Germany votes for a new Bundestag on Sunday 26 September 2021, bringing an end to the Merkel era after sixteen years. The country uses a proportional voting system (Mixed-Member Proportional) which is very similar to Scotland’s Additional Member System, however, there are some clear differences.
The German system has its flaws, like Scotland’s, but it is significantly more representative than First Past the Post used at Westminster and earlier in the week in Canada.
Here’s how the German and Scottish systems compare.
The Scottish electoral system (AMS)
The Scottish Parliament has 129 seats in total. 73 of these are single-member districts where the candidate with the most vote wins, essentially First Past the Post. The other 56 are list seats designed to reduce the inherent disproportionality of the FPTP element. Voters get two ballots – one for each of these types of seats.
Scotland is divided into eight electoral regions with each region providing seven regional list MSPs, meaning that everyone in scotland has eight representatives.
The list seats in each region are distributed once all the constituency seats in that region are counted and are calculated via the D’Hondt method. However, crucial they also take into account the number of constituency seats won by each party in that region. This ensures broadly proportional outcomes overall. This mechanism ensures that regional votes match regional seats.
In practice this means that parties overrepresented in constituency seats (as in their seat share exceeds vote share) pick up fewer regional seats. The SNP do extremely well in constituency seats but other parties get their fair share in regional seats as seen in the 2021 Scottish election where the Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives won most of their seats via the regional allocations.
The broad proportionality of AMS makes the system more representative that the appalling First Past the Post system used at Westminster and in Canada on Monday.
However, AMS does have a number of faults. These include the proportionality mechanism only ensuring regional not national broad proportionality, no addressing of overhang seats and limited voter power (party lists are completely closed). Other problems include the fact that parties could “game the system” due to two-vote divergence as well as the two classes of MSP that the system produces.
The German electoral system (MMP)
The German system is very similar but also has significant differences with Scotland’s.
Both Scottish AMS and German MMP combine FPTP with a compensatory element to ensure a level of proportionality. Although not perfect, they can be classed as forms of Proportional Representation.
But unlike Scotland, Germany does not have a fixed number of seats.
As in Scotland, German voters get two ballots, one for each element. 299 German seats are elected via FPTP (the CDU/CSU and SPD dominate these constituencies).There are also a further provisional 299 list seats but this number is usually larger.
Germans vote for their lists in each of the 16 states (like in the 8 Scottish regions). These seats are allocated accounting for constituency seats to ensure proportionality. However, the system has a further mechanism to ensure overall seats match overall votes in each state.
Parties often win more constituency seats that they are entitled to under a hypothetical distribution of list votes. Other parties are allocated additional seats to level this out and further seats are added to ensure that the party list vote matches seat distributions. This is done to ensure proportionality at both the state and national levels.
This means that the size of the Bundestag (German parliament) changes in size after each election. This has faced some criticism but it does ensure a high degree of proportionality. In contrast, Holyrood is fixed at 129 members.
There is also a 5% threshold for *most* parties to win list seats. This is not the case in Scotland but there is an unofficial threshold at around that mark due to there only being seven list seats to allocate in each region.
The main advantage German MMP has over Scottish AMS is that extra commitment to proportionality. However, this has a major drawback as it can create incredibly large chambers. More politicians is not exactly popular with voters as a general rule. The outgoing Bundestag has 709 members in total (2017 to 2021).
The Bundestag also has other problems associated with AMS, notably the two types of member and closed party lists. The prospect of gaming the system is at least limited by additional seats allocated to ensure that party list votes match seats won by each party.
That all said, Germany’s commitment to proportionality is truly commendable.
Room for improvement in Scotland and Germany
Scotland’s AMS has done a reasonable job for 22 years but it definitely needs reform. Holyrood could learn from Germany and add levelling and overhang seats. This would be a significant improvement as it would improve proportionality and limit the possibility of gaming the system. We could also learn from the German state of Bavaria and introduce open lists for the regional vote component, strengthening voter power at the ballot box.
These could be positive steps forwards, however, they are arguably sticking plaster solutions.
Instead, Holyrood should learn from elsewhere and adopt a superior voting system to AMS. The Single Transferable Vote or Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats would improve representation and empower voters across the whole country.
You can read about my petition to improve Scotland’s broadly proportional but imperfect voting system (and the response) here.
Scotland and Germany have similar voting systems which both ensure a strong element of proportionality. The extra commitment to proportionality in Germany is extremely commendable. Both systems have done well to improve representation but both have flaws and improvements can be made.
On Monday 20 September Canadians went to the polls after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election, hoping to turn his Liberal minority governement into a majority one.
The Conservatives soon took the lead in the polls but by the end of the campaign both parties were neck and neck.
In the end, Canada’s House of Commons now looks very similar to the one before it as only a handful of seats changed hands and the parties ended up roughly where they started in terms of seats and votes. The Liberals won the most seats and Justin Trudeau remains prime minister.
Despite this somewhat underwhelming result, the election serves to highlight some of the major flaws of First Past the Post.
Another wrong-winner election
In 2015, the Liberals won a majority of seats on a minority of the vote – while also getting the highest number of votes across the country (but nowhere even near the 50% mark). In 2019 they fell short of a majority of seats, won the most seats but actually secured fewer votes than the Conservatives. Two years later this has happened again.
For the second time in a row, the Conservatives have won more votes than the Liberals but ended up with fewer seats.
First Past the Post distorts the link between seats and votes, sometimes resulting in the party with the highest number of votes coming second overall. This is known as a wrong-winner election. Canada’s voting system has exaggerated the support of the Liberals at the expense of the Conservatives and other parties, giving them an artifically leading place in the House of Commons.
Wrong-winner elections most recently happened in 1951 and February 1974 in the UK. Such elections are not representative at all but at least serve to weaken the argument that First Past the Post provides clear winners that can be easily kicked out.
The second wrong-winner election in a row is bad news for Canadian democracy.
First Past the Post consistently subsidises the two largest parties by inflating their seat share well above their vote share. The Liberals may have fallen short of a majority of seats but they won 47% of seats available (158/358) on just 32% of the vote. The Conservatives also slightly benefitted, securing 35% of seats (119) available on 34% of the vote. In the past they have benefited more by securing overall majorities on minority vote shares.
This exaggeration of support is seen over and over in countries that use First Past the Post. At the 2019 UK General Election, the Conservatives won a majority of seats on just 43% of the vote. In 2005, Labour won a majority on an even smaller share of the vote – just 35% of the vote.
Canada’s 2021 election is no different. First Past the Post one again perpetuates the dominance of a country’s largest parties.
Smaller parties punished by FPTP
The flipside of this is that by subsidising the representation of the larger parties in parliament, smaller parties are unfairly punished. Canada’s National Democratic Party, the NDP, secured just 7% of the seats available (25 seats) on almost 18% of the vote.
The Greens also suffered, winning only two seats but a vote share of 2%.
This underrepresentation of smaller parties is key feature of UK elections as well. In 2015, UKIP secured 13% of the vote but only won one seat. The Liberal Democrats are consistently punished by this as are the Greens. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal Alliance won just 25 seats on 25% of the vote – almost displacing Labour as the country’s second largest party by vote share yet coming nowhere near in terms of seats.
First Past the Post distorts democracy by subsidising larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. Under the status-quo, votes aren’t equal. The Canadian election highlights this once again through the squeezing out of the NDP and the Greens.
The nature of First Past the Post means that countless votes are wasted in the process of electing MPs. In any Canadian riding, because there is only one member elected, votes going to other parties and votes above and beyond the amount to elect each MP are wasted.
Canada’s 2021 election is no different. The dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives at the expense of the NDP and other parties means wasted votes across the country.
As far as I can tell no one has done exact calculation, but once they’re up they will be added here – I’m sure Fair Vote Canada will be on the case!
First Past the Post exposed
Canada’s 2021 election highlights some of the major flaws of FPTP. The country has a very similar parliament to before, one that does not accurately reflect how people vote.
Like the UK, Canada needs Proportional Representation. It’s time to make votes matter and enact electoral reform.
An opportunity for Proportional Representation – a minority government, the NDP and lessons from New Zealand
The one silver lining is that the election certainly puts Canada’s unrepresentative electoral system in the spotlight. Voting reform isn’t the main concern of most ordinary voters but when two wrong-winner elections in a row take place, the issue is certainly given a second glance by ordinary voters. There is an inherent unfairness that cannot be ignored.
The Liberals went into the 2015 election supporting Proportional Representation. It is a disappointing misstep of history that Justin Trudeau did not keep his promise to abolish First Past the Post. However, change could still happen in the near future. The emboldened NDP and the ambitious Greens support electoral reform – and with the voting system in the spotlight, there is an opportunity for the pro-reform parties to take advantage of the Liberal minority and push for a democratic upgrade.
Two wrong-winner elections in a row helped pave the way for electoral reform in New Zealand. Could Canada be next? And will the UK also one day adopt Proportional Representation?
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional, but flawed, Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative.
AMS results in more representative parliaments than FPTP used in Westminster but it is not fully proportional. It also results in two classes of MSPs, limits voter choice and can be exploited by decoy parties.
Alternatives such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Open List PR, would empower voters and lead to more representative parliaments.
Reasoning behind the petition
The Additional Member System has done well to ensure broadly proportional parliaments but it does have some serious flaws, the full details of which can be read below.
This petition makes the case for an alternative system to replace AMS. I recognise that different individuals and parties back different alternatives, which is why I have kept the proposed alternative open and reasonably vague to help build a broad coalition for voting reform in Scotland.
For example, the Scottish Lib Dems and SNP favour the Single Transferable Vote (used for local authority elections in Scotland, as well as national elections in Ireland and Malta) while the Scottish Greens now support an Open List PR system (like those used in Denmark and Iceland) but have supported STV in the past.
Earlier this year, Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser MSP broke party ranks and called for reform, highlighting STV as a possible alternative.
In terms of non-party support, the Electoral Reform Society has long supported the Single Transferable Vote while Ballot Box Scotland, who does an incredible job of covering and analysing Scottish electoral politics, favours and Open List PR system with levelling seats.
Changing the voting system at Holyrood requires a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50%+1 majority as with most votes.
The Scottish Lib Dems were the only party in the parliament to propose changing the voting system in their 2021 manifesto but with the SNP and Scottish Greens in favour of a change in principle, as well as at least one Scottish Conservative MSP behind the idea, there is a possible route to reform.
The two-thirds rule would therefore mean that 86 MSPs would be required for supporting any reform. Together, the SNP (64 seats), the Scottish Greens (7 seats) and the Scottish Lib Dems (4 seats) fall short of that number with a combined total of 75 seats. Even with Murdo Fraser there would be just 76 MSPs in favour of reform.
The Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to back any reform overall due to their long-standing opposition to reform at Westminster. Any moves to supporting reform would lead to calls of hypocrisy if they continued to favour the archaic First Past the Post voting system at Westminster.
The best hope is getting additional support from Scottish Labour who have no position on changing the voting system. That said, there is certainly a route to reform through Scottish Labour who could definitely be persuaded to back reform if the idea gained momentum.
Other hurdles include the the fact that electoral reform is not high on the political agenda and there are different schools of thought on what to replace AMS with as previously mentioned.
Nonetheless, it is important to shift the conversation on this issue, which is why I have lodged the petition.
Please consider adding your name to begin an active conversation about the flaws of AMS and a real discussion on alternatives that provide for better representation.
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? And how proportional was its recent election and what lessons can we learn in the UK?
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.
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.
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.
Upgrade Holyrood’s Richard Wood has written a new article for Politics.co.uk (published 9 September 2021), highlighting the upcoming German and Canadian elections and the need for Proportional Representation in the UK.
Two leading democracies go to the polls later this month, both facing far from certain outcomes. The end of the Merkel era places Germany at a crossroads with a diverse range of multi-party coalitions on the table. Meanwhile, Canada’s election is Justin Trudeau’s gamble to turn his minority government into a majority one, despite polls suggesting this could backfire and hand power to the country’s Conservatives.
Held within a week of each other, these elections are two very different interpretations of democracy due to their contrasting electoral systems. They show how the UK has two possible futures ahead. The Canadian route, based around First Past the Post (FPTP), typifies just a semi-representative democracy. And the German route, based around Proportional Representation (PR),which ensures an accurate link between votes cast and seats won.
Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has voiced his support for electoral reform of the Scottish Parliament in an article for the Scotsman (published 2 June 2021).
Conservative support for a switch from First Past the Post to PR at Westminster is generally limited – as is Conservative support for a more proportional system at Holyrood. Murdo Fraser’s support for change is welcome although it is worth noting he has not clarified if he supports PR at Westminster. But based on his opposition to distorted electoral outcomes, he should really be consistent in his thinking and support PR at all levels.
Fraser’s arguments for reform at Holyrood are broadly in-keeping with the arguments for reform made by Upgrade Holyrood – albeit in much more party politically-charged language (not to mention the constitutional question).
That said, this is a welcome move from Fraser who is only in his position thanks to the proportional element of Scotland’s voting system.
The Additional Member System used for Holyrood elections is far more representative than FPTP used at Westminster. Under AMS, seats broadly reflect votes but it isn’t perfect.
AMS has a number of flaws, many of which Murdo Fraser rightly highlights. These include the opportunity for parties to “game the list” (ultimately distorting overall representation), the ratio between constituency MSPs and regional MSPs, two classes of MSPs, limited voter choice and the lack of national proportionality.
There is an opportunity to build a coalition for change at Holyrood. But the question is what system would be best?
One alternative would be a moderate change: making AMS more closely resemble the system used in Germany by having levelling seats so that overall seats reflect regional vote shares. This could also incorporate an open-list element like in Bavaria.
Murdo Fraser posits this option:
“The issue of patronage could be resolved by the introduction of “open lists”, whereby it would be the voters in a particular region who would determine which party list candidates were elected, rather than the individual party machines. This reform would be beneficial in allowing more independently-minded MSPs to be elected, rather that those who simply slavishly follow the party line.”
Murdo Fraser MSP (2021)
However, this would merely be a sticking-plaster approach and could bring problems of its own like an overpopulated legislature as seen in Germany’s Bundestag.
Adopting the Single Transferable Vote or a full PR system (with multiple constituencies, levelling seats and open lists) would be better alternatives. Murdo Fraser even goes as far as saying there should be a fundamental review of the current arrangement, clearly highlighting the Single Transferable Vote as an alternative to AMS.
An alternative approach would be to replace the AMS system entirely by introducing single-transferable vote (STV) for Holyrood with multi-member constituencies returning five to seven MSPs.
This would deliver a high degree of proportionality, reduce party patronage, end the two-tier system of parliamentary representation, and still retain the local link for those elected.
Murdo Fraser (2021)
Murdo Fraser’s intervention shows that there is an opportunity to upgrade the electoral system at Holyrood. Only the Scottish Lib Dems supported electoral reform (STV) in their 2021 manifesto although the SNP do favour the system in general. The Greens have backed the system in the past but are now more in favour of Open List PR.
There would be a major political challenge for the Scottish Conservatives if they backed STV at Holyrood (if they continue to defend FPTP at Westminster) but the movement for reform at Holyrood is growing.
Murdo Fraser will in time have to respond on his views about Westminster if he continues to push the line for change at Holyrood. If he comes out in favour of PR that’s great news for campaigners and if he doesn’t then it exposes a major hypocrisy that can be easily challenged.
Upgrading Scotland’s electoral system ahead of the 2026 election is a strong possibility. But the campaign for reform must begin now.
You can read more about the flaws of AMS and the alternatives here.
First Past the Post flies in the face representative democracy. Westminster’s voting system needs an upgrade.
1. Better Representation overall
First Past the Post (FPTP) means that voters are not fairly represented in the British House of Commons. Under FPTP the share of seats won by a party does not accurately reflect the share of votes won. Proportional Representation would fix this problem by ensuring that seats match votes.
In 2019, the Conservatives won 44% of the vote but won 50% of the seats in the House of Commons. Compare this with the Liberal Democrats who won 7.4% of the vote resulting in just 3.9% of the seats, not to mention the Greens who won just one seat with 2.7% of the vote.
If these distortions don’t convince you that something is very wrong with FPTP, just look at Labour in 2005 who won a majority of seats with just 35% of the vote. The Conservatives did the same in 2015 with just 37% of the vote. And at that same election, UKIP won one MP with 12.6% of the vote while the Greens managed the same on 3.8%.
Proportional Representation is the name for a group of voting systems where the share of votes won by a party is fairly translated into the share of seats they get in parliament. If a form of PR had been used in 2019, the Conservatives, who won 44% of the vote, would have won around 44% of seats available.
All in all, PR is much fairer than FPTP, and adopting a PR system would correct the current skewed relationship between seats and votes.
The main advantage of First Past the Post is supposedly the “constituency link” of one MP per seat as that allegedly improves the link between local issues and national government. However, under FPTP an MP only wins their seat by winning more votes than the next places candidate. By having just one representative from one party, voters can feel unrepresented in their constituency weakening the link between them and their MP.
Under any form of PR where constituents match local, “natural” boundaries, constituents would have multiple representatives, giving them more choice of who to go to with issues to represent them in parliament. With one MP per seat under FPTP, fewer constituents have a direct connection with their MP whereas a proportional system gives voters more choice of representatives to go to with issues between elections. If constituency boundaries take into account local geography, which is common in most democracies with PR, then having multiple representatives per seat will strengthen the coveted constituency link.
3. Less tactical voting
FPTP often forces voters to vote tactically. How often have you heard “X can’t beat Y here, vote for Z”? The current set-up promotes local two-horse races, giving people less of an incentive to vote for their most preferred party. Evidence from BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society suggests that around 3 in ten people planned on voting tactically in the 2019 General Elections.
Elections are an opportunity for constituents to put across their opinions and make their voice heard at the ballot box. First Past the Post distorts this process as thousands feel their only option is to vote for the candidate that will beat the party they like the least. As all votes count equally under PR, there is far less of an incentive to vote tactically and with more than one MP per constituency, voters don’t need to settle for their second, third or even fourth choice in an attempt to make their voice heard.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that no tactical voting exists under PR, especially hybrid systems like the Additional Member System in Scotland and Wales, but it certainly makes it significantly less of a factor.
4. No more electoral deserts
FPTP distorts how most people see the political landscape. Look at any electoral map of Scotland for example, and it looks like the SNP dominate every corner of the country. True, the SNP hold a significant amount of support in Scotland, but the dominance of yellow does not show the whole picture. The same goes for Labour red strongholds in the north and blue Conservative regions in the South East. The parties listed do extremely well in these areas but significant minority support does exist for other parties and single-member winner-take-all districts do not reflect this.
The 2015 UK General Election in Scotland is one of the most extreme examples of this. The SNP turned the map yellow, winning 56 of 59 (95% of) seats available, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems with one seat each. Yet the SNP only won 49.7% of the vote. This was a remarkable result but FPTP inflated the scale of their Scottish victory (and it is worth highlighting that even though FPTP helps the SNP, the party still supports PR).
Under PR, these electoral deserts would be a thing of the past. The SNP would have won around 50% of all Scottish seats while Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have won around 24.3%, 14.9% and 7.5% of seats available respectively. Rather than the 1.7% of Scottish seats they each one.
Although infrequent, wrong-winner elections are a serious problem of FPTP. A wrong-winner election occurs when the party with the most votes overall doesn’t actually win the most seats. This happened in the UK in 1951 when Labour won the most votes but the Conservatives won a majority of seats. It happened again in February 1974 when the Conservatives won the most votes but were beaten on seats by Labour.
More recently, in Canada’s 2019 election Justin Trudeau’s Liberals secured the most seats but on fewer votes than the Conservatives. This ironically happened after Justin Trudeau went back on his promise to make 2015 the last Canadian election held under First Past the Post.
There is something very wrong with these outcomes. Even on its own terms, First Past the Post fails to work.
There is however a silver-lining here. Bear in mind that two wrong-winner elections in a row (1978 and 1981) brought electoral reform to the forefront of mainstream political discourse in New Zealand, paving the way for the eventual switch from FPTP to PR in 1996.
6. No more minority rule
First Past the Post means minority rule most of the time. With the exception of the coalition government of 2010 – 2015 (which had two parties), there hasn’t been a government formed with over 50% of the vote since before the Second World War. All single-party majority governments in the UK in modern times have been formed on a minority of the vote. The most recent Labour government was formed in 2005 with a majority of seats but just 35% of the vote.
Proportional Representation would mean a parliament that reflects how people vote, resulting in a coalition formed from parties that would mos likely have a combined share of the vote of over 50%. This would of course mean that parties would have to compromise but that’s just part of sensible, grown-up politics that recognises that most people don’t vote for one party. Such an outcome is far more representative than elected one-party states on minority vote shares.
Political philosophy and proposed policies come from all walks of life and a range of different parties. FPTP perpetuates the dominance of two large political parties while squeezing out smaller parties and often preventing new voices from getting a foothold in parliament. In some ways, FPTP facilitates a cartel between Labour and the Conservatives.
FPTP tends to result in two-party dominance whereas PR leads to multi-party politics. Switching to Proportional Representation would mean that all votes count, ultimately facilitating a parliament with a diverse range of parties. This is better for democracy as it ensures that all voices get a seat at the legislative table and allows for innovative, new ideas to break through into the mainstream. Put simply, PR would break up the cartel and create a parliament more diverse in terms of its political philosophy and policy propositions.
8. No more more unpredictable chaos
Under FPTP, the link between seats and votes is so skewed that an increase in X percentage points for one party will not result in the same increase in seats as an increase in X percentage points for another party. This makes FPTP a chaotic system.
Furthermore, increases in vote share can even mean a fall in the number of seats won. In 2017, the Scottish Conservatives increased their vote share by 5.5 percentage points. This translated into a loss of seats for the Conservatives and ultimately a loss of single-party majority government.
9. Far fewer wasted votes
First Past the Post has led to countless votes being wasted at the ballot box. Wasted votes are those votes that either go over and above the number required to elect MPs as well as votes that don’t elect any MPs. This hardly chimes with the values of a representative democracy and ultimately weakens the link between voters and representatives.
Proportional Representation would limit wastage significantly and ensure that all votes count equally.
10. Fewer safe seats
First Past the Post has resulted in Labour and the Conservatives holding seats with staggering majorities. Some seats haven’t changed hands in years, weakening voter power and resulting in limited campaigning in places where seats are unlikely to change hands. At the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Reform Society correctly predicted the outcome in 316 seats at the 2019 General Election due to them being classed as safe seats. Their analysis also found that 200 seats had not changed parties since the Second World War. This means that voters can feel powerless at the ballot box and results in parties focusing campaign resources on marginal seats rather than across the entire country.
Proportional Representation would result in multi-member constituencies (the exact nature of these would depend on the type of PR system used) meaning that safe seats would be limited and parties would need to campaign in all areas to pick up votes. This would strengthen democracy and empower voters.
Of course, some PR systems such as AMS used in Scotland, which retains a FPTP element (and a closed list system) would retain safe seats, but the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or an open list system would give voters powers over individual candidates and would significantly reduce safe seats.
11 A more consensus-based politics
Representative democracy should ultimately mean parliaments that reflect how people vote. Majority governments elected with a minority of the vote are not a realistic interpretation of the politics wanted by people. First Past the Post simply doesn’t create a climate of cooperation and consensus.
Proportional Representation is a recognition that cooperation between different political parties is a must to ensure accurate representation. It recognises the reality that no one party is unlikely ever to win a majority of votes and govern alone. Multi-party agreements are a more accurate interpretation of election results, even if a somewhat foreign concept to many in the UK used to single-party governance.
12. Proportional Representation is popular
Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it should be supported. But widespread support for PR in the UK and the dominant usage of such systems abroad shows that the idea has significant merit, adding weight to the strong, principled arguments in favour of PR.
Polling consistently shows that most people in the UK support Proportional Representation over First Past the Post. This even often includes most Labour and Conservative voters, whose parties oppose any change away from FPTP. Furthermore, over 80% of OECD countries use some form of PR. Most of Europe also uses PR with only the UK and Belarus using FPTP (although it is worth noting that other countries such as France use a majoritarian system while other like Latvia used Mixed-Member Majoritarian which has only an element of PR).
The trend in recent years has been switching from majoritarian systems to PR.
Switching from our outdated First Past the Post voting system to a form of Proportional Representation is the single most important democratic improvement that Westminster politics can make. PR will not solve all of society’s ills overnight but it will provide a much fairer platform from which policy decisions are ultimately made. Democracy isn’t perfect but a fair voting system strengthens the validity and accountability of democratic decisions made.
Under PR everyone will have a fair stake in the system. Make Votes Matter and other better democracy campaigners are making the case for PR in Westminster. Parliament reflecting how people vote is how representative democracy should work; let’s work together to ensure that upgrading to PR comes sooner rather than later.
Scotland’s political framework is more democratic and representative than Westminster’s but there is room for improvement. Upgrade Holyrood aims to facilitate discussions on upgrading Scotland’s democracy and ultimately help bring about change at the Scottish Parliament.
Launched on 8 April 2021, Upgrade Holyrood is a brand-new political blog and resource dedicated to improving Scotland’s representative politics while delivering relevant political analysis and commentary.
There’s a lot that Westminster can learn from Scottish politics, most notably Holyrood’s proportional voting system, the lack of an undemocratic upper chamber, electronic voting for members and the direct election of the first minister by MSPs. Scotland’s democratic processes are much more evolved than Westminster’s, and London should learn from that.
However, while Holyrood is more democratic than Westminster, there is still room for improvement.
The Alba party’s attempt to exploit a flaw in the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system and the likely return of “dual mandates” at the 2021 election have spotlighted the need for reform. And that’s where Upgrade Holyrood comes in. Scottish representative politics can learn democratic best practice from across Europe and beyond.
Guided by the principle that our democracy can and must be better, Upgrade Holyrood supports:
Accountable representation: a return to fixed four-year parliamentary terms
Fair and efficient representation: an end to dual mandates in Scottish politics and restrictions on second jobs for politicians
Inclusive representation: a permanent hybrid parliament
Local representation: more powers for local communities across Scotland
Proportional representation a fairer voting system to elect MSPs
Upgrade Holyrood provides analysis, opinion and research on solutions to improve Scottish democracy as well as the space to discuss further advancements. Additional commentary on Scottish, British and European politics more generally will also be covered.
Read my article (published in Politics.co.uk) on the need to reform Scotland’s electoral system here.
Upgrade Holyrood was initially launched as Better Holyrood before a name change on 13 April 2021.