Posted by Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson
One possible explanation of declining voter turnout in recent UK elections, and of the movement for voters to support smaller parties, is that voters are unhappy with the unfairness or disproportionality of the British voting system at general elections. The UK has seen historically high levels of disproportionality in how votes are reflected in Parliamentary seats, as the “first past the post” method of counting votes fails to adapt to the electorate wanting to back more and more parties over time.
The general voting system (also used for local councils in England and Wales) is a very ancient and now rather primitive system, dating back to mediaeval times when techniques for counting were very crude. As many candidates as wish to can stand in 650 constituencies, mainly representing parties but with a scattering of independents. In each local area, the candidate with most votes wins. Winners do not need to get a majority of votes (i.e. 50 per cent +1) to win. They only need to get a plurality of votes – i.e. one more vote than anyone else has got. So with more and more parties contesting elections, MPs will very often be elected with far less than majority support in their area – indeed most MPs in 2005 had only 35 to 49 per cent support locally.
The system has survived so long because it favours the top two parties, who pile up most votes in their ‘safe’ areas – Labour in inner cities and industrial regions, and the Tories across the south-east and eastern England. It heavily discriminates against the Liberal Democrats and against other, smaller parties like UKIP, the Greens and the BNP, who all get appreciable levels of support across the country as a whole, but find it harder to build up a top of the poll position in particular local areas. The Liberal Democrats have begun to do better in regions like south-west England against the Tories and in some urban areas against Labour, but are still under-represented. In Scotland the SNP and in Wales Plaid Cymru have suffered less, gaining some seats in particular areas.
The main orthodox measure of unfairness is called ‘deviation from proportionality’ (the DV score)- it shows what percentage of MPs in Parliament are not entitled to be there in terms of their party’s national vote share. The lower the score, the more representative the assembly is. We have calculated DV scores for elections in the UK since 1992, and it is clearly far higher in all general elections (shown in red below) than it is in the proportional representation elections (shown in green below).
The minimum practical DV score is around 4 per cent – however, accurately any system allocates seats in relation to votes it is almost impossible to do better than this. But as you can see from the chart, the last three DV scores for UK general elections (shown in red) are more than five times this number. This pattern looks certain to repeat in 2010 – with one in every five MPs not justified in terms of their party’s national share of the vote.
What is more, British voters now know that the general election system is severely disproportional – because they have extensive experience of proportional representation systems used in the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly. The Figure above shows that the most recent London and Scottish elections were around twice as fair as general elections in terms of matching parties’ seats to their overall vote shares.
A second way of looking at DV scores is to think about how fair or unfair the general election system seems to be in allocating votes at the regional level – how do voters experience the system as fair or unfair in the area where they live? Because both Tories and Labour gain from the current voting system in different parts of the country, these two biases offset each other in the national DV scores. If we look at regional level DV then we get rid of this obscuring effect and as the diagram below shows the level of unfairness that voters experience varies far more markedly. In 2005 4 out of every 10 votes in Yorkshire and Humberside and the North East region were converted into Labour seats at the expense of other parties’ representation – and DV scores in all but three regions were well above the national DV score. DV is most marked in Wales and the North where levels are typically over 35 per cent. London and the South East are somewhat better in their proportionality, but levels are still over 20 per cent.
Even these regional DV numbers do not show quite how grossly unfair the UK’s system has become in an era of multi-party politics, however. The DV score looks as if it should run to a maximum at 100 per cent – but in fact we would only get such a result if gave all the seats in Parliament to a party with no votes, which of course would not be a liberal democracy at all!
Our solution here is a much better version of the DV score which says that the limit of a country being a liberal democracy at all occurs when the largest party gets 100 per cent of all seats. In other words the maximum feasible amount of ‘false’ representation there can be is 100 per cent minus the largest party’s vote share (which it has won fairly). This measure is called “Alternative DV” (the ADV score) and it does run from 0 to 100 per cent as a good index should. What the ADV score shows is how far along a country or region is to not being a liberal democracy at all in terms of allocating seats to the ‘wrong’ party in terms of overall vote shares.
The diagram below shows the ADV scores for all regions in Great Britain, compared with the DV scores. And the picture of disproportionality painted here becomes very worrying indeed:
In 2005 Yorkshire and Wales were dangerously close to not being liberal democracies at all, and other areas in northern England are not very far behind them. In fact, the entire country, save for the South West had an adjusted DV score of over 50 per cent – more than half-way to not being a liberal democracy at all.
Seen this light it is perhaps unsurprising that voters are turning away from the major parties whenever they get an opportunity to vote in proportional representation elections. For instance, in 2009 (less than a year ago) the Conservatives and Labour took only 43 per cent of the vote in the European elections Parliament elections. Far fewer voters will support other parties besides the big 3 in the May 2010 general election, because they know that doing so risks ‘wasting’ their vote. But many citizens will also not turn out to vote at all, partly because they correctly identify the voting system as skewed towards artificially boosting Tory and Labour MPs representation.
The implications of this clash between an out-of-date voting system (designed only for 2-party politics) and an electorate with increasingly diverse multi-party loyalties is that electoral reform is once again on the agenda of British politics. In a report published for the British Academy this month, LSE professor Simon Hix and his co-authors argue that:
‘If a country has a multiparty system, single-member constituencies tend to lead to unrepresentative parliaments. And, if seat-shares in parliament do not correspond closely to vote-shares in the election, this usually leads to disproportional representation in government: where the party which forms the government has less than 50 per cent of the support of the electorate and, as a result, might be some distance either to the left or to the right of the average voter’.*
In 2005 Labour secured a third term in government with less than 36 per cent of the British voters backing them, that is, the positive endorsement of just 21 per cent of British citizens. All the indications so far are that the next British government in May 2010 will have an equally defective basis in popular support.
*The British Academy report, Choosing an Electoral System, was prepared by Simon Hix, Ron Johnston and Ian Maclean with research assistance from Angela Cummine.
Electoral systems are the set of rules that structure how votes are cast at elections for a representative assembly and how these votes are then converted into seats in that assembly. Given a set of votes, an electoral system determines the composition of the parliament (or assembly, council, and so on as the case may be). Not only do theses electoral systems vary across the world but they are also, in many countries, the subject of fierce political debate and argument. Gallagher, M. & Mitchell (2006) argue that electoral systems are a crucial link in the chain connecting the preferences of citizens to the policy choices made by governments. In order to determine the main advantages and disadvantages of both majoritarian and proportional government within electoral systems it is vital that we discuss the founding principles of each and how each version within both (eg, Majoritarian- First Past The Post, Alternative Vote and Second Ballot System and Proportional-Single Transferable Vote, Additional Member System and Party-list System) is practiced throughout politics and elections.
There are two main basic systems in regards to parliamentary electoral systems. The first being, majority election system and second being proportional representative electoral system. Majority electoral systems include, first past the post (FPTP). FPTP is used most commonly in countries that are, or at one point were, British Colonies. FPTP is primarily used to elect Members of Parliament to the House of Commons and for local elections in England and Wales. General elections in the UK are carried out using this single member plurality system: FPTP. In order to win a constituency must win more votes than any other candidates.
‘Majoritarian systems are usually thought to be at their weakest when they are evaluated in terms of their representation functions’ (Haywood, A. 2013). Haywood argues that one of the main disadvantages of majority electoral systems being implemented is the limited spread of representation. As with this system there only needs to be one vote between the winner and the candidate in second place. Therefore it does not necessarily have to be an overall majority. By using FPTP it is not usual to find that runner up has just fallen short of the winner. For example in the 1992 General Election, the winner party was Liberal Democrats with 26% of the vote and Labour falling short with (25%) of the vote. (UK Polling Report). Another example being, in the General Election 2010, the Conservative party gained 47% of the parliamentary seats with only 36% of the vote, Labour gained 40% of the seats with only 29% of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats gained a only 9% of the seats despite having 23% of the vote. The 1997 Election also demonstrates FPTP in its weakest form as even though the Conservatives gained a reasonable level of votes (18%) in Scotland, they did not gain one seat in parliament.
Arguable the most advantageous feature of FPTP is how simple it is to carry out. This system is renowned for its simplicity as the voters simply indicate their vote by putting a cross in the box next to their chosen candidate’s name. The candidate with the most votes is then declared the winner of the constituency and the party with the most MP’s is declared the winner of the election. However, due to the absence of complications, if the winning party get less than half of the MP’s in parliament, it can experience problems in regards to passing bills as the opposition party are likely to have more members and could in such events, vote against them. As the system is so simplistic, it is not very time consuming and votes can be counted very easily and the winner can be informed instantly.
The Second Ballot system is used traditionally in France. This system uses two ballots to ensure that the winning candidate receives the majority of the votes, hence why the system is called Majoritarian. This process slightly differs from FPTP as it consists of two ballots, not one. The first ballot is used to eliminate those candidates who have the least votes and then second is used to differentiate between the two remaining candidates to see who will be the overall winner- the person with over 50% of the votes in the second ballot. In some cases, if one candidate is sufficiently popular a second ballot will not be needed. (Robinson, C. (2010))
The purpose of Majoritarian Electoral Systems, are generally to elect with a majority of votes in the constituency. The Second Ballot system is a single member constituency. Under this system, it ensures that the winner has a majority of the votes cast and the proportion of seats granted in parliament to the winner candidates reflects the votes they received in the election. (Robinson, C. (1998)) The Second Ballot System can be viewed as a advantage as it ensures that the candidates that are elected earn their position with a majority vote. REF MORE THAN ONE Many argue that this system is easy for the voters to understand as it is considered a ‘run off’ contestant which enables it to be comprehended easily. Voters can also have another say, even if their original voted candidate has been eliminated, which is thought to be an advantage, as the voters can have another say due to their two votes, therefore, even if their original voted candidate has been eliminated. Another advantage would be that under this system a candidate must win over 50% of the votes in order to be elected which encourages each individual candidate to make their electoral appeal as wide as possible in order to win the votes of more citizens across the country. However, with every advantage comes disadvantages. Due to the use of two votes, the process is prolonged. This wait inbetween the two rounds of voting can sometimes lead to voters switching allegiances as their first preferred candidates in the first round may be eliminated before the second round. It is quite common for the former forerunner in the first ballot to lose in the second ballot, due to the shift in support for candidates in the period between.
Proportional representation (PR) is used in Scotland. It is the alternative to FPTP as this system attempts to share out the seats available in parliament in proportion to the number of votes received in that election (Parliament UK). There are many different forms of proportional representation. The first is Additional member systems. This is a hybrid system which allows people to have a local constituency MSP and also add other member to make the overall result more proportional. As AMS is described as ‘hybrid’ it advantages minorities as for more viewpoints can be represented in parliament. Many argue that this system has its benefits the voters. Haywood (2013) argues that the votes casted are less likely to be wasted. This is due to voters having more choice as smaller parties can put forward more candidates and then they are more likely to have someone elected due to the second vote for a party. Through this system, extremist parties are avoided. In 2011, Scotland had a coalition government which means the party have to co-operate with each other, so there is a negotiation and agreement about the policies introduced. The wide range of parties in the Parliament reflect the country more accurately making it more representative. Women and minorities are more likely to be elected because the parties are more likely to be elected because the parties put forward their list of candidates in order of preference, so voters are not electing specific individual against whom they may be prejudiced. Evidence shows that under this system 34% of women are elected in to Scottish Parliament and under FPTP at West Minister only 18%.
The Additional Member system, gives a fairer result. As the 2007 election for the Scottish Parliament demonstates the overall use of AMS gives a proportional truly democratic result within its seats. One of arguably the main advantages of this system is that many view points can be represented in parliament as each voter gets to two opportunities to vote. Their first votes would be for their preferred constituency MP and the second is cast for a party, which may be different from their initial supported party. (Robinson, C. 1998))