This post is for election nerds. If politics or statistics leave you cold, read no further. If, however, you want to try to understand how it is that supposedly democratic elections so often fail to produce a satisfactory outcome, read on.
In May 2015 the voters of the UK made their choice. 37% of them placed their ‘X’ against a candidate of the Conservative Party. Almost 13% placed their ‘X’ against the name of someone representing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Yet the Conservatives hold 331 of the seats in the new Parliament (51%) whilst UKIP holds just one seat.
The reason? Britain uses a system of voting known as First Past the Post (FPTP). In each electoral area the individual with most votes is the one deemed elected. So if there are a large number of candidates it is quite possible for someone to be declared the winner with fewer than 30% of the total votes cast in that area. A great deal, therefore, depends on the demographics of each electoral area. Across the United Kingdom there are electoral areas (called constituencies) where there is a tradition of voting for one or other of the two main parties which, broadly speaking, represent either working class values (Labour) or middle class aspirations (Conservative). This gives rise to two important effects:
- In most constituencies the outcome is predictable, therefore a vote for any other candidate can be seen as a ‘wasted vote’, having no impact on the overall result.
- In the relatively small number (about 15%) of constituencies where the demographic is mixed, the result could go either way. Therefore all parties concentrate their campaigning efforts on these ‘marginal’ areas. Electors in these constituencies are the ones with the power to determine who governs.
These discrepancies, between share of vote and seat share, suggest that UK elections are far from truly democratic, since the result is nearly always a government with minority electoral support. It is this fact that has made me a lifelong advocate of Proportional Representation, a system of elections that ensures the share of seats in the parliament matches the share of votes cast. It is important to understand that there are several such systems in use around the world, none of which is precisely proportional. All do, however, produce a result closer to the expressed wish of the electorate than does FTTP.
The system I have always favoured goes by the cumbersome title of ‘Single Transferable Vote in Multi-member Constituencies’, STV for short. Constituencies are larger than present UK constituencies – that is to say they have a larger population. Each enlarged constituency returns three or more representatives to parliament. Voters place candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper, listing them 1, 2, 3, etc., rather than marking with a ‘X’. In doing so, they are, in effect answering two supplementary questions after ‘which candidate would you like to represent you?’:
- ‘If he or she gets more votes than he or she needs, who else would you like to represent you’, and
- ‘If he or she doesn’t get enough votes, which of the remaining candidates would you choose?’
That’s the system in operation in Ireland. On February 26th this year an election was held in Ireland. And it revealed the problem inherent in the system. Fine Gael, the party with most votes, received just 25.5% of the votes cast. In second place, Fianna Fail received 24.3%. In other words, the 2 main parties, bitterly opposed to each other, could not muster 50% of the vote between them. Of the rest, only Sinn Fein received more than 10%. Two months after the election, Ireland still does not have a government. And it remains unclear if the parties will be able to agree on a minority administration any time soon, or if there will need to be another election, the outcome of which could well be no more conclusive.
Do I still favour proportional representation? Yes, because democracy demands it. But it is clear that FTTP is better able to produce stable government. In either case, those granted the honour of representing the people ought to pay attention to the underlying level of support for their particular viewpoint. They should not assume that they can implement every policy contained in their manifesto despite the obvious unpopularity of some of those policies. They must be willing to seek compromises, rather than arrogantly asserting the superiority of their own ideology.
Do you have experience of different electoral systems? I would especially welcome an explanation of the system in use in the USA in the current Presidential election.