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.
The final Scottish Parliament results came in on Saturday night after a roller-coaster two-day count (please let’s never have that again!). The Scottish Parliament was created with a broadly proportional voting system to ensure that seats match votes but how proportional was the election?
The Additional Member System (AMS) ensures that the link between seats and votes is far more representative than Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP).
A good voting system should have a strong link between votes and seats. That a party can win a majority on 43% of the vote (2019) – let alone 35% of the vote (2005) – is a clear sign that First Past the Post fails to facilitate proper representative democracy. There are a number of ways to measure how representative an electoral system is but the most widely-known method is the Gallagher Index. There is no need to go in the maths behind it here but a low Gallagher Index score shows good proportionality while a higher one indicates bad proportionality.
The Gallagher Index scores for the previous Scottish elections, according to Electoral Reform Society calculations, are shown below.
On their own the Gallagher index scores do not how much but compared to UK election scores we can see that the Scottish Parliament is far fairer than First Past the Post used at Westminster. Take the 2015 election for example, which had the Conservatives win a majority on 37% of the vote and UKIP winning 13% of the vote but only one seat. The Gallagher score on that occasion was 15, with all other elections since 1974 having Gallagher indices with double digits.
The 2016 election was therefore the most proportional since the advent of devolution in 1999 but what about the most recent 2021 election? Upgrade Holyrood’s own 2021 Gallagher index calculations gets a figure of 7.8, making the 2021 election the second most proportional election since 1999. (Update: Ballot Box Scotland has a figure of 7.3 so I will need to revisit my calculations but either way we’re in the same rough area).
This can be seen from the performances of each party: SNP (regional vote share 40.3%, seat share 49.6%), Scottish Conservatives (23.5%, 24%), Scottish Labour (18%, 17.1%), Scottish Greens (8.1%, 6.2%) and the Scottish Lib Dems (5.1%, 3.1%). Overall, this is broadly proportional although the SNP outperform due to their constituency dominance.
As mentioned, the Additional Member System, despite being far more representative in terms of proportionality than First Past the Post, has its flaws. Alba’s plan to game the system, by explicitly calling on voters to vote SNP in constituencies and Alba on the list, shows one clear fault: the risk of so-called satellite parties standing in the regions with an explicit intention of artificially exaggerating the support of one party. Had a supermajority materialised, the Gallagher index would likely have rivalled UK election scores. The same goes with All for Unity which had a similar strategy for unionist voters.
The system may not have been successfully gamed by Alba on this occasion but the party has certainly exposed a key flaw of the system, highlighting the need for reform.
This is compounded by the fact that AMS is far from perfect in other aspects. The ratio of constituency to regional seats creates a constituency bias – a party could win a majority on constituency seats alone on less than half the vote (the SNP were three away from doing so in 2021). The version of AMS in Wales is even worse in this respect with 40 constituency seats and 20 regional ones. Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour won 30 seats but on less than 40% of the vote.
Furthermore, there is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality. Measures to ensure regional proportionality accumulate to deliver broadly nationally proportional results, however, they stop short of explicitly doing so.
In addition to that, another problem of AMS is the continued existence of FPTP seats which encourages tactical voting. Tactical voting will always happen in any system to some degree, but as many people as possible should be able to vote for their first choice, not their least favourite option.
Lastly, voters have limited choice over candidates within different parties – the list component of AMS ensures better overall representation but the fact that it is closed means that voters get what parties present. There are other flaws too which can be read about here.
It cannot be said enough that AMS is an improvement on FPTP. The UK needs proroportional representation. AMS results are broadly proportional and constituents are represented by a diverse range of parties but that doesn’t mean there are not better alternatives.
A sticking plaster approach to improving on AMS would be to retain the current system and add levelling seats like in Germany to ensure that seats overall match the regional vote. This would improve proportionality but voters are unlikely to support more politicians. An open-list element could be added to the regional list which would ensure voter choice like on Bavaria. In theory this would be an excellent improvement but adding a potential third ballot risks complicating things.
A better alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which would involve multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates by order of preference. STV would deliver proportional outcomes while give voters a significant amount of power over candidates and parties. It is currently supported by the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, as well as leading reform groups such as the Electoral Reform Society.
There is also the less talked about system of open-list PR with levelling seats, which is used in the likes of Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, and is advocated by Ballot Box Scotland (who has been an invaluable resource during the 2021 election it must be said!). Under such a system there would be multi-member systems where voters choose one party but get to vote for candidates within that party. Once seats are distributed there would then be a mechanism to allocate additional seats to ensure proportional outcomes overall.
Overall, the 2021 Scottish election delivered a broadly proportional outcome, which should be commended. the fact that Westminster still uses First Past the Post is a travesty, putting us at odds with most democracies. That said we should learn still from the flaws exposed from the likes of Alba and All for Unity and reform Scotland’s voting system for the better.
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.
2. A stronger constituency link
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.
5. An end to wrong-winner elections
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.