Campaigners rally against UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill

By Richard Wood

A coalition of pro-democracy protestors gathered at London’s Parliament Square on Saturday 5 February to rally against the UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill.

Organised by leading organisations in the democracy sector, including Make Votes Matter, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society, the rally included speeches from across the political spectrum.

Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake, Labour’s John McDonnell, the Lib Dem’s Hina Bokhari, Reform UK leader Richard Tice and Green co-leader Carla Denyer were just some of the leading figures who spoke at the rally. Campaigners from pro-reform groups such as the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were also in attendance to make their case against the controversial piece of legislation.

The rally was one of a number of pro-democracy events held across the country including a similar rally in Manchester later in the afternoon.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

The Elections Bill is a deeply damaging piece of legislation which passed in the House of Commons on the evening of Monday 17 January (and due to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords later in February).

The bill is set to introduce voter identification requirements, a “solution” to the near non-existent problem of voter fraud which will end up suppressing voters in the most marginalised groups across the country.

The bill also replaces the Supplementary Vote with the clapped-out and unfair First Past the Post electoral system. This unnecessary change will make elected mayors in England less representative and shows just how opposed this government is to any positive voting reform.

In addition to this, the Bill threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission and sets out measures to change spending rules for the worse.

UK politics needs better representation not less, and First Past the Post certainly needs to be ended not extended.

The Elections Bill will level down our democracy but there is hope. The Parliament Square rally shows the vibrancy of the campaign against this regressive bill. Together, we can push back and upgrade our democracy.

READ MORE: Elections Bill set to wrongly expand First Past the Post

READ MORE: Upcoming PR Scottish council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

Upgrade Holyrood is a Scottish political site dedicated to improving Scottish democracy, as well as politics across the UK.

Read more about Upgrade Holyrood here.

How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

By Richard Wood

Voters in Portugal went to the polls on Sunday 30 January to elect a new Assembly of the Republic, the country’s unicameral parliament. Unlike the UK, MPs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, meaning that how people vote at the ballot box is fairly reflected in the legislature – in short, seats won broadly match votes cast.

Portugal’s 2022 election – how proportional was it?

The election took place as a consequence of opposition parties voting down the minority Socialist Party government’s budget. In the end, the Socialst Party benefitted from the election, increasing its vote share and winning an unprecedented majority of seats.

Like most European democracies, Portugal uses a form of Proportional Representation to elect MPs. This means that the proportion votes cast per party are reflected by the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature.

The contrast with UK national elections is stark. Under First Past the Post, MPs elected to Westminster are not reflective of how people vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote which resulted in them getting over 50% of all seats. Parties like the Liberal Democrats and Greens went significantly underrepresented. The worst modern example of the unrepresentative nature of FPTP was the 2005 election where Tony Blair’s Labour achieved a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote.

Overall, Portugal’s elections are fairly proportional, as seen time and time again at each Portugese election. There is a link between seats and votes unlike in the UK where that link is distorted by single-member constituencies.

However, the 2022 election has exposed a flaw with the particular PR system used by Portugal. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats (117 out of 230) on a minority of votes (41.7%).

Meanwhile the centre-right Social Democrats won 76 seats (33%) on 29.3% of the vote, while the far-right Chega secured 12 seats (5.2%) on 7.2% of the vote. The Liberal Initiative won 8 seats (3.5%) on 5% of the vote, the Communist Party won 6 seats (2.6%) on 4.4% of the vote and the Left Bloc won 5 seats (2.2%) on 4.5% of the vote. People Animals Nature and Livre each won the two remaining seats.

The results are only broadly proportional as the largest party won far more than it should have under a totally fair system. In theory this shouldn’t happen under a PR system but the mechanics of Portugal’s system helped lead to this surprise outcome. It is also worth noting than the country’s smaller parties received less representation than their share of the vote suggests they would be entitled to.

The reasons for Portugal’s disproportionality are explained below.

READ MORE: Mixed-member Proportionality – how do Scotland’s and Germany’s voting systems compare?

What type of Proportional Representation does Portugal use? Could it be better?

The country elects 230 MP for provisionally four-year terms (although in practice this is often less than that due to snap elections). The country is split into 20 multi-member constituencies each electing between two and 48 members (the largest being the capital Lisbon), as well as two overseas constituencies (Europe and the rest of the world). This in principle, means there is a strong link between votes cast and seats won, however, in practice that is not always the case.

Crucially, there is no mechanism to ensure national proportionality which in part explains the surprise majority of seats won by the Socialists. In contrast, Scandinavian party list systems have mechanisms to ensure national proportionality rather than just proportionality per multi-member constituency. Furthermore, Portugese seat distributions are determined by the D’hondt system (common across Europe), which on the whole gives a slight advantage to larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. This too can explain how the 2022 Portugese election came to be.

For those interested in how D’Hondt works and how it compares to different methods, the Electoral Reform Society has an excellent summary which can be read here.

READ MORE: Campaigners rally against UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill

But it’s not all about proportionality – how powerful are the voters?

Members are elected on closed party lists meaning that voters vote for parties and have no say in the ordering of lists presented. This means that while voters have a high chance of getting their party into parliament (due to multi-member constituencies), they have no say over who gets elected from their chosen party. Again, this is in contrast with the likes of Denmark and Iceland where voters have a say over the order of candidates elected to the Assembly.

Interestingly, these closed lists and the D’Hondt element make Portugal’s system one that most closely resembles how the UK used to determine members of the European Parliament (although the number of MPs elected per constituency is wildly different).

So how good is Portugal’s voting system overall? When it comes to proportionality, there is a strong link between how people vote and how they are represented in parliament. There are arguably better ways to calculate seat distributions than D’Hondt and the lack of a mechanism to ensure overall proportionality weakens the link between seats and votes on a Portgual-wide scale. This weakening in the link was dramatically exposed in the 2022 election. The system clearly needs reform but overall the system means results are broadly proportional.

In addition, another flaw is the fact that party lists are closed. Unlike in countries such as Norway, voters in Portugal have no say in the ranking of candidates on party lists. Proportionality is extremely important but so to is voter choice. If a country opts for list PR rather than say ranked choice voting in multi-member seats (PR-STV) the lists should be open to empower voters and to avoid giving too much power to party bosses.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV proportional system shows England a better way for local democracy

What lessons can the UK learn from Portugal?

The first lesson that UK democracy can learn from Portugal is that the principal of Proportional Representation ensures broadly representation outcomes.

However, the second lesson is that not all PR systems are as effective as each other when it comes to ensuring proportional outcomes. Yes, in Portugal there is a correlation of seats and votes but it is far from as accurate as it could be. The UK should take that into account when designing a proportional electoral system.

Lastly, the lack of candidate choice in Portugal’s closed list party system is a significant impediment to voter power. Any future PR system adopted at Westminster should empower voters when it comes to selecting candidates not just parties.

Portugal’s voting system is not the one for the UK, but we should learn from its benefits and its flaws when it comes to designing a representative system at Westminster.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2021 election – the striking flaws of First Past the Post exposed