The Campaign for Electoral Reform Begins here…

Time to get political… (it was always going to happen)

This is the last weekend of the 2010 general election campaign.  It has been a fascinating few weeks for UK politics – the big story being (whether you happen to like him or not) Nick Clegg’s game changing appearances in the parliamentary leaders debates.

Before that, the Lib Dems polled around 20% of the vote – after the first debate, they polled around 30% and frequently find themselves in second place. Clegg’s public exposure transformed him an also ran and the butt of endless “the other one” jokes on “Have I Got News For You”, to a recognisable, genuine, credible candidate for office.

Fig 1 - Trends in the polls around the First leaders debate (central vertical marker) (Screenshot from BBC news website.)

Shortly after the first leaders debate, the BBC poll aggregator, a.k.a “Poll of Polls”, showed that:

  • Conservative 37% > 33%
  • Labour 31% > 29%
  • Lib Dems 21% > 29%
  • Others 11% > 9%

So whilst the Lib Dems took most votes from the Conservatives (perhaps those voting Conservative because they simply did not want to vote Labour, and hadn’t previously seen the Lib Dems as a credible alternative), they did gain from both sides of the political spectrum. With this levelling of the political playing field, you might assume that we’d have a hung Parliament – and you’d be right. But not in a good way.

Let us assume that the percentages of the “popular vote” – I.e votes cast for individual parties – in the election is 30:30:30:10 (Tory,Labour,LibDem,Others). In a democracy, you might assume that the numbers of elected representatives might be evenly split in a political debating chamber.

However, you might be surprised to learn that we do not live in a democracy (and I don’t mean this in a tin foil hat conspiracy sort of way).

Plugging these numbers in to the BBC news poll predictor (fig2) reveals that an even split of the vote results in a distinctly uneven split of MPs.

Fig 2 - House of Commons Seat prediction based upon a 30:30:30:10 split of the popular vote (Screenshot from BBC news website)

Note – there are a few caveats one needs to be aware of using such predictive tools – the first being that apparently the UK has a population of 100.1%. The second being that a major assumption of these tools is that the changes in vote are evenly spread across all constituencies.

Anyway, as you can see, an even split in the popular vote leads to a house of commons consisting of 31.8 % Tory, 48.3 % Labour, 15% Liberal Democrat and 4.4% others. There is no way that this can be seen as anything approaching fair and democratic.

The current “first past the post” system is clearly an anathema to reason and fairness.

Proportional representation – the way ahead?

The proportional representation (PR) system directly links the number of representatives per party to their portion of the popular vote. Clearly, a much more democratic and fair system.

If we assume 650 MPs, and divy up the MPs as per the 2005 election results (taken from this pdf – table on page 92) this is what PR would have given us in 2005:

%age pop. vote
PR Seats
FPTP Seats Change
Labour 35.20% 229 335 -106
Tory 32.40% 211 198 13
Lib Dem 22.00% 143 62 81
UKIP 2.20% 14 0 14
Scottish 1.50% 10 6 4
Green 1.00% 7 7
DUP 0.90% 6 9 -3
BNP 0.70% 5 5
Plaid 0.60% 4 3 1
SinnFein 0.60% 4 5 -1
UDP 0.50% 3 1 2
SDLP 0.50% 3 3 0
Independent 0.40% 3 3
Respect 0.30% 2 1 1
SSP 0.20% 1 1
Veritas 0.10% 1 1
Alliance 0.10% 1 1
No Description 0.10% 1 1 0
SLP 0.10% 1 1
Liberal Party 0.10% 1 1
Ind – Kidderminster 0.10% 1 1 0
Speaker 0.10% 1 1 0
English Democrats 0.10% 1 1
Socialist Alternative 0.03% 1 1

(note – percentage figures from the original table were rounded to 1 d.p)

(PR seats = number of seats based upon proportion of popular vote. FPTP seats = actual seats after 2005 general election.)

So, what can we infer from this?

  1. The incumbent party has most to lose from implementation of PR – which is probably why it hasn’t happened yet.
  2. Fringe parties are better able to get representation in the house of commons – this is often touted by the major parties as a good reason to not implement PR. As we can see, the BNP would gain 5 seats in the house of commons – now, I find the BNP abhorrent, a vile, blinkered, nationalist party that prey on the unfounded fears of certain sections of society. However, if ~192,000 people choose to vote for them, a true democracy requires that their voices are heard in the political arena.
  3. The Northern Irish parties seem to fare badly – I suspect that this may be because there are fewer inhabitants per constituency in N.I than on average.

However, despite these caveats, a political system based upon the principles of PR would be fair and democratic.

In order to allow efficient governance within a PR-based parliament, a coalition system would seem to be a fairly good way of achieving a workable majority in any legislative assembly. The major three parties still hold the balance of power, (583 out of 650 seats) but would have to ally with each other and work together to help push legislation through (either permanently or for certain issues). The smaller parties account for the remaining 67 seats.

The more right wing block of UKIP + BNP + English Democrats +Veritas would have 21 seats between them and whilst this is representation in the house of commons, it is not going to be sufficient to effect major change to the UK’s policies, certainly in isolation. They would have to ally with a major party or two to get legislation implemented, and one might hope that this would prevent more radical policies getting into law. So those that like to infer that PR leads to adoption of radical policies are almost certainly wrong.

The clutch of smaller left wing  parties would not fare as well (>10 seats), but then as 2 of the main 3 parties can claim to be centre-left, this sort-of balances out.

The fact that the seats are more spread across the parties means that lobbying on a party basis will be less effective, and should make the UK parliament more resistant to interference from vested interests *cough* Murdoch *cough*.

There is no doubt that there would need to be a major change in how politics is done in the UK, which IMHO is a good thing. Keeping the status quo because change is difficult or uncertain is not a good reason to not implement change, especially when it results in a fairer, more democratic system.

I think that this quick analysis of the vote and the effect that proportional representation would have on the house of commons effectively dispels some of the scaremongering that the major parties (i.e. those with most to lose) like to indulge in. Cooperation between parties would have to become more commonplace, which would hopefully lead to more legislation which effectively deals with concerns on both sides of the political divide, and in turn leads to a system of governance that better represents the views of the people. Which is kind of what democracy is all about, innit?

Interestingly, the wooden spoon in the 2005 election went to the “Telepathic alliance” with 34 votes.  <obvious joke> You’d think they’d have clairvoyance enough to stay at home and not waste their deposit. </obvious joke>

One Response to The Campaign for Electoral Reform Begins here…

  1. […] a PR system would have meant on Thursday night. Yes – electoral reform is on the cards. I blogged about this a week or so ago, and whilst it is a fair system, it does have caveats, albeit small […]

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