Britain’s broken voting system

Back in 2011, the UK held a referendum to decide whether to change the way we vote, from the current system of First Past The Post to Alternative Vote. The referendum had a 42.2% turnout, and the referendum provided a resounding no from the electorate. 

However, the argument for electoral reform has never died, and the General Election last year might just have been the catalyst the argument needed.  

According to The Independent, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron’s aides are reportedly in talks with the Labour Party to discuss a possible Electoral Reform Alliance against the Conservatives, and they’re not the only ones who think the current system is broken. UKIP and the Greens all voiced their criticism of the First Past The Post (FPP) system at the Election last year too.  

What is FPP and what’s wrong with it?

First Past the Post is a simple system where several candidates run against each other. On election day you mark an X in the box next to your favourite candidate. The person with the most votes wins the seat in Parliament. This system sounds fine, but look at the bigger picture, and you run into a few problems. 

In last year’s General Election, UKIP won 12.6% of the national vote, but only won one seat. To put that into context, the Scottish National Party only won 1.7% of the national vote. However, this small percentage earned them 6 seats in Parliament. To put these percentages into context, UKIP won 3.9 million votes per seat whereas the SNP only got 26,000 votes per seat; 150 times greater representation per seat for UKIP. 

The 2015 General Election led to a Conservative majority with 51% of seats, but only got around 36% of the national vote.  

Many people argue First Past The Post is a troubled system. But what are the alternatives? Does your vote really matter? 

Single Transferable Vote

One alternative is Single Transferable Vote. For example, constituency A, B and C are individual constituencies which each elect 1 representative to go to Parliament for them. Under STV, A, B and C are merged and three representatives are asked to elect this new range. In this example, we’d work out the pass threshold to be 33% (100% divided by the number of representatives), and constituents go to the polls as normal. However, instead of marking an X in the box next to their favourite candidate, they rank their candidates in the order they’d like them to win. So for example, five candidates run for the three posts available. Candidate 1 gets 33%, Candidate 2 gets 24%, Candidate 3 gets 10%, Candidate 4 gets 26% and Candidate 5 gets 7%. We can see that Candidate 1 has reached the required threshold, so instantly Candidate 1 is elected the first representative. The biggest loser is then eliminated, so Candidate 5 goes. But let’s assume anyone who voted for Candidate 5 decided Candidate 4 had similar views, so chose Candidate 4 as their second choice whilst voting. Candidate 5’s 7% of votes go to Candidate 4, pushing their voter share to the threshold so Candidate 4 is the second representative. Let’s assume that in Candidate 3’s case they decided that Candidate 2’s views aligned with theirs, so that 10% goes to Candidate 2 pushing 2 over the boundary, electing them as the third representative. And in situations where there are multiple candidates from same political parties, they’re covered: in the situation where one candidate is really popular, they’ll be elected into post first but their votes will go to their party’s second candidate, and the system continues as normal until all required representatives are elected. 

Mixed Member Proportional Representation

Mixed Member Proportional Representation is slightly less complicated than STV. It gives people two votes. The number of seats in the Parliament are doubled, and on election day the electorate choose two people: their favourite candidate and their favourite political party. The number of votes for their favourite candidates are added up, and the person with the most votes wins. However, the second votes are tallied up and compared against what the current Parliament already looks like, then candidates are elected to office based on how under or over represented they are. 

Say for example we have three constituencies, A, B and C, and each has to elect two representatives under MMP. Under First Past The Post, the candidate with the most votes wins. So if the three candidates for each individual constituency were elected, it wouldn’t be representative. For example, if the population of these three constituencies combined represented 48% backing for Party 1, 49% backing for Party 2 and 3% backing for Party 3, then 51% of constituents don’t want Party 2 but because they have the most backing they’re going to get the seats anyway. When the votes have been tallied with this backing taken into account, the parties are then assigned seats until they are over-represented in the Parliament, which is when the next Party are given seats.  

If Party 1 already has all three seats, then the seats in Parliament are doubled and Party 2 are given no more as they are already overrepresented. Party 1, as the second biggest party, are then assigned seats (so in this example they’d be given 2 seats) and Party 3 will be given 1 seat. This way there is more representation. MMP does allow political parties to choose which members they want to get into seats first, which is what happens during this seat assignment process, making MMP one of the only systems in which parties have a way of influencing the result, but in many ways the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. 

Approval Voting

Approval voting, works by, instead of allowing people to choose one favourite, they are allowed to pick multiple OK’s. If such a system would be applied to Parliamentary elections, then you would be asked which of the candidates would be OK with you to get into power and the candidate the most people said was OK would be the one that got the seat, though you might prefer to apply this to more everyday situations. It would save a lot of hassle when choosing which restaurant to go to with your friends, for example. 

Of course, it’s worth remembering that those in power right now got in on First Past The Post. However, whilst the electoral reform process is slow and may not happen very quickly, the argument for it is unlikely die. For now, we now it’s just a waiting game.