FPTP or PR for the UK?
Dr Pravin Jeyaraj
December 15, 2022.
With neither the Conservatives nor Labour backing a change in the UK voting system from First Past the Post to a form of Proportional Representation, Dr Pravin Jeyarara looks at the question:
With Rishi Sunak has become the third Conservative MP to be Prime Minister this year alone, unsurprisingly, all opposition parties are calling for a general election, on the basis that the pubic did not vote for Sunak, or his predecessor Liz Truss.
The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores how our constitution works.
In reality, the public do not elect the prime minister, or even the government. Under our parliamentary system, members of the public in a particular constituency vote for whom they want to represent them. There will be several candidates to be Member of Parliament (MP) in a particular constituency.
Under the current voting system, known as First Past the Post, the candidate who receives the most number of votes becomes the MP. That is fair enough. There are 650 MPs in Parliament and the Prime Minister will be the MP who has the support of the most number of other MPs.
In modern times, this means that it is the leader of the party with the most number of MPs becomes the Prime Minister.
One argument often put forward against First Past the Post (FPTP), usually by losing parties and their supporters, is that the number of seats a party has in Parliament does not reflect the proportion of votes that party received nationally (also known as national vote share).
For example, in 2019, the Conservatives and Labour won 42.4% and 40% of the national votes respectively, but the Conservatives ended up with 49% of the seats in Parliament. Labour did end up with 40% of the seats. If the Conservatives had only won 42.4% of seats, that would not have given them a parliamentary majority and given Labour the opportunity to form a majority by coalition.
Also in 2019, the Scottish National Party only had 3% of the national vote but won 5% of seats, while the Liberal Democrats won 1% of the number of seats on 7.4% of the national vote.
To be fair, national vote share is completely meaningless in a parliamentary system based on constituencies. The discrepancy between ‘national vote share’ and the number of parliamentary seats can be easily explained by the distribution of votes for a particular party amongst different constituencies.
The downside of FPTP is that it is quite possible for a candidate to become the MP for a constituency with less than 50% of the total votes cast, solely because he or she has received more votes individually than other candidates.
The solution put forward pretty much by all the smaller parties, from the Greens to Reform UK, is a proportional representative (PR) voting system. Labour has, until recently, been opposed to the idea of PR but delegates at its most recent party conference voted in favour of a motion calling for the party to back PR.
There are number of alternative voting systems, some of which are PR.
Party List Proportional Representation
In a party list approach, several MPs are elected to represent a particular constituency. Whether a voter votes for a particular party, or for a specific candidate representing that party, the party’s share of the number of seats for that constituency will be proportionate to the number of votes cast for that party. However, that will mean that not every candidate on a party list necessarily ends up as an MP. If you vote for one candidate, but that candidate doesn’t become an MP simply because of where he or she appears on a list, is your vote less equal than a candidate for the same party who is higher up on the list?
Indeed, you could end up voting for a candidate that doesn’t become an MP but another candidate, whom who you don’t like, does.
In our system of 650 seats, PR could end up with many more MPs. You could also see much larger constituencies to make up to balance the larger number of MPs per constituency against keeping a lid on the number of MPs in total. For example, when the UK was in the EU, there were 12 UK constituencies in the European Parliament. Whilst there will still be a “constituency” link, the representatives won’t necessarily be local.
Assuming that the prime minister is still the one who commands most support amongst MPs, a party list system would lead to a government that is more reflective of the way people voted as a whole. Furthermore, by having more than one MP represent a constituency, different MPs could represent different positions.
But the problem with the party list approach is that it seems to put more power in the hands of parties. And if there are party whips, it is quite possible that constituency MPs will still feel obliged to vote in Parliament according to a party line.
Single Transferable Vote
Another PR method is the single transferrable vote (STV). This can also result in multiple MPs representing a constituency.
Under a STV system, the voter ranks candidates as 1, 2, 3, etc. and can vote for any number of candidates. For a candidate to be elected, they need to receive pre-determined number of votes or quota. Once a candidate has achieved their quota, then any extra votes for that candidate can be transferred to other candidates depending on the (second) preference of the individual voter. If no-one achieves the quota, then the least popular candidate is removed and their votes are distributed amongst the other candidates according the second preferences.
If the maximum number of votes a candidate can achieve is capped, then I am not convinced that STV is particularly representative. Even if your first preference vote is for candidate A, he or she may not receive that vote if the quota has been reached. STV seems more like a form of ‘levelling down’. If it was pounds being counted instead of votes, I wonder how many people would be in favour of single transferrable pounds.
Alternative Vote / Two Round System
In my view, the Alternative Vote (AV) system represents voters much more than the STV or FPTP. Under AV, as with STV, voters rank a list of candidates. However, there is no capping on the number of votes a candidate can receive. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the first preference votes, then they are elected MP. If there is no candidate with more than 50% of first preference votes, then the least popular candidate is removed and his or her second preference votes is distributed . This carries on until one candidate has reached 50% of votes cast.
The main criticism of AV has been that the overall result isn’t as proportionate to national vote share as proponents of proportional representation would like. However, its advantage is that it allows voters to fully express how they feel about each candidate, rather than putting all their eggs in one basket. In that respect, AV is perhaps more realistic than FPTP when it comes to voter choice. MPs are backed by a broader degree of support in their constituencies.
In some countries, such as France, parliamentary elections are based on a version of AV known as Two-Round. As the name suggests, there are two rounds of voting. In the first round, voters rank the candidates and the one with 50% of the first preference votes wins. If no-one won 50% of first preference votes, then there is a second or run-off election – usually with the top two candidates.
It is often said that, in a two-round system, one votes with the heart in the first round and with the head in the second round. The same could be said to be true of AV.
Additional Member System
Perhaps one way to maintain the single representative of FPTP and add a degree of proportionality is to use the Additional Member System. This is the approach used in Greater London Authority and Scottish Parliament elections.
The main practical difference from FPTP is that the voter receives two ballot papers. On the first ballot paper, the voter puts a cross by their preferred candidate, as with FPTP. On the second ballot party, the voter puts a cross by their preferred party to indicate they want to see more MPs from that particular party in Parliament.
The candidate with the most votes from the first ballot papers becomes the MP for that constituency. That will then show many seats have been won by a particular party on the first ballot paper. Then, looking at how the whole country voted on the second ballot paper, additional MPs are added from each party to ensure their share of seats match how people voted on the second ballot paper.
I can understand the appeal of Additional Member System – it really does appear to offer more proportional representation, whilst maintaining the single constituency representative. The problem, however, is that it means a lot of MPs aren’t actually being elected by voters in constituencies but chosen by parties without any constituency link. This seems to weaken constituency representation in Parliament as well as putting the choice of ‘democratic’ representatives in the hands of large organisations.
On the other hand, if a voter doesn’t feel that their constituency MP is not providing sufficient representation, they do have a second option.
There is no perfect voting system. The right to vote is an individual right. Proportional representation doesn’t remove the right to vote but it does appear to weaken the link between individual votes and the eventual parliamentary make-up following an election. I can see why people would argue that Parliament should reflect the way people voted, given that Parliament is making decisions that affect everyone across the country.
But it seems every method to achieve this relies on some form of legitimised fiddling to the point that the number of votes cast for candidates doesn’t reflect the actual parliamentary makeup.
One could argue that this is not about FPTP versus PR; it’s about the right to vote versus the right of state-like organisations to change the vote.
© Dr Pravin Jeyaraj 2022.
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