Should our voting system be different?
This is a significant question at the moment when discontent in the government and our party system is particularly high. A different voting system would shift the dynamic between voters and parties.
Currently, for general elections in the UK, we use the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. This is a majoritarian system that elects one MP from each constituency to Westminster and the largest party majority forms the government.
However, proportional representation (PR), used in several countries including France, Germany and Sweden, works slightly differently. Although there are different variants of PR, they all have the same premise that the number of votes directly correlates to the number of seats for the party.
For decades, smaller parties have argued that FPTP is unfair as they may win a decent number of votes, but it never translates to seats as they are not concentrated in one area. Therefore, they would get more representation in parliament if they had a PR system.
In 2022, the National Centre for Social Research found that half the population wants electoral change, and this has become a clear majority among Labour supporters, showing a growing discontent within the electorate about the voting system. Therefore, this recent pushback against the current status quo from both smaller parties and voters suggests that they believe it would be more democratic to use a PR system.
There are definite upsides to having a PR system. These systems give smaller parties and monitories more of a chance to gain votes. This is arguably more democratic because people can elect representatives that reflect their views more closely as well as have a more diverse array of MPs.
However, allowing smaller parties into parliament poses the threat of more extremist parties gaining power. UKIP for example won 3.8 million votes in 2015, more than the Liberal Democrats. They only won one singular seat, however, due to the FPTP system. In a more proportional system, this would definitely have been a different story. Therefore, it is much easier for extremist parties to gain seats in a PR system. Therefore, while having smaller parties accepted into parliament has advantages and reflects the will of the electorate more closely, it does pose the risk of allowing extremist parties to have more power and access a greater platform to share their ideas.
I think one of the biggest creators of apathy amongst the electorate in the UK is the idea of wasted votes created by the FPTP system. As it is a winner-take-all system, if the party that someone voted for does not win in that constituency, those votes are effectively wasted. This creates a lot of tactical voting because people believe there is no point in voting for the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party because they could never win in their constituency. Even though people may agree with their policies and manifestos more than the main two parties, they feel they shouldn’t vote for them because this would be a waste of their votes.
Alistair Cambell (ex-communications and strategy advisor to Tony Blair) illustrated this point when he said that a vote for the Lib Dems would only serve to help the Conservatives in the next general election. Therefore, having this two-party system dominated by the Conservatives and Labour creates a feeling of apathy amongst the electorate.
The FPTP system is failing to utilise everyone’s vote and this is at the core of what democracy is. Moving to a PR system would help to ensure all votes are used and reflected, and so would reduce the democratic deficit seen from wasted votes and tactical voting.
There is also the notion that FPTP creates more stable governments because most of the time they are majority single-party governments. PR on the contrary tends to create more coalition governments, which are seen as weaker governments because there has to be a compromise of viewpoints, often leading to nobody getting the policy they want. However, this has been disputed by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, which stated that “first past the post is no more guaranteed to deliver a stable government than other electoral systems. Since 2010, the UK has spent more time under coalition or minority government (7 years and 6 months) than single-party majority government (5 years and 7 months)”. Therefore, this argument is almost null and void.
However, the implementation of PR would be a very complicated process. All British institutions are designed to be run under the current conditions of FPTP. The electorate would also need to understand that the system and PR systems are notoriously complicated and often ask the voter to rank candidates or parties rather than just putting one of their choices forward. Therefore, to increase the democratic value of the voting system by changing to a PR system, there would need to be many practical considerations beforehand.
Overall, while I do think there is a lot to consider about how our current system is not serving the people, this could be majorly adapted by the implementation of a PR system. However, this needs to be done with care to get the best outcome possible.