westminster

Curious Case of comming first

We are constantly told we live in a democracy, and indeed, one of the best.

Of course, no democracy is perfect, but it seems remiss to stick to systems because of tradition rather than evaluating if they are fair or could be improved upon.

During the last parliament, the UK was offered a change to the Alternative Vote system. This was rather curious as electoral reform bodies had campaigned for many years for a change away from the First Past the Post system, yet practically no-one had suggested or campaigned for AV. It was seen to be a step in the right direction and so was backed by most electoral reformers, only for some people to opt to choose to stay with FPTP as “AV is not proportional representation, so it is no better”. The folly of the latter argument is that it has allowed parlimentarians to simply state that no-one wanted a change so it is off the agenda now.

It is worth noting that during the SNP’s 2007 minority government period, similar parlimentarians would state, ”we could not support a referendum that no-one wants and would be costly”, yet, when they returned with a majority govt, and said poll was had, it turned out it was indeed a question the public wanted to be asked.

On the initial face of things, FPTP is not that bad. Candidates stand, the one with the most votes wins. That seems fair. Of course, anyone elected for a constituency is supposed to speak for all her constituents, in practice this is impossible as nearly every mp takes a party whip and is told what to do by party HQ, not her real bosses, the electorate.

Yet this ‘constituency link’ is much loved in uk politics. Indeed some MPs are exceedingly good ‘constituency MPs’. It tends to be backbenchers and opposition MPs with little else to do.

Perhaps the ‘constituency link’ can be achieved in another way then. In Scotland, for Holyrood elections, there is a hybrid system. FPTP constituency elections, with a 2nd regional ballot, which also counts votes from constituencies. The result is you are represented by multiple MSPs of various parties, which usually means differing views within a geographical area can be aired rather than supressed.

I mentioned that FPTP initially seems fair, as the most votes wins. However, take a tight race, there could be 40,000 votes in a constituency, and plausibly the votes could be split between several candidates. The winner may receive any %, as long as it is more than any other single candidate. Say a candidate wins with 4000 votes, thats just 10%. (this example would require an absurd amount of candidates, but it is possible). This means 90% of voters voted against the winner.

Single Transferable Vote, seeks to address this issue by allowing you to order as many candidates as you like. Counting is then done in ’rounds’, with votes tallied, candidates eliminated, re-tallied, until a candidate gains more than 50% of the votes cast. This certainly addresses a question about the winning candidate having a mandate to speak for her constituency.

FPTP is further weakened when examined nationwide. It is possible for small parties to be drastically over and under represented and for majority governments to be elected with very similar vote share to another party. The 2015 General Election is prime example.

The winners attained just 36.9% of all votes cast. Some 63.1% voted against the ”winners”. The second place attained 30.4% of all votes cast, only 6.5% behind, but under FPTP, this equated to a 99 seat difference. The third largest party in seats only stood in one geographical area, in which it took nearly 50% of the vote, but crucially only 4.7% nationally. Due to FPTP, a concentrated vote share can win many seats, in this case 56, compared with the fourth party, 7.9% of votes spread out across the entire nation, for just 8 seats.

By no measure is this an appropriate apportioning of power. Yet it wil endure as it benefits those who hold the power. Most proponents of Proportional Representation advocate STV, which fans of FPTP say breaks the ‘constituency link’, as has been mentioned. The Scottish hybrid system of FPTP+Additional Member system seems to work well keeping a link and being more proportional.

No system is ever going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to improve and continue to seek to improve. Most governments seek to change constituency boundaries in the name of ‘fairness’. Even though this may be for incumbent benefit, it sets precedence that we can look to improve our democracy.

There is an additional point to note here. Abstentions. Those who took the time to register to vote, but did not. At this election, a little over 45 million people were elligible and registered to vote but only 30,691,680 cast a vote. Over 14 and a half million people did not vote. We can only speculate their reasons, much as we can for those who did vote. If we take this total figure and run through which party got what and calculate a % share of the vote, we find that the winner, who has a majority government, has a mandate to govern from just 25% of the people.

Having experienced multple election campaigns, one theme endures, parties only appeal to their core base and those who vote. There is little to no effort made to appeal to those who do not. As we saw in the Scottish Indyref, it is possible to engage voters into 80%+ turnout, if you give them reason to. It would seem uk politics leaves too many feeling left out.

As an experiment. I ran some numbers to show a parliment with empty seats. That is, each seat of the parliament is worth equal numbers of votes (with rounding). This results in all those who do not vote being represented by empty seats. In this election, the country elected just 440 MPs under this system, with no party reaching a majority.

Party Seats
Conservative Party 163
Labour Party 134
UK Independence Party 56
Liberal Democrats 35
Scottish National Party 21
Green Party 17
Democratic Unionist Party 3
Plaid Cymru 3
Sinn Féin 3
Ulster Unionist Party 2
Social Democratic & Labour Party 2
Others 5

It would certainly focus minds if there was a daily reminder that, in this case, there were 210 seats available if you could get people to the polls. (There are more people who did not vote than voted Conservative)