Politics

This is the 'most disproportionate parliament in history'. Has the time come for electoral reform?

Labour secured 64% of seats with just under 34% of the votes. Is first-past-the-post still fit for purpose?

Our electoral system privileges some parties over others. Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons, Liberal Democrats / Flickr, Green Party

Labour won the election on a landslide. Or did it? 

The new parliament is the “most disproportional in history,” the Electoral Reform Society has declared.

Labour secured 64% of seats (412) with just under 34% of the votes. Meanwhile, Reform UK and the Green Party clinched just nine seats (just over 1%) between them, with more than 20% of the vote share combined.

The result – described by ERS’s head of policy Jess Garland as “extremely skewed” – has prompted calls for electoral reform.

“This election is the consolidation of trends that have been emerging for a decade or so,” said Jess Garland, ERS’s head of policy.  “This is first-past-the-post (FPTP) behaving very bizarrely, it is not set up to deal with an increase in multi-party voting, or increased voter volatility… reform is urgently needed.”

ERS are calling for a more proportional system to produce a “fairer” outcome. But not everyone agrees.

“We’ve just voted out a government that most people hated,” said Louise Thompson, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. “A first-past-the-post system means we can do that really cleanly and decisively.”

So, is it time to reform our electoral system? The experts weigh in.

What is first-past-the-post?

Under FPTP, the UK is divided into 650 constituencies. In each of these electorates, the candidate who receives the most votes becomes the local MP.

This is how Labour won 64% of seats (412) with just under 34% of the votes – in 412 seats, it fielded the most popular candidate.

A party-cum-business like Reform UK has a big national support base, but only elected a few MPs, because these supporters are spread out across the country. Reform came second in a lot of constituencies, but only came first in five, hence its five Westminster MPs. The Liberal Democrats received fewer votes than Reform – polling at about 12% nationally, compared to 14% – but got 72 seats. This is because their vote share is concentrated in a few geographical areas.

Proportional representation (PR), by comparison, is an electoral system designed to allocate seats in proportion to the votes each party receives. There are many different types, but broadly speaking, all aim to reflect the overall distribution of public support for each political party. With 34% of the votes, Labour would get roughly 34% of the seats.

“A broader spectrum of beliefs are represented,” said Garland. “From a democratic standpoint, you shouldn’t have a system that’s designed to privilege any party over any other.”

If we had an Additional Member System of proportional representation – the type used in the Scottish and Welsh parliament – our elected chamber would look very different.

Labour would have 220 MPs, the Conservatives would have 154, and Reform UK would have 93. The Lib Dems would have 79, and the Greens would have 44.

It is, perhaps, an unsettling vision for centrists: a parliament spread broadly along the political spectrum.

“I think these results will reinforce in people’s minds the need for reform,” said Nigel Farage, referring to his party’s five MP tally.

FPTP has been characterised as a bulwark against extreme ‘fringe’ voices; under PR, the far-right Reform would certainly have more parliamentary clout. But blocking political agendas from electoral representation doesn’t make them go away, Garland said.

“If you have a growing political movement that is kept out of mainstream politics, and doesn’t get seats, then sometimes that agenda grows outside of Parliament,” she said.

“Look back to 2015, when UKIP got a huge number of votes but just one MP. Their agenda didn’t go away, we ended up having the referendum on the EU, which has dominated ever since.”

Would electoral reform lead to instability?

Historically, another key argument for first-past-the-post has been stability. By exaggerating the lead of the major parties, proponents claim, the existing system minimises the chances of a hung parliament.

Starmer needs to be able to get his policies through, the things that really matter to people,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean no scrutiny – but if he was in a minority, or was having to work with another party all the time, it could just get difficult.”

Garland rejects this ‘stability’ argument, pointing out that over the last nine years, we’ve had four general elections, a nationwide referendum and six prime ministers.

Labour and the Conservatives had received their joint lowest vote share on record at the recent election, and for the first time four parties had gained more than 10% of the vote.

“There has been a real unpredictability to results over the past 10 years,” Garland said.

“We had a coalition government in 2010. Then, in 2015, the Conservatives got a majority on a very low vote share. Then we suddenly had the Conservatives increase their vote share but lose their majority in 2017, so they went to minority government. In 2019, the Conservatives supposedly had a ‘landslide’, but that was based on just over a 1% increase in vote share. Now, Labour have the biggest ever majority on a vote-share that hardly moved.”

“So it’s up and down, and it’s really all over the shop.”

What about local representation?

If you look at the national picture, the disproportion is stark. Labour won an MP for every 24,000 votes they received, compared to one for every 49,000 for the Lib Dems, one MP for every 56,000 votes for the Conservatives, one for every 485,000 votes for the Greens and one for every 820,000 for Reform.

However, Thompson says we need to “get over our obsession” with the national vote-share. The local emphasis of FPTP is a strength, not a weakness.

“The constituency link is the foundation of our political system,” she said.

“You can go to a named MP. If you had a regional lists system (a type of proportional representation where you select multiple MPs for a larger region), and you had 12-15 MPs looking after your region, they wouldn’t have such a local commitment to your town or village. I think it’s really important that we retain that.”

“Just look at some of the results. I mean, where I am in Keithley Hill, we elected a Conservative MP. I was convinced he was going to go, but he’s been such a good local MP, so he was returned with pretty much the same majority, even as every Tory around him collapsed.”

Increasing the power of independents and small parties within parliament would be a good thing, she adds – but this can be accomplished by changing majoritarian parliamentary procedures that de facto exclude all but the main parties from sitting on committees or speaking in the chamber.

Garland agrees that local representation is important; however, she says this can be achieved under PR. The Scottish and Welsh parliaments, for example, use the additional member system of PR. you choose a constituency candidate and have a second vote for your preferred party to represent you regionally. A voter can cast both ballots for the same party or vote for different parties in your constituency and regional ballots. Regional seats are then allocated to parties on a proportional basis. 

This sort of system could work around the country, said Garland.

“PR is a normal thing. We have it in our devolved parliaments, we have it for the London assembly. All around the world, it’s a common system,” she said. “Trust is at an all time low. But a reformed system could counter growing apathy and disengagement, it could bring people in to the electoral process.”

In 2011, a referendum to alter the voting system was comprehensively defeated, with nearly 2/3 voting no to proposed changes. Nonetheless, the tide may be turning. Public backing for PR is at 45%, compared with only 26% for the current system.

“It won’t be today, it won’t be tomorrow, but someday, the government will have to look to electoral reform,” Garland said. “There’s an opportunity to make a real difference.”

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