The Pros and Cons of Electoral Reform

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On Tuesday the 19th, earlier this week, Caroline Lucas proposed a new bill with the Ten Minute Rule. This bill would have changed the way that Britain voted: from a simple plurality to a Proportional Representation system; if it had succeeded.

Sadly, for those of us who support third parties such as the Green Party, it didn’t and we will, for the time being, have to face underrepresentation in the UK’s General Election. However, the good news is that the bill proposition was only defeated by a margin of seven votes, which suggests that with a greater push, Proportional Representation is still achievable in the UK. Both types of system, proportional and pluralisitc, have their merits and they have their drawbacks, but overall, in the spirit of democracy, a Proportional system would be much more representative – something we claim to be today. The other motion that the bill would have put into place would have been lowering the voting age to 16, which is a system that has already been put into place for voting in Scotland.  This extension of the franchise would be fairer on those of us who have the political knowledge, yet aren’t allowed to express our thoughts in an election or referendum.

The key downside of a First Past the Post system is a lack of representation for the smaller parties and representation in excess for the larger ones. In the 2015 General Election, despite getting but 36.9% of the votes, the conservatives managed to clinch a majority of twelve – winning 331 seats. For anybody who supports a major party, this is fantastic. The fashion of our electoral system and the spread of voters means that electoral deserts are formed; swathes of the country dominated by one party, leaving the supporters of any other party in that area without a representative. For the main parties – Tory and Labour, this is perfect; big industrial cities with lots of workers vote hugely Labour and in the more rural areas are the Conservative supporters, so each party loses out in one area but makes large gains in another; a trade-off of sorts. However, for the supporters of minor parties, like me, it is hugely punishing. The support for these parties is unmistakeably present, but the brutality of First Past the Post, it is not shown by the makeup of Parliament. This is why Caroline Lucas’ Ten Minute Rule bill was proposed. With a proportional system there is no punishment of third parties. Take the regional list system, which we used for MEP elections, for example. In the most recent MEP elections, UKIP won 27% of the vote and 32% of the seats. Of course, this is not directly proportional as it is almost impossible to have such a system, but it is impossible to argue that the FPTP result for UKIP was fairer (13% vote, one seat).

The statistics show that a proportional system is indeed more representative, but why is this? As already covered, it is partially due to the fact that support for the major parties is larger in some parts of the country, but smaller in others, where the second party reigns dominant. In addition to this, small parties have support which is thinly spread over the country, making it very difficult for them to even win one seat. With the list system, as constituencies are larger and have multiple seats available, there is more of a chance for the votes for the small parties to pull together to win a seat, and not be dwarfed by the conservatives or labour. Unfortunately, due to the fact that with a proportional system roughly equates percentage of votes to the percentage of seats, there is a very low possibility that there will be a change in electoral systems in the UK – the main parties do not want to lose out on the huge majorities granted by First Past the Post to the necessity of forming a coalition brought by a proportional system.

This leads me onto the main criticism of Proportional Representation, and where First Past the Post does succeed. A country needs a strong and stable government with a working governmental majority to create laws and First Past the Post grants exactly this – on most occasions. The 2010 general election result was an anomaly, as a hung parliament needing to form a coalition is a rare occurrence.  But with a Proportional system, this is almost a guarantee as no party would be able to gain more than 50% of the votes. This is a severe downside as it can lead to gridlocking or failure to even form government – after Belgium’s 2010 elections it took 18 months to form government because of party disagreements. First Past the Post has the opposite problem, in that there can be a too large majority dominating parliament, which would mean that any bill can just be forced through the process, however unpopular it is. Both of these problems must be taken into consideration when choosing between a Proportional and a Plurality system.

Even though the vote was lost, the narrow margin by which it was suggests that there is still push for electoral reform from within Westminster and it is important that, in the name of equality of opportunity, everyone is able to cast their vote equally and fairly and everyone is able to be represented by the party which they vote for.

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