Proportional Representation, a sensible solution

How Proportional Representation can create a fairer election system

The United Kingdom’s voting system in General Elections is perhaps one of the simplest in the world. Voters choose their favourite candidate in their local area (usually based on the party they represent), put a cross in the relevant section, then put their ballot in the designated box. The ballots in each constituency are counted and whichever candidate secures the most votes wins; this voting system is known as First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). Whilst this may initially seem sensible enough, such a voting system falls apart whenever placed under even the tiniest amount of scrutiny.

Let us imagine a fictional constituency, called London Central. In the last election, there were two candidates in London Central, one from the Conservative Party and one from the Labour Party. The Labour Party candidate won 60% of the vote, whilst the Conservative Party candidate won 40%. Under FPTP, the Labour candidate is elected, having won the most votes.

Now let us imagine 5 years later, there are now three candidates. As before, the Labour and Conservative Party field candidates, but so does a newly formed Democratic Socialist Party, which, like the Labour Party, also leans left. 25% of Labour’s previous voters defect to this newly formed party, lowering their vote share to 35%; the Conservatives maintain their 40% vote share and their candidate is elected since they won the most votes. Herein lies the fundamental problem with FPTP, the spoiler effect; candidates with similar ideologies will split the vote, leading to a candidate becoming elected who is supported by a minority of voters.

The repercussions of this are far-reaching. Since those who are ideologically similar want to do whatever they can to avoid their greatest ideological opponents from being elected, relatively few parties stand for election in the UK, leading to the major parties becoming excessively large and filled with various factions that spend significant amounts of time fighting amongst themselves. This is not a productive way for a political system to function, yet there is no real choice otherwise due to our current voting system. If Labour, for example, were to split into two parties with somewhat differing (yet broadly left-leaning) ideologies, the spoiler effect would likely ensure a significant Conservative majority. The two-party state many feel we are resigned to is a direct result of this.

As such, we need a new voting system. In my opinion, the constituency system is one which we should endeavour to maintain; the power for individuals to have their local needs represented in the national Parliament is definitely a positive aspect of our political system. My personal suggestion would be to adopt the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. Under this voting system, an individual ranks all the candidates on their ballot in an order of preference; the candidate with the least votes after the first round of counting is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the second choices. This process continues until a candidate has a majority of the vote. One key effect of such a system is that it immediately eliminates the Spoiler Effect; having the option to order preferences, coupled with a candidate needing a majority, means that voters do not need to worry about splitting votes.

Furthermore, it is possible under STV to elect multiple candidates per constituency on a proportional basis. The UK parliament is currently quite unrepresentative; for example, the Conservative Party won 43.6% of votes in the 2019 General election but hold 56.2% of the seats in the House of Commons. If we implement a proportional STV system, the differences between votes won and seats won would be far smaller. This would hopefully mean that the general population feel more adequately represented by Parliament, something that would be undoubtedly welcome in a country where people are seemingly becoming increasingly frustrated by their alleged representatives.

One supposed downside of a more proportional voting system is that it would lead to less majority governments, increasing the prominence of coalitions. In my opinion though, this should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing. Majority governments are often able to enact any legislation they desire without any real opposition, leading to some referring to the Prime Minister (whomever they may be) as an “elected dictator”. By having coalition governments as a more regular occurrence, we would see greater deliberation and internal opposition over government policy, leading to greater checks and accountability in our political system.

It is thus clear that our current voting system is not fit for purpose and that all those who believe in a fair and accountable political culture should support the implementation of STV.

Key policy suggestions:

  • Abolish First Past the Post but ensuring the new system retains the link between constituents and their MPs.
  • The introduction of Proportional Representation for elections to the House of Commons to create a fairer voting system.

About the author

Joe Gellman

Head of Reaserch

Joe is studying for a Masters in Philosophy at Durham University.