, the Conservatives won a majority on 43% of the vote while parties such as the Greens and Lib Dems were significantly unrepresented. Had the UK been using STV, the election outcome would have been much more representative than under First Past the Post. Furthermore, the UK could build on the Maltese version of STV by implementing its own levelling twist. Say under STV one party won more seats than another but fewer first preference votes, a number of levelling seat could be added to ensure a fairer outcome and tackle questions of illegitimacy.
STV Proportional Representation is clearly fairer than First Past the Post, as shown by the Maltese election. However, STV is already used for Scottish local elections, as well as Northern Ireland’s Stormont and local elections. Westminster has much to learn from Malta but also from elections for devolved administrations.
The UK House of Commons has voted against an amendment that would have improved the government’s ill-thought out Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill.
The Bill was legislated for to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which ended the right of the prime minister to unilaterally call elections by fixing election dates and giving parliament the power to call elections if an early election is desired.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will see a return to unchecked executive power, with the prime minister able to call an election at a time of their choosing.
On Monday 14 March 2022, parliament had an opportunity to accept an amendment from the House of Lords that would have given parliament the power to decide when an election takes place, rather the prime minister. But unfortunately the House of Commons voted against the amendment.
Analysis – a strengthened executive at the expense of the legislature
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was an imperfect piece of legislation but it levelled the playing field by making the UK’s electoral processes significantly fairer.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will weaken UK democracy if passed in full. While not as damaging as the regressive Elections Bill, repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act removes the level playing field and gives electoral advantage to the governing party.
Having fixed election dates ensures that all political parties know when elections are due to take place. And giving parliament having the final say on when elections take place in unusual circumstances, ensures that the executive don’t have an unfair advantage.
This is already the case in Scotland at Holyrood. Westminster must learn from the Scottish Parliament to improve and protect our democracy.
In 2017, the SNP won 19 seats to become the largest party for the first time. In the aftermath of the election, they formed a an adminisatration with Labour who won 12 seats.
The Conservatives won 18 seats (with the highest number of first preference votes) while the Greens secured 8 and the Lib Dems won 6.
The composition of the council has change somewhat since then due to some councils leaving their party groups.
If the SNP remain the largest party after May, which looks likely, they will be the first party in Edinburgh during the STV era to win the most seats two elections in a row. The party will be hoping to keep the seats they have or possibly even make gains while the Conservatives will want to hold onto the seats they have. Labour will be hoping for a comeback after a disastrous few elections while the Greens and Lib dems will be hoping to build on their gains in 2017.
Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday 5 May to elect a new assembly. The election is going ahead as scheduled but follows the recent collapse of the executive as a result of First Minister Paul Givan’s resignation. The election could make history, with Sinn Fein looking likely to emerge as the largest party after years of unionist dominance.
Assembly members are elected via the Single Transferable Vote, a form of Proportional Representation with multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates in order of preference.
Voters in Scotland also go to the polls on 5 May – this time to elect councillors across all 32 local authorities. Like the election in Northern Ireland, Scottish councillors are elected via STV. However, the Northern Irish system has lessons for Scotland’s democracy – both at the local level and at Holyrood.
Northern Ireland Assembly election
For Northern Ireland elections, the province is split into 18 constituencies. Each constituency has five members, meaning a total of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly.
By allowing voters to rank candidates, voters have a significant degree of control over who is elected, rather than just which party. This is an important element of representative democracy, which is lacking at elections to Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.
Elections are also extremely proportional. In 2017, the DUP won 28.1% of first-preference votes and ended up with 31.1% of seats. Sinn Fein won 27.9% of the first preference votes and 30% of all seats while the UUP won 12.9% of first preference votes and 13.3% of all seats.
The Gallagher index, used to measure proportionality and compare across systems, for the last election was 3.34. The closer to one an election is, the more proportional it is. Compare this to the UK’s last election, which had a Gallagher index of 11.80.
In short, Northern Ireland elections are extremely proportional.
Scotland is split into 32 council areas, each electing a different number of councillors. The vast majority of these are elected in three or four member wards via STV. Like in Northern Ireland, council results are largely proportional and voters have more power than parties.
However, the fact that councillors are only elected in three or four member wards, as opposed to five member wards in Northern Ireland, decreases proportionality. Of course, the more local councillors are, the better – as they deal with local issues – but it is worth considering that wards with higher district magnitude lead to more representative results. If there is ever an opportunity to increase the number of councillors in Scotland, then increasing the number of representatives in each ward is worth considering.
Northern Ireland shows that a more representative parliament is possible. UK elections are incredibly unrepresentative. STV would be a far more representative system than First Past the Post. When the UK does eventually adopt Proportional Representation, there are positive lessons from Northern Ireland’s use of STV.
Furthermore, there are lessons for Holyrood. The Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System is broadly proportional but has a number of problems, such as the lack of voter empowerment, opportunities for exploitation and no mechanism to ensure national proportionality.
The Scottish Parliament needs a fairer voting system. STV is tried and tested in Scotland and has been successful in Northern Ireland. After 23 years of devolution, it’s time for Scotland to take a leaf out of Northern Ireland’s book and adopt a fairer system, such as STV.
Two out of four of London’s Conservative list Assembly Members support replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation.
Emma Best AM declared her support for PR at Westminster in an article for 1828 in November 2021 while Andrew Boff AM has been a long-standing advocate of electoral reform and has now joined Make Votes Matter’s PR Alliance (February 2022). The timing is particularly significant due to the government’s regressive Elections Bill returning to the House of Lords that same week.
The other two (Susan Hall AM and Shaun Bailley AM) have yet to declare a position from what I can tell.
Analysis – a broad coalition for reform
The route to achieving Proportional Representation at Westminster is almost certainly through Labour. The idea that the Conservative Party leadership would support PR, led alone implement it, is beyond unlikely, whereas Labour could well support reform ahead of the next general election.
That all said, it is absolutely vital that the movement for PR includes a broad range of supporters including Conservatives. The UK’s journey to adopting Proportional Representation needs to involve all political parties. The fact that two of the four Conservative list London AMs support PR is not insignificant.
In Scotland, Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser, declared his support for a fairer electoral system at Holyrood last year, implicitly implying his support for reform at Westminster although that is not confirmed.
Like Fraser, London’s Emma Best and Andrew Boff recognise that without PR, they wouldn’t have their positions, meaning that without PR countless conservatives would be unrepresented in the London Assembly (and at Holyrood).
Furthermore, the support of Best and Boff is striking in the context of the government’s regressive Elections Bill which seeks to expand First Past the Post in England and Wales, crucially by replacing the Supplementary Vote for London mayoral elections.
The bulk of the efforts to achieve electoral reform should be on pushing Labour in the right direction and strengthening links with existing allies, as well as making the issue understood better by the wider public, but Conservative support is important too. When the day of change eventually comes, we should do our best to make sure as many people as possible are on board.
It is also worth highlighting that while the London Assembly delivers broadly proportional outcomes, it is not without its failings. Upgrade Holyrood supports reforming the Scottish Parliament which uses a similar system to elect MSPs. It is therefore right that while the London Assembly is fairer than Westminster’s use of First Past the Post, reform is needed ensure better representation.
Read more about the need to reform Scotland’s Additional Member System here.
The UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill returns to the House of Lords for its Second Reading (Wednesday 23 February 2022).
The Bill passed in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January (Report Stage and Third Reading) with very limited time dedicated to its debate. Unfortunately none of the amendments designed too remove its most oppressive aspects were successful due to the government having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
With the Bill now in the House of Lords, there is an opportunity for government defeats to push back against the watering down of our democratic standards.
Reasons to oppose the Elections Bill
The Bill will weaken the UK’s already shaky democratic foundations. Instead of upgrading our political system by introducing Proportional Representation and modernising parliament, the Elections Bill is a direct attack on representative democracy.
It contains provisions to expand First Past the Post through abolishing the Supplementary Vote used for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and mayoral elections. The current system is far from perfect but it provides a broader mandate to PCCs and mayors than the unrepresentative FPTP set-up currently used to elect Member of Parliament to the House of Commons.
The Elections Bill is also set to weaken the vital independence of the Electoral Commission. This is an affront to democracy which the Electoral Commission have firmly taken a stand against. In their letter to the government they say:
We therefore urge the Government to think again about these measures, to remove the provisions, and to work with the Commission and Speaker’s Committee to ensure that suitable accountability arrangements are in place to ensure confidence across the political spectrum. Strong accountability is essential for this, but so too is demonstrable independence. The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law.
Electoral Commission (21 February 2022)
Furthermore, the government’s bill will introduce voter identification (ID) requirements to address alleged voter fraud. Of course, electoral fraud is wrong and should be stamped out where present, however, the issue is barely a footnote on the pages of modern British politics, not to mention that trials in England have found voter ID to be highly ineffective. What’s more leading campaigns and organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and Hands off Our Vote have highlighted that voter ID is inherently exclusionary – it will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities, young people, older people and other demographics. Instead of tackling fraud, voter ID will suppress voters.
The Electoral Reform Society’s briefing on the Bill provides more details and further reasons to oppose the Bill here.
What can you do? Taking action to defend democracy
The House of Lords has an opportunity to defeat the government but that is not without its challenges. Here’s what you can do.
Campaign groups from across the democracy sector are coming together to put pressure on the House of Lords to do the right thing.
Unlock Democracy’s action centre is a good starting point, full of calls to actions to campaign against the bill.
Make Votes Matter, who strongly opposed the expansion of First Past the Post, also provide some key actions to take.
The Elections Bill is a regressive piece of legislation that must be stopped. The government’s unrepresentative majority in the House of Commons seems unassailable but there is a real opportunity to make a difference in the Lords.