The purpose of elections is to settle political argument without resorting to violence. The losers in an election can always know that they have lost in a democratic way and that they can always do better next time, especially if those who win do badly in power. Elections determine whom the public wants to represent them in Parliament
, but how they decide this, the electoral system, will have an influence on who wins and who loses.
Dennis Kavanagh said: “Elections lie at the heart of the democratic process; a crucial difference between democratic and non-democratic states is to be found in whether or not the hold competitive elections.” This means that in order for a country to describe itself as being truly democratic, it must hold elections.
Before the 1997 general election, Labour pledged in its manifesto to reform the electoral system. While the Labour government has been in power, it has commissioned the Jenkins Report. This was a report on electoral reform undertaken by Lord Jenkins, a peer who left Labour in 1981 and joined the Liberal Democrats. He recommended that a system known as alternative vote should be used, but Labour have not implemented his ideas into the general election system.
Recently, a number of British elections have used systems other than the first past the post system used in general elections previously. The 1999 European Parliament elections used List Proportional Representation. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Authority all use Alternative Member System and Northern Ireland use Single Transferable Vote. However, there are no plans to introduce proportional representation in local or general elections in England.
First Past the Post is a plurality system. This means that candidates win a seat in an election by simply winning more votes than anyone else in that constituency. They do not have to win over 50% of the votes, just more than the next most popular candidate does.
To vote, all a voter has to do is put a cross next to the name of the candidate they want to be elected. The voter can only vote for one candidate, and cannot make a distinction between party and candidate.
The country is divided into single member constituencies, which means each constituency has one Member of Parliament.
The system usually produces a two party government, with a few other geographically centred parties. First Past the Post is most likely to produce a large overall majority, but this is not a certainty and to win, a party usually needs large nation-wide support.
First Past the Post usually gives rise to one major party in government and one large opposition party. Therefore the cabinet is usually made up of members of only one political party and the government is stable. Although there may not be a large majority, or even a majority at all in the public’s vote, the system makes a majority in parliament. This means that voters can focus on the two major parties aspiring to be in government. Under First Past the Post there a lesser chance of a coalition government being created, so voters can concentrate on either voting for the party in power, or against them. The fact that results are usually decisive can be seen in the fact that only one coalition government has existed in Britain since the Second World War. That was in February 1974, and there was another general election in October 1974, which rectified that situation. This is unlike Proportional Representation, which usually leads to coalition governments, which are often weak, as the leaders of the main party have to seek to appease the leaders of all the other parties who they are in a coalition with.
In the First Past the Post system, Members of Parliament are more accountable to their voters as they can remove those who do not live up to expectations. An example of this can be seen with former Conservative Member of Parliament Neil Hamilton. He was the MP for Tatton South, but after allegations of sleaze regarding the cash he was paid by Mohammed Al Fayed in order for questions to be raised in Parliament, in 1997 his constituents decided they wanted to get rid of him. A by-election was held in which they voted in independent candidate Martin Bell. In some systems like List Proportional Representation, the constituents would not have been able to do this. If Neil Hamilton was a favourite of the party leader, he would have stood at the next election near the top of the party list, and may well have been re-elected into parliament.
In First Past the Post, a constituency link can be maintained, unlike in many of the Proportional Representation systems. So if a member of the public has a problem they can go and see their local MP, rather than having to send a letter to a centralised government. A constituency also makes sure that someone in power is aware of the problems in local areas and can then raise these problems in parliament.
The First Past the Post system is also the easiest to understand, which means that in a largely non-political nation such as Britain the public can understand what to do when they enter the polling booth. This is unlike systems such as Single Transferable Vote, which are very complicated to understand, and would probably lead to even lower turnouts than exist now. Single Transferrable Vote is also very complicated to count, and therefore may take a long time to determine a result. However, this can also be the case with First Past the Post (see the 2000 US General Election). Even someone who is completely illiterate can use the British electoral system, so it is more representative of the population.
However, the First Past the Post system does not adequately represent the opinions of the voting public. In a three party system, a candidate could be elected with 34% of the votes, meaning that 65% of voters do not have any kind of representation in that constituency and their vote is effectively wasted. They may as well have stayed at home on election day. In a proportional representation system, no votes are wasted, so this could encourage more people to vote.
Under this system, a party can lose an election even though it has won most of the votes nation-wide, because it has won less seats than one of its rivals. This occurred in Britain in both the 1951 and February 1974 general elections. In proportional representation systems, a party will win if it gains the most national votes. This was also seen in the 2001 presidential elections in America where Al Gore won most of the national votes, but George W. Bush won the overall election.
The First Past the Post system is very much against the third party, if one exists. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats usually do disproportionately badly because of the electoral system that we use. The First Past the Post system favours parties which have very localised support. For example in the October 1974 General Elections, the Scottish Nationalists won 2.9% of the national vote, but got 11 seats. In the same election the Liberals won 18.3% of the vote and only 13 seats. Proportional representation systems tend to favour minority parties. In the 1983 General Election it took 32,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, 40,000 to elect a Labour MP and 338,000 to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. This shows how unfair to minority parties our system is.
This system under-represents political minorities, such as Conservatives in central Manchester, Newcastle or County Durham or Labour supporters in the South East. This means that many people don’t vote for their first choice, or even at all. In proportional representation systems such as list, then where you live does not affect your party’s chances of getting in power. This also leads to voters voting against a particular party rather than for one.
Recently, voters have realised that their votes count for little in some regions, and this has led to increasing voter dissatisfaction. In the 2001 General Election only 59% of the population voted. If another system like proportional representation were introduced, then perhaps more people would turn out to the elections, because their vote would become more meaningful under a proportional representation system.
The results of General Elections do not always reflect the political opinions of the people in that country. For example, in the 1951 British General Election, the Labour party won 49% share of the votes nationally compared to the Conservatives’ 48% share. However since the Conservative party won 51% of the MPs, compared to the Labour Party, who won 47%, the Conservatives got into government. Under a proportional representation system, the government would be based on mostly Labour MPs rather than Conservatives. In the 1997 General Election the Referendum Party won 2.7% of the national vote but no seats. Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party won 2.6% of the national vote and got 10 seats.
It could be argued that because First Past the Post tends to produce very strong leadership, the Prime Minister becomes effectively an elected dictator. Under proportional representation, coalition governments are more likely to be introduced, which means that the party who Labour would be in a coalition with, probably the Liberal Democrats, would be able to object to the Labour Party’s policies with which they disagreed. This would mean that there would be less extreme policies being introduced. Recent examples, which might not have been if there had been a coalition government in place include many of Margaret Thatcher’s policies such as poll tax, which were unpopular. The Conservative Party had such a large majority in parliament; they could pass whichever laws they wanted, because even if all the other parties in parliament objected to it, they would still not have more votes than the ruling party.
Proportional representation systems have been introduced into elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish local and European elections and the Greater London Authority. They were also used at European elections in 1999. This means that the argument that British people would be unable to cope with a system of proportional representation is unfounded, as it has been used before.
In the current system, a voter is denied choice. If a voter likes a particular candidate, but not his political party, they cannot express this on the ballot paper. In a system such as additional member, a voter can vote for a candidate and a political party.
There is almost always an exaggeration of the majority of the winning party. For example in the 2001 General Election, Labour won 40.7% of the vote, but 63% of the seats. In a pure proportional representation system, then there would be no exaggeration of a party’s lead at all.
Although there are problems with our current electoral system, if a party is in power, then it must have worked for them, so they would be unlikely to change it. Also, there have been even lower turnouts in the European, Scottish, Welsh and London elections which used proportional representation than there were in General Elections, so perhaps proportional representation is too confusing for a largely non-political country. The Scottish and Welsh assemblies also both turned out badly for the Labour Party as they both led to coalition governments being formed with the Liberal Democrats. This means that Tony Blair will be unwilling to introduce another system into General Elections, because this would mean that he would probably have to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats nationally, as no party has more than 50% of the vote since 1950. Tony Blair wants to be able to make his own decisions and not have to pass them through other leaders first.
If Tony Blair were to change to a different electoral system, he would probably change to a majoritarian system like alternative vote rather than a proportional representation system. Many people also believe that Britain has enjoyed a greater degree of economic prosperity compared to European nations which use proportional representation, but this is not altogether true, as Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia all use proportional representation and have economic systems which Britain would be proud of. Although the system has been around for a long time, and could be described as being archaic, Britain is also one of the strongest democracies in the world, so why change it when no system is perfect?
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