With the election race now entering its final heat, its final outcome is anyone’s guess. A majority government is unlikely, a messy coalition is likely, and a SNP sweep of Scotland is almost certain, according to the 1632 or so opinion polls which we are currently bombarded with on a daily basis. Witty sarcasm aside, these polls are generally very useful in painting a picture of how the nation is going to vote come the day, although they sometimes get it wrong. A key example of where the polls did get it completely wrong was in the general election of 1992. Almost every poll predicted a Labour victory of sorts but they were proven wrong as the Conservatives took power again, albeit with a much smaller majority. The ‘shy Tory’ factor was given as a potential reason as to why the polls got it so wrong (i.e. people were embarrassed to admit to pollsters they were going to vote for the Conservatives but did so when they got to the polling booth). Since then, however, they have been there or thereabouts with their accuracy. According to the Independent, support for the Liberal Democrats was overstated in the opinion polls for the 2010 general election but they, on the whole, correctly foretold the main story.
Time for electoral reform
This time, as alluded to at the beginning of my article, a hung government is almost certain, and a poll on electionforecast.co.uk (as seen on 29th April) gives the Conservatives a slight lead, although this, of course, does not necessarily mean they will have the advantage when trying to form a coalition. There are two things to be looked at here: firstly, there is a breakdown prediction on the number of seats the parties are predicted to get. Out of the 650 up for grabs, the Conservatives are predicted to get 280 seats, with Labour close behind on 270, the SNP on 47, and the Liberal Democrats on 27. Lower down, after the DUP, Plaid Cymru, and SDLP, come the UKIP and the Greens with 2 and 1 respectively. It may come as a surprise, that UKIP and the Greens are expected to win so few seats. Despite being literally polar opposites in terms of many of their policies, both parties have had plenty of exposure in the media. They were, for example, both invited to participate recently in the Leader’s Debate, with leaders from 5 other political parties. It especially might come as a surprise when you look at the vote share prediction (what % of the population will vote for a party as opposed to how many seats they will gain).
When you look at the prediction for the Conservatives and Labour’s share of votes, things look about right and correlate roughly to how many seats they are predicted to win. The Conservatives are on 34.3%, with Labour just behind on 32.4%. Looking past the top two, however, and it doesn’t quite tell the same story. Next are the Liberal Democrats are 12.2%, and then…UKIP with 11% and the Greens on 4%! So, 15% of the electorate is according to a poll, going to vote for 2 parties who are only predicted to win 3 seats between them at this forthcoming election. Confused? Angry? Not surprisingly, Natalie Bennett, leader of the Greens, is for one angry about this. On Question Time last week she blasted the current First-Past-The-Post system as having “utterly failed”.
What is First-Past-The-Post?
First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) is as its name implies. The candidate with the most votes wins. On the face of it, it seems fair and just that the candidate who has received the most votes from the electorate should go on to be a Member of Parliament. As a voter, it’s easy to understand, and the winner can normally be declared quickly. But, dig deeper, and the cracks start to show. One problem, as already mentioned, is that how many votes a party may receive overall and how many seats they actually win may bear little relation to each other. It may be the case that a party becomes 2nd in many seats and but win less seats than a party who wins more seats but becomes 3rd or 4th in many other seats. As the Telegraph reliably informs me, in the 1974 election, the Conservatives actually won around 200,000 more votes than the Conservatives but won 4 less seats than Labour did. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party then went on to form a minority government after the Conservative leader Edward Heath had failed to form a coalition with the Liberals. 200,000 votes is quite a significant amount more for one party to have, and justifiably, the system started to be questioned.
This isn’t only the problem with it, though. I won’t tell you good readers where I live, but I currently in reside a constituency labeled as a ‘safe seat’. A ‘safe seat’ is a seat in parliament where the seat is practically guaranteed to be won by a particular party. Over half of the seats in parliament (364) were categorized as such at the 2010 election. This in itself breeds problems. Parties who can’t win safe seats target their resources on winning marginal seats (seats where the outcome isn’t clear) and in turn, effectively neglect millions of voters who don’t vote for the safe seat MP. If you live in a safe seat and don’t support the dominant party, realistically your voice isn’t going to be heard. It’s tough luck. You may therefore think if you live in one of these constituencies: ‘what’s the point in voting?’ (A counter-argument I’ve heard is ‘but if everyone thinks that’, but not everyone is thinking that!).
I put these thoughts to my local Labour general election candidate, almost guaranteed to be voted in as a MP at the general election (that might narrow it down for you a little!), and asked her because of this situation, should be the voting system be changed. I wasn’t satisfied with her response. She gave me a puffy answer how there had already been a referendum and the electorate had voted to keep the FPTP instead of the Alternative Vote system (AV) in 2011, and that was about it. That is true but she didn’t really address my point. I got a sense really that she preferred it because she knew that in a safe seat, she was going to be guaranteed a job for 5 years. And that is the one of the fundamental problems with this system; it encourages complacency amongst MPs in safe seats who know bar a miracle that they will be voted in to parliament.
Another problem of the current FPTP is tactical voting, and it directly relates to the issue of safe seats. Tactical voting is when someone votes for a candidate not out of preference but to prevent an undesirable outcome, and it looks like it is going to be rife at this forthcoming election (just as usual). The BBC recently ran a story about Jodie Holland (a Labour Voter, lives in a Liberal Democrat safe seat constituency) and Dr Tim Killeen (Liberal Democrat voter, lives in a Labour safe seat constituency) who are planning to vote swap on May 7th. They have made a pact to vote for the party the other person wants to win, because as Dr Kileeen puts it, he feels his vote is “utterly wasted” there. Tactical voting has inevitably reared its head on social media. Some of them have a political agenda, such as VoteSwap, which “helps Labour and Green supporters swap and votes to keep out the Tories”. Some of them don’t, such as Swap my Vote, which addresses the issue highlighted in this article pairs voters in “orders to minimise wasted votes.” The very fact that these types of groups exist highlight the failure of the FPTP system.
AV is a voting system by which voters rank their candidates in order of preference. If a candidate has more than half the votes, they are elected. If this isn’t the case, then the candidate who gained the least votes are taken out of the voting and their votes are redistributed according to the next available preference on the ballot paper. This continues until one candidate has half the votes and is elected. This system would have reduced the number of safe seats and tactical voting but the referendum result was fairly resounding. Around 2/3 of the voters who voted (around 40% of the electorate) voted against it. This is despite opinion polls taken around a year or so before the referendum showing strong support for it.
Well, not surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats were all for it. Such a system would have given the centrist Liberal Democrats probably many more seats as they may well have been many people’s second choice. But, as the Guardian explains, the very fact party leader Nick Clegg had become a poster boy for it, may have put many people off. Clegg had largely by that time become an object of ridicule amongst the British public, having infamously gone back on his scrap tuition fees pledge. He was also too aware that many voters may have wanted to “poke him in the eye” as revenge for this. Also not surprisingly, the Conservatives were against it, although it is a slight surprise that much of the Labour party also had the same stance. Although leader Ed Miliband supported it, many frontbenchers such as Caroline Flint were not, in perhaps an early challenge to his authority as leader. Other possible reasons for its failure including leaflets delivered to members of the public demonstrating the system making it look confusing and complex, and the fact that even prominent supporters of the “yes” campaign, such as Nick Clegg seemed to show conviction in their support of it. Clegg himself called it a “messy little compromise.” The AV system wouldn’t have necessarily been more proportional and in ultra-safe seats, where the candidate receives more than half the vote, it wouldn’t make any difference at all.
For a voting system that truly represents what the electorate voted for, there is only one option: Proportional Representation (PR). This is a system by which a party would win the % number of seats that they gained as a % of the electorate. So, looking at the current opinion polls, the Liberal Democrats would win 78 seats instead of their projected 27, UKIP would win 71 instead of 2, and the Greens would win 26 seats instead their predicted 1. Like or loathe these parties, it surely is a more fair reflection of democracy than the current voting system that we have. No politician could get complacent. Parities would have to appeal to their core support, instead of just voters in marginal seats. No vote would be wasted, because the more votes your chosen party receives, the more seats they gain, simple. The yearning for a change to PR is not a new one. The Electoral Reform Society was founded in 1884 as the Proportional Representation Society, and a look on Youtube reveals that Labour were calling for its introduction after their surprise defeat in 1992.
An apparent plus for FPTP is that ostensibly it provides a clear link between the MP and constituent and in PR, this link would be broken. Crispin Black of TheWeek however argues that this happens already. He also refutes the argument that first-past-the-post provides strong and decisive governments, with the current coalition a prime example of this not being the case. There are a couple of options of how PR could be applied. The Single Transferable Vote is a system of PR used in local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and all elections in the Republic of Ireland, amongst other places. For it to work , it would mean bigger constituencies, with multiple representatives instead of just one in relatively small constituencies. As the Electoral Reform Society puts it: “Each voter gets one vote, which can transfer from their first-preference to their second-preference, so if your preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, your vote is transferred to another candidate in accordance with your instructions.” This system would have issues such as the fact that announcing results on election night would be more difficult because the counting would take longer, but on the flip side constituents would have more representatives available to speak to, and the choice that the voters would have would give them more power, and hopefully eliminate the air of complacency that manifests amongst candidates under the current system. The other option is party list. This system is used in the European Parliament elections. Each party would put forward the number of candidates available in that particular constituency. On the ballot paper, voters would voters indicate their preference for a particular party and the parties then receive would seats in proportion to their share of the vote. Say, a (new, larger) constituency had five potential seats and Labour had 60% of the vote, then they would win 3 seats.
The best solution
So, PR wouldn’t be perfect but it would be a damn sight better than what we have right now. It could also see more seats gained by parties seen as –ahem – unsavoury by many, such as UKIP. It would however, be essentially more democratic and make EVERY politician fight for their vote and EVERY vote would count. At the moment, that just isn’t happening. The likelihood of this happening? Depressingly unlikely for the moment. Despite the Guardian pushing for this in the light of a Labour win, it doesn’t seem to be at the top of the Eddy boy’s priorities. The Conservatives – despite their seemingly contemporary centrist leanings – are still very conservative when it comes to issues to like this, and it would be hard to see any move by them to change to this system if they’re in power. Perhaps the Lib Dems may be push for it if they are to barter in any coalition deal, especially as it looks very likely they are lose to a huge number of seats. It’s possible, but again, unlikely. The only thing that we can do is to keep the issue in the public eye, and to hope that, one day, we may get a referendum on it.