Essays: Would a change to the Westminster electoral system improve the state of UK democracy?

The Westminster electoral system has historically followed the First Past the Post System (FPTP), this is a majoritarian system whereby the UK is split up int 650 different constituencies – each of which, elect a representative for their constituency. The state of the current Westminster electoral system has been argued to have created a democratic deficit. It is undeniable that the current system is in need of significant and dire reform, in order to dramatically improve upon the state of UK democracy.

The fundamental issue with a FPTP system is that it inherently lacks in its duty of ensuring maximum representation for people of the UK. This is clear from the results of the 2015 General Election where the Conservative party achieved 36.9% of the total vote share as the largest party and subsequently achieved 331 seats; UKIP on the other hand, achieved 12.6% of the total vote share, theoretically putting themselves as the third largest party, however they only achieved 1 seat in Parliament. It is unquestionable that an effective democracy shouldn’t award its third largest party with one seat, and its biggest with 331 out of the total 650 seats. This is profound when posing the argument that representation is failing under our current electoral system, millions of voters go without a voice in a system, where almost 4 million UKIP voters in 2015 effectively have one MP in Parliament to get legislation through for them, which pales in comparison to the Conservatives’ 331 MPs. Therefore, arguing that the current Westminster electoral system is set up to silence them and uphold an outdated two-party system – causing representation to have failed categorically.

On the other hand, others may argue that the current electoral system does effectively represent groups but rightly keeps out extremist parties coming into the mainstream. This stems from the idea that proportional systems of voting, open up parliament to radical voices that endanger democracy more than they would enhance it. For instance, the 2010 British Election survey (a mock AV election in which 13,356 people took part) found 25 seats where a second preference vote from a BNP supporter could – in theory – push a winning candidate over the 50 per cent mark. This suggests that if we moved to a proportional system, such as AV (Alternative Vote), that the BNP (a party which has now been labelled a far right and fascist group) would gain a number of sets in parliament. The sheer projection that extremist parties would worm their way into mainstream politics and have a decisive voice in what legislation passes through parliament and what doesn’t, is something that would harm UK democracy and the unity it promotes. Although many would argue that it is not up to anyone to decide which party is deemed ‘too extreme’ for Parliament and that if they are deemed lawful by the Electoral Commission, there is no argument for them to be stopped from entering parliament.

Many argue that the state of UK democracy has deteriorated due to the fact that the current system intrinsically discourages participation. A majority of seats in UK Westminster constituencies are safe seats, due to the requirement for only a simple majority, and the ability of larger parties to concentrate support in defined geographical areas. Data suggests that in the 2010 general election, 9 million voters were in marginal seats and 20.5 million people were in safe seats, leaving people feeling remote from politics and feeling as if though they don’t have to vote, because fundamentally, it won’t make a difference. Since 1945, one third of seats have consistently been held by the same party, a figure which rises to half of all seats since 1970, this leaves the state of UK in an abhorrent state where, due to your geographic location your voice may never get heard because the majoritarian system ultimately fails you.

There have been no major changes to the current Westminster electoral system largely due to the familiarity it poses to the voter, in comparison to the complicated nature of other forms of proportional representation systems. The biggest advantage of the FPTP system is undoubtedly the fact that it is a quick and easy system, for this reason it is used in the UK, USA, Canada and India – countries that famously uphold the values of a democracy. Many are opposed to the idea of switching to systems such as STV (Single Transferrable Vote), AMS (Additional Member System) or AV (Alternative Vote), due to the fact that they are perceived to be complex systems which could confuse voters and take several days to calculate. There is also the issue that it creates large, multi-member constituencies which erode the clear and direct link between voters and their MP in single-member constituencies. The constituency link between MPs and their constituencies is said to be one of the beneficial parts of UK democracy which make it personable, as opposed to a centralised government, FPTP ensures participation by maintaining the constituency link.

There have been several criticisms that we should stick to the FPTP system because proportional systems cannot provide stable governments, but in recent years FPTP has failed in even providing majority governments. In 2010 FPTP gave us a coalition government. In 2015 we scored a farcically disproportionate parliament and a Conservative government with such a slim majority that Theresa May called a snap election this year to increase it. That backfired spectacularly, and we now have another coalition, this time between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. The last time our voting system delivered a proper working majority was for Tony Blair in 2005. And yet the number one argument for first past the post is that is ‘delivers clear outcomes’. It is undeniable that the plurality of UK democracy today simply doesn’t wish to follow a two-party system, so in order for democracy to flourish it is imperative that changes are made to the current system.

Proportional systems are often criticised for creating many unstable governments, however proportional systems are just as stable. Among OECD countries using PR (our peers, of whom over 80% use proportional systems) elections are no more frequent than elections in Canada, not to mention systems of proportional representation have been adopted in many countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. In a domestic setting it is used for local elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland and some local authorities in England, for elections to the European Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and for the “top-up” element of elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly; this has done nothing but enhanced democracy in these countries, where they enjoy a more vibrant Parliament/Assembly and higher turnouts.

In conclusion, proportional representation argues that an election is like a census of opinion as to how the country should be governed, and only if an assembly represents the full diversity of opinion within a country can its decisions be regarded as legitimate. Therefore, we cannot enjoy the full benefits of a UK democracy if we don’t adopt a more proportional system, so all the voices of the UK can come together to create a truly representative parliament that celebrates differences of opinion. It is simply naïve to believe that FPTP system truly celebrates democracy when it has enforced a two-party system upon the UK since it came to fruition. In order to repair the state of UK democracy, profound changes need to be made to Westminster electoral system, to reinstate democracy in the UK once again.

Sadiyah Akther

Essay 2

The electoral system that has been used for UK general elections and by-elections, by Westminster since 1945, has been the First Past the Post system (FPTP). This system is also known as the plurality system, where the candidate with the largest number of votes is elected. However, FPTP has been argued to distort voters’ wishes, and have a lack of representation for minority groups. Therefore, electoral systems such as Part List system, Additional Member system (AMS), Single Transferable Vote (STV) and Supplementary Vote (SV), are argued to be more representational and better at improving the state of UK democracy. However, this essay will argue that FPTP is the best electoral system for the UK and a change in the Westminster electoral system would not improve the state of UK democracy, through representation, participation and legitimacy.

FPTP can be argued to not be representational/proportional, and so this reduces the democratic aspect of everyone being represented by the government. For example, FPTP allows a two-party domination, which are the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. This means that although there are smaller parties such as UKIP, they are unlikely to be in government as they will not have enough ‘safe seats’, which guarantee them a place in government. For instance, in 2015 UKIP won nearly 4 million votes and the Green Party won just over 1 million votes, but they won only one MP each in the election. This shows an unfair representation of the public who voted, which means that the people who voted for UKIP and Green Party, will be less represented. However, the Party List System, will increase and improve representation because each party is granted seats in proportion to the number of popular votes it receives. Therefore, if the conservative Party got 50% of the votes they will also win 50% of the seats. There is a higher degree of proportionality and this will enhance the state of UK democracy. As well as this, STV also gives almost absolute proportionality, as there is a close correlation between votes and seats. Therefore, if the electoral system used by Westminster is changed to the Party List system or STV then there would be more representation of the voters, which would enhance UK democracy.

On the other hand, a change to the electoral system would not improve representation, and in fact it may make it worse than FPTP. For example, STV is not fully proportional, as in large multi-member constituencies, the link between the member and the voters may be weak. For instance, although the votes may be equally shared among the seats, if the MPs aren’t connected to the voters in their constituency then thy are less likely to be represented, and this would only reduce the state of democracy. Alongside this, in the Part List system, the link between representatives and constituencies is also weakened, and therefore there is no clear constituency representative. This also emphasises how there is also a lack of representation in both the Party List system as well as STV, which means that although FPTP isn’t the most equal in representation, the other electoral systems are equally as less representative. This is because, FPTP provides a strong link between MPs and their constituencies. For example, Labour MP Stephen Timms, who represents East Ham in London, held the record for the greatest number of surgeries in 2011. He did so in spite of being stabbed by and Islamic extremist at a surgery the previous year, insisting that it was important for him to be accessible. Therefore, despite FPTP’s disadvantages in representation, compared to the other systems it provides a closer connection between the MPs and constituencies, which is more important and more representative than having equally shared MPs who aren’t closely connected to their constituencies.

Democracy is also enhanced through participation. FPTP can be argued to reduce participation as voters feel less appealed to vote. For example, FPTP provides a limited voter choice. The prevalence of safe seats means that many voters have little hope of seeing their favourite candidate win. As a result, this only depresses voter turnout as they feel that there is no point in voting, if their preferred candidate won’t win. For example, in the run-up to the 2015 general election the Electoral Reform Society estimated that 364 seats, 56% of the total, were safe seats. As well as this, FPTP also allows for votes to be wasted, in which a vote in a small constituency counts more than it does in a larger one. For example, the Electoral Reform Society also calculated that 74.4% of votes cast in the 2015 election were wasted. However, other systems such as STV and AMS have been argued to increase participation. As mentioned before STV allows for the almost absolute proportionality and there are limited/almost no wasted votes, which would make voters feel as though their votes will count. AMS on the other hand allows voters to vote for a candidate for their constituency and for a regional candidate, which gives voters a feel that they have more choice and control on who they’re selecting as candidate. Therefore, a change in the electoral system to AMS or STV would enhance UK democracy as it would increase voter participation, and this is an important aspect of democracy.

On the contrary, other electoral systems can also be seen to reduce participation. For instance, STV is too complicated and requires a high level of political education, as the voters have to know about all the candidates, in order to effectively vote for the right candidate. This can make voters not want to vote, as they haven’t got the time to research into the candidates, or it results in ‘donkey-voting’, in which voters only vote for the candidate they have heard about before or the rest are voting for. Both scenarios reduce the state of UK democracy. Alongside this, AMS may also reduce participation as smaller parties achieve less representation, which can also discourage voters. For example, in Wales where the small number of top-up seats has advantaged Labour, the SNP has been the dominant part since 2007, running a majority government in 2011-16. FPTP has also been used in the Westminster for a very long time, and therefore the public are aware of how the system works and so it is easier and less confusing to use. Overall, despite FPTP producing a number of wasted votes, it can be seen to not reduce participation, as a change in the electoral system would only create less of a turnout and would discourage further voters.

Lastly, a change to the FPTP system can also enhance democracy as it will remove the ‘two-party system’ that currently exists in the UK. For instance, if FPTP is removed then there would not be any ‘safe seats’ and the seats can be more proportioned according to votes. For example, the Thanet South, Kent seat, has only ever been Conservative in 1983, 1987 and 1992 or Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005, in every general election. The fact that the only two parties that have won that seat are the Conservative and Labour party, illustrate how the UK system is dominated by only two parties, which FPTP allows. On the other hand, STV is extremely proportional as mentioned previously, and this will allow for there to be a clear representation of all the voters, as well as allowing for smaller parties to be able to compete for a place in government and for more seats. Therefore, a change to the FPTP system used in Westminster would not only get rid of the two-party system, but will also help enhance UK democracy this way.

However, other voting systems would not break the two-party system and in fact won’t be able to enhance democracy in the UK. For example, SV would not break the two-party system because 50% of the votes are needed in order for a candidate to secure government, and therefore minority parties will not be able to reach the 50% target. As a result, the minority parties are only excluded from the chance to win government as it will most likely always be the larger parties who will have a chance of reaching the 50% target, therefore the two-party system is only solidified. For example, in the 2016 London Mayoral Elections, it was the Labour party, Sadiq Khan, and the Conservative party, Zac Goldsmith, that managed to reach a high number of votes of 44% for Labour and 35% for Conservative. The other parties such as, the Green party, received nearly 6% of the votes, and this was the third highest percentage. This shows how an SV would only solidify a two-party system. Therefore, although FPTP also encourages a two-party system, a change to the electoral system won’t improve UK democracy by that much.

 

In conclusion, despite FPTP having many disadvantages that can be seen to undermine UK democracy, the other systems such as AMS, STV, SV and the Party List system, also undermine democracy. Overall, a change to the Westminster electoral system will not enhance UK democracy, as FPTP has been a system that has allowed for the UK to be democratic so far, and therefore, there already is and enhancement in democracy.

Rejmonda Gashi

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