n May the 7th 2015 Britain will go to the polls to decide which bunch of politicians will get to run around Number 10 for the next five years. However what is on the ballot paper and how those votes are counted is a deciding factor in who comes out on top. Perhaps it’s time to ditch First Past the Post (FPTP) in favour of something a little fairer and more proportional.
By Matt Smith
|Scotland the brave! And the democratic! Less catchy I know… (Photo: Jason Bennion)
The FPTP system has been used in the UK for centuries, but despite numerous reforms it has remained largely the same, and to the public, it has become as familiar as the concept of elections themselves. There are many reasons for its longevity; it normally creates a strong, stable government, and the constituency-MP link is widely regarded as a fundamental part of the UK parliament. However despite its advantages, many believe the FPTP system is as deeply flawed as the Poll Tax, and I have to say I count myself amongst that number.
One of the main advantages often cited in defence of FPTP is that it creates strong, stable often single-party governments, and this allows said government to pass its legislation. (Albeit by forcing it through using its majority *cough* tuition fees*cough*). However, strong government is not always as rosy as its supporters would like us to believe. In 1976, Lord Halisham made the term “elective dictatorship” famous, using it to describe the executives’ dominance over parliament. And it is this theory of an “elective dictatorship” that debunks the principle of strong government over fair government for me.
There are a number of other points used to shield FPTP from the abuse it regularly receives and I would love to spare the time/word count to debunk and defy as many as I can. However that is for another article; for now, I intend to swoop in in defence of PR (well, some of it) like the masked superhero of electoral theory.
There are many types of PR (Proportional Representation) systems that exist, (the Electoral Reform Society has some great summaries). However, I’m going to focus on my favourite of the bunch: the Additional Member System (AMS).
|A sample Scottish ballot paper;
maybe I should move there…
(Photo: The Telegraph)
AMS is a hybrid system employing aspects of both FPTP and PR; the simplest way to think about it is by studying a ballot. AMS ballots have two columns, and voters each receive two votes, one in each column. The first column contains the details of local constituency candidates – every voter gets to vote for one of these candidates and the one with the highest share of the votes wins that seat, exactly like in FPTP.
The place where AMS gets to work its democratic magic is in the second column. Here voters choose a national party list (a list of candidates compiled by the national parties). The votes for each list are then counted nationally, and extra seats are given to each party according to their share of the vote, and how many seats they already have. This ensures that the number of seats each party is left with is directly linked to the number of votes they received, it is proportional.
This system has a number of great advantages, and manages to do away with many of the traditional cons associated with PR. For example there is the argument that PR lends support to extremist parties. Whilst it is undeniably true that AMS does level the playing field between the national parties and their smaller counterparts, (which are often, but not always, the more radical ones) the system contains one key element that prevents any takeover by parties with extremist agendas. This kryptonite of the radicals is the way in which the ratio of “additional members” elected via the second column on the ballot to standard MPs can be controlled, adding more additional members or reducing them. Whilst this does limit the proportionality and therefore the inherent fairness of any PR system, it does prevent extremist parties gaining too many seats, and thus quashing the claims that a PR system would lead to an extremist group like the Nazi party of Weimar Germany gaining power through a legitimate election.
|The Electoral Reform Society’s view of the 2010 election, comparing results under MMP aka AMS with FPTP.
(Source: Electoral Reform Society)
This feature of AMS is also helpful for those amongst us who think coalitions are ineffective, weak, and generally not a good way to run a country (if this is you, see one of my earlier articles to be thoroughly disagreed with). The limiting of proportionality in AMS increases the chances of a single party government being elected, and the best part (or worst, depending on whether you like purer democracy or efficient government) is that the limitation doesn’t have to be all that large. Scotland uses AMS to elect MSPs to the Scottish parliament, and believe it or not, they currently have a single party government, the SNP, yet have 56 of their 129 seats allocated to “Additional members”. What this shows is that single party governments, if they’re your thing, can be elected under AMS; and it becomes somewhat ironic when our FPTP system, vaunted for its ability to produce single party governments, produces a coalition at a time when a form of PR produces a single party as winner.
The FPTP element of AMS also maintains the constituency – MP link that is so highly regarded by so many. This means that constituents always have someone to represent them and to take their case to Parliament if needs be. In fact AMS improves upon this link. Additional members provide an alternative representative for citizens living in a region to take their case to; this is especially apparent if the constituency MP is from a different party to the additional member, as the additional member may hold views more sympathetic to the constituent’s case, or vice versa.
Proportionality in an electoral system leads to an increase in the presence of smaller parties in Parliament leads to an increase in the number of people who feel, and who are, represented throughout the country. This leads to a dramatic rise in the ability of Parliament to scrutinise the government, whilst still allowing said government to pass its legislation. Greater scrutiny prevents an “elective dictatorship” and means that governments cannot target one section of society, as many would say the previous government has.
Underlining all this is my belief that government should be representative of society, but not a slave to it. AMS fulfils this; it maintains constituency – MP links and improves upon them, it creates a Parliament that is more representative of the society it serves, it creates a government that has the support of a large portion of society, the list goes on, and I’d love to, but I’ve ranted for long enough. I think it’s pretty clear, I support AMS as an alternative electoral system to FPTP more than I support a reduction in tuition fees (an entirely different ball game…), and I firmly believe that the UK under AMS would be fairer, more efficient and therefore a better place for each and every one of us.
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