Proportional Representation (PR) is the electoral system in which parties gain seats in direct proportion to the number of votes they receive. Perhaps beleaguered by the endless political discourse and the voracity of anti-political sentiment that dominates conversations, the media and our newspapers, I am looking for a new way forward, a way that promotes people voting FOR something or someone, rather than against something or someone else.
We currently use the voting system known as ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP), to elect our representatives at all levels of government in our country besides Police, Crime and Victims Commissioner (PCVC) and MEP elections. These elections uses what is known as the ‘Single Transferable Vote’ (STV) system, but more of that later. This article will assess why I feel PR is the way forward.
There are benefits and concessions of every voting system. Our views on the suitability of one system over another are moulded by the experience of the political world around us. I am no exception and I am undoubtedly influenced by the post EU referendum chaos and seemingly endless calls for second votes, general elections and tactical voting. It is my view that the realities of modern politics have rendered FPTP untenable.
In 2011, IPPR wrote a critique of FPTP stating in their briefing “Worst of Both Worlds” by Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried that “The greater prospect of hung parliaments in the future is just one possible outcome of an unfit FPTP electoral system.” Their briefing was written following the first hung parliament since 1974 and the subsequent coalition of 2010 – 2015. Lodge and Gottfried correctly noted the purpose of FPTP was to produce “‘strong’ and ‘stable’ single-party governments, and that elections produce clear and unambiguous outcomes.” Let’s resist the urge to assess what has been strong and stable about recent governments.
FPTP works best in a two party fight where there is a clear choice between two major parties. In this scenario it is likely the party with the most votes secures the majority of seats as there is no third block of votes to effectively get in the way. The problems arise once there are more than two credible options, where the third party, for example, gets a lot of votes but never enough to get near the first candidate. The sensible voter will realise that despite their admirable resolve to vote for the candidate they believe in, they are best served trying to pile in behind the second party to unseat the first. This is known as tactical voting.
Tactical voting compromises the integrity of the final vote. Voters ‘lend’ support to candidates not because of who they are, but because of who they’re not. Under FPTP MPs can be elected with far less than 50% support. This is not wholly desirable, however, when you consider many of these voters only voted for the winning candidate because they are not quite as bad as the other candidate, you see that the winning candidate can be elected with only moderate (real) local support.
We know that FPTP leads to many constituencies returning time after time with huge majorities that no amount of tactical voting can ever overturn. This renders them effectively inconsequential to the final result with the elections being fought over a range of marginal or swing seats. As these seats become more important, the ballots of the tactical voters are overpowered.
There are downsides to PR, but each downside has a reasonable counter argument. PR is criticised for giving a platform to more extreme parties to gain a foothold in society. Unfortunately, one must remember that if this point is reached they have already received the requisite votes to get there. Under FPTP, their progress is halted, but under PR, they can reach office more easily. From my perspective, at that point they would need to justify their election and be held accountable. As a society we gain more from challenging and defeating their ideas rather than using the electoral system as a convenient barrier.
Under FPTP members are elected to their own constituency with a specific area to focus on. This gives them a stake in the local issues important to that area. This local link is lost if MPs receive only regional mandates. The regional list of candidates becomes a problem as if you are Number 1 on the North East ticket you are likely never to be under threat in any election. This can cause complacency although without exception, everyone I have met or worked for have has shown amazing commitment, whatever their majority.
Practically speaking if MPs were elected on a regional basis there would be fewer representatives covering a larger area. This would lead to increased workload on staff, particularly those in high-volume areas that have a lot of immigration casework. Whilst we congratulated ourselves about the savings we had made under the new system, it would be the vulnerable and the staff dealing with the administration that would bear the brunt of the change. Duplication between regional MPs would be an unavoidable waste of time and money. The potential for duplicate processing and conflicting final responses which would further add to the confusion, stress and frustration that led the constituent to seek help in the first place.
Under STV voters are nudged towards a combination of ideological and tactical voting. In the recent Northumberland PCVC election, most people expected Labour’s Kim McGuinness to hold the seat that Dame Vera Baird had defended with a thumping majority at the last election. Kim had over 45,000 votes after the first round of voting, miles ahead of any other candidate. Then second preference votes were counted and the gap closed and closed fast. Kim clung on by a few thousand votes in the end.
Herein lies the problem with STV. Voters vote with their hearts in round 1 and their heads in round 2. A hypothetical but common train of thought in that election was probably, “I’ll vote Conservative in round 1, but if we don’t get to the final two, it’ll be the Independent vs Labour, so I’ll vote Independent in round 2 as I definitely don’t want Labour to win.” I’m sure many people in Labour did likewise, calculating if by some disaster we were eliminated in round 1, it would be best to support the candidate best placed to deny the Tory. My problem with STV is that it encourages, almost demands, tactical voting.
My firm view is that we must give the people a reason to vote for the party they support. Whatever happens after that is based on the collective result of a ballot that is based on support, not opposition. I hope this leads to more engagement by candidates to win support rather than to encouraging themselves tactical support. Politics is broken at the moment and we must take action to implement a change that could fix it. The problem we have is that MPs from both parties, whilst understanding the downsides to FPTP are direct beneficiaries of it. This makes the change difficult when so many of the decision-makers are permanently in a position where they have a direct and compromising vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
From the outside it is easier to appreciate that if something does not work, in this case the voting system, then change it. It is now time to ditch FPTP and be bold in seeking a better alternative, so we can continually hold our elected politicians to account in a way that, in all too many cases, is in real terms democracy in name only with the result all but guaranteed.