Alternative Policy Idea: a more proportional electoral system

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After the humiliating defeat of the Alternative Vote last year, you might think that  supporters of electoral reform should keep quiet. After all, only 32% of the 42% of the electorate who bothered to vote actually supported changing the electoral system. Some may argue that this indicates the disinterest of the British people in constitutional change. More accurately however, the defeat was a testament to the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, the shortcomings of AV and the hopelessness of the ‘yes’ campaign.

The ‘Yes to Alternative Vote’ campaign was heavily metropolitan in tone, despite the fact that most British people are not north Londoners. Furthermore, the form of electoral change on offer was such a paltry, mildly confusing minimal change that nobody could garner much enthusiasm for it. There are compelling arguments for a more proportional electoral system to ensure that fewer individuals’ votes are wasted.

For over a century, British politics has been dominated by whichever party wins the most seats in the House of Commons. Governments have been able to drive through hugely unpopular and badly thought out policies. The House of Commons is so ineffective at scrutinising bills that it has been left to the House of Lords to reject governments’ – past and present – more unworkable bills. In order to make our democracy more democratic, and ensure that governments do not have untrammelled power, the system must be changed.

The status quo is as durable as it is because British politics offers an attractive settlement for the two main parties. First Past the Post is marked by wild swings of power in which a group that has been voted for by a minority of the population can radically affect life for the whole of the population. In the 1983 General Election over 56% of the population did not vote for the Conservatives but they won a majority of 144 seats. Similarly in 1997 Tony Blair won 43.2% of the vote but managed a stunning majority of 179. Would the country not have been better if there had been greater accountability? A more proportional electoral system would mean that the number of seats allocated to parties would better reflect the number of votes cast for each party.

Politicians tend to see every election as winnable through force of their charm or strength of their policies. But what they don’t seem to understand is that the wonderful power this skewed electoral system offers is going to be as likely won by their ideological nemeses. As a politician your party may win some elections, but your opponents will win other elections. A more proportional electoral system, such as the Alternative Member System or Single Transferable Vote would have meant that Blair and Thatcher would have won fewer seats and may have had to go into coalition. I think the excesses of both the Blair and Thatcher governments are good examples of why we need electoral change. In a parliament that better reflected the votes of the public, both Thatcher and Blair would have had less ability to enact their most unpopular policies.

Coalitions are not inherently bad, but they can be lopsided. The Liberal Democrat’s relative weakness in the Coalition is partly explained by the tiny number of MPs they won at the last election. Despite winning 23% of the vote the Lib Dems won only 57 MPs, which is less than 9% of the seats in parliament. If the Liberal Democrat seat number had been higher then the result could have been a Labour – Lib Dem coalition. It is also important to recognise that if the Conservatives had gained 4 more points in the popular vote then there would have been a Conservative majority government with no rein whatsoever on their ideological ambitions.

Most of the fire directed at the Coalition is not due to the fact it is a partnership between two ideologically different parties, but because the Coalition has advocated particularly unpopular policies. For example, the privatisation of the NHS and increase in tuition fees have come about not simply because we are in a coalition government, but because the Conservatives, the senior partner, are pro-free market.

Of course with a parliament in which no party has an overall majority compromise is crucial. If a coalition is made up of two parties, neither party can enact their manifesto in its entirety. But if it is a choice between policies which most people in the country opposes and a mixture of policies from two parties whose supporters make a majority, it seems the latter is fairer. The resultant government from a parliament elected by a more proportional system will be one that is more in tune with the political ideas and ambitions of the people.

 

Article by Ben Mackay

Edited by Chris Olewicz

 

  • Chris Peters

    I think this article aims to present a neutral argument for a more proportional system, but you don’t have to dig down deep to uncover the Labour bias.

    “If the Liberal Democrat seat number had been higher then the result could have been a Labour – Lib Dem coalition.”

    Well, not if the seats had of come from Labour constituencies, it wouldn’t have.

    “It is also important to recognise that if the Conservatives had gained 4 more points in the popular vote then there would have been a Conservative majority government with no rein whatsoever on their ideological ambitions.”

    Shock horror, the Tories would have been able to enact their policies if they had more support. Terrible.

    The Coalition is unpopular at the moment because each of the parties’ base are unsatisfied with the amount and level of compromise. If all government became about compromise between parties people would begin to feel even less reason to get involved with party politics.

    In fact, it’s happening even now, with Cable tarting himself out to Red Ed – or is it Blue Ed? Who really knows? – in order to secure himself another cushy government job, when his party is supported by less than a quarter of voters…

    Finally, ‘the privatisation of the NHS’ you refer to mainly consists of a continuation of Labour’s heath policies under Burnham – of course, that is conveniently forgotten when.

    If I wanted to read a Labour Students broadcast, I’d go to your website. If you’re going to post it on Canvas at least have the guts to reveal your biases before the article.

  • Ben Mackay

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the article and commenting.

    I put forward several different arguments in this article – one that it is a matter of principle that parliaments should reflect the political desires for the people. I make the points in reference to tuition fees and the NHS because these are hugely unpopular policies. I’m trying to make clear that these are not due to coalition/PR, but are simply what happens when an electoral system allows one party to have a lot more power than they should have if it was proportional.

    I think on certain points you raise there are grounds to support my case. For example in terms of “If the Liberal Democrat seat number had been higher then the result could have been a Labour – Lib Dem coalition” in a totally proportional system both parties would have had 52% of the seats which is a majority. I think also under a more proportional system LDs would have gained more votes anyway. Also, I use the word ‘could’ – I accept it may not have resulted in this case. But at least with a more proportional system the junior partner in a Coalition would be strengthened.

    Also when I write “It is also important to recognise that if the Conservatives had gained 4 more points in the popular vote then there would have been a Conservative majority government with no rein whatsoever on their ideological ambitions” I think this is a legitimate point to make in regard to an argument for a different electoral system! My point is that a particularly ideological group should not be able to impose their vision in its entirety on a country whose majority has not voted for it. Hence I am pointing out how odd our system is that a few points here and there can skew the result enormously!

    I think you should also realise that I point out that PR can constrain the excesses of both parties – hence I mention that Blair govt and Thatcher govt would have been better if there had been a more proportional system.

    Anyway, thanks for posting Chris. If you’re a student at Sheffield and want to write something anytime would love to have a contribution from you.

    Best,

    Ben

  • Andy Campbell

    I think what we have to deal with is the fact that it is the party agenda that always takes precedence. Your MP will always raise an argument in favour of the party line if you ever have the effrontery to question his voting intentions on any policy issue.
    Put simply and this IMHO is the real problem Democracy 2015 faces is until we find a way of candidacy without party affiliation we are doomed to the same old ineffective representation, knee-jerk government, sound bite politics and media ‘intrusion’ into the political process.