Is the UK’s voting system fair?

Wherever you go in the world, there will always be a debate about whether or not that country’s voting system (or lack of it) is fair. In the UK we use the first past the post (FPTP) system and have done for every general election (with a couple of exceptions) since 1922.

However, in the last couple of years,there had been rising discontent towards the system, particularly due to the rise of smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens. Critics claim that it’s simply not fair.

Take the general election last year. The Liberal Democrats won 7.9% of the vote which translated to 8 seats. By contrast, while UKIP collected 12.6% of the vote, they only got 1 seat. Plus, the winning Conservative party got over half of the available seats even though they only got 37% of the vote.

It doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

So how does it work?

The system is actually very simple. The country is split into 650 constituencies with each constituency voting for the candidate that they want as an MP. The candidate will usually belong to a national political party and after the election the party that has the most of its candidates elected as MPs wins and gets to be in government. Sort of.

The catch with first past the post is that the winning party has to collect over half the number of available seats. If this doesn’t happen (as has only happened twice in the UK since World War 2) the largest party has two options. The first is to form a coalition government, governing with another party to get the required number of seats (as the Conservatives did with the Lib Dems from 2010-2015). The second is to form a minority government without over half of all MPs at the risk of not being able to push any laws through Parliament (as opposition parties may vote against every bill that the largest party proposes).

The main pros and cons of FPTP

The UK is not alone in using this system; over 40 other countries use it as well including the USA and Canada. Currently, both the Tories and Labour officially support first past the post while the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP oppose it.

The main advantages of using it are that the system is easy for voters to understand, the result can be processed and calculated quickly and it almost always produces a majority (so no ineffective minority governments).

Disadvantages include the fact that parties must have a very concentrated vote to get any MPs – a large vote spread across the country can return very few seats (as UKIP saw last year), particularly hurting small parties. Many voters also feel like a vote that isn’t for one of the main 2 parties is a wasted vote meaning that the same few parties can be in power for decades. In addition, in a constituency that votes 75% for a party, say Labour, at every election, the 25% that may vote Conservative are never making an impact on the result.

What are the alternatives?

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is quite similar. Used in India, the only difference is that voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. In each constituency the winning candidate must take over half of the vote. If he or she doesn’t, the last-placed candidate will be eliminated and their second-preference votes re-distributed. This will continue until a successful candidate emerges. The advantage of this is that more people are happy with their chosen candidate. However, it can encourage tactical voting; for example, a given party may say to their voters to give their second-placed vote to a certain party which would be voted for not out of preference but to give their main party the best shot at winning.

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A referendum was held in 2011 questioning whether or not the UK should switch to IRV (or Alternative Vote). With an abysmal turnout of 42%, the ‘No’ vote beat the ‘Yes’ vote by 70% to 32%.

Single transferable vote (STV) is similar to IRV except for the fact that each constituency has multiple successful candidates. In the UK this would mean that there would be bigger constituencies with several MPs, normally of different parties. To determine which candidates win the election proportional representation is used; i.e. if 80% voted Tory and 20% voted Labour there would be 4 Conservative MPs and 1 Labour MP serving the constituency. This is a good system as it balances proportional representation with the constituency system (so each area has a designated MP to serve them). Potential disadvantages are that STV could lead to huge constituencies in sparsely-populated areas and there could easily be ineffective hung Parliaments with not much getting done. STV is currently used in Ireland and Australia.

Proportional representation (PR) involves each party making a list of candidates in the order that they would like them to be selected. After the polls, parties are allocated MPs based on the proportion of the vote that they won. This favours smaller parties but has the disadvantage that voters cannot choose a candidate to serve their area. As a result it is generally accepted that STV is a more effective version of this system. A mixture of PR and STV are used in European Parliament elections.

There are other systems such as the more complicated MMP of Germany. In France voters choose a candidate at a first election before the 2 most successful candidates compete to become president. This is called two-round runoff voting.

There is no one answer as to which system is the best. The answer varies for different countries but in the UK the constituency system works well. This means that, for me, STV and first past the post are the only 2 options considerable. If you like that a general election is predominantly between just 2 parties currently (Labour and the Conservatives) without the smaller parties getting a look in, FPTP is perfectly adequate. However, with the rise of smaller parties, a Labour party in chaos and the prospect of future coalitions I think that it is inevitable that STV will soon triumph.

Click here to see what the result of the 2015 General Election would look like with the different systems.

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