Friday, May 8, 2015

On the British elections

If there's one thing which this week's British elections have highlighted, it's the complete inadequacy of Britain's electoral system.

Just take a look at the results below: the Scottish National Party, with a million and a half votes, has got 56 MPs, while UKIP and the Greens, with almost four million and over one million votes respectively, have only got one MP each (not that I'm unhappy about UKIP getting a bad deal). Meanwhile Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has got 8 MPs, with less than 200.000 votes.

The "first past the post" system makes sense when there are just two parties competing for power. Any more then that, and it becomes completely unfair. It makes it almost impossible for smaller parties with a nationwide appeal to get into parliament, while unduly favouring regional parties whose votes are concentrated in a single area.

Yes, it is nice for every constituency to have its own MP to represent it, but this cannot justify the system's basic unfairness. The truth is that in this and other areas, Britain would benefit from reforming the antiquated system which it has developed over the centuries, and becoming more like a normal European country.

Apart from all that, the one good thing to have come out of this election is that divisive provocateur George Galloway losing his seat in Bradford West. After his nasty campaign against Naz Shah, he really deserved it.

2015 UK elections results

Party Seats Gain Loss Net Votes Vote share (%) Change (points)
Conservative 331 38 10 28 11,334,726 36.9% 0.5
Labour 232 23 48 -25 9,347,324 30.4% 1.5
Scottish National Party 56 50 0 50 1,454,436 4.7% 3.1
Liberal Democrat 8 0 49 -49 2,415,862 7.9% -15.2
Democratic Unionist Party 8 1 1 0 184,260 0.6% 0.0
Sinn Fein 4 0 1 -1 176,232 0.6% -0.0
Plaid Cymru 3 0 0 0 181,704 0.6% 0.0
Social Democratic and Labour Party 3 0 0 0 99,809 0.3% -0.1
Ulster Unionist Party 2 2 0 2 114,935 0.4% N/A
UK Independence Party 1 0 1 -1 3,881,099 12.6% 9.6
Green 1 0 0 0 1,156,149 3.8% 2.8
Independent 1 0 2 -2 98,711 0.3% -0.2


Anna Lowenstein said...

The British had the chance to change the system when there was a referendum some time after the Lib Dems joined the coalition with the Conservatives. That was the one thing the Lib Dems particularly desired as their reward for backing the Tories. Unfortunately, by that time the public were so disgusted with the party that they voted against changing the system, maybe more to spite the Lib Dems than for any more considered reason.

The party has now been punished by the electorate for their support of the previous government. What I can't understand is why people have now apparently voted for the Conservatives, making things even worse than they were before. Or is the reason that the ones who previously voted for the Lib Dems simply haven't voted at all?

franmau said...

Lots of people who voted LibDem (and Labour) in Scotland voted SNP now.
I agree that the voting system would need some change - however the big parties are obviously against that, and therefore it is very difficult to change it.

This article however shows very well that Labours are all but a left-wing party:

It seems that the only parties with an inclusive, social and environmental view are Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru...

Tim Owen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Owen said...

No, the failure of the AV referendum had nothing to do with people's impressions of the Lib Dems, and everything to do with the press (the right-wing versions sell the most) calling it an attempt to destroy democracy and coming up with ludicrous examples of how the British National Party might end up with seats.

This front page from the Daily Mail is very typical of what it, the Times, Telegraph and the Sun were putting out at the time:

Ji Xiang said...

@tim Owne: I suppose that with a proportional system the BNP might even end up with a seat or two. That's democracy. In other democratic countries, little extremist parties getting a couple of seats in parliament is just considered to be part of life.

In the end of a day, if you are going to allow a party to stand, you are implicitly allowing it to win, and you have to accept the people's vote.

FOARP said...

It is surprising to see so many people repeating the same thing about the election, as though the result (i.e., the party which received the largest number of votes and seats forming the government - in this case more votes than any party has received at any UK election since 1997) were anything new. Labour formed a government in 2005 with far few votes (both as a percentage and in total figures) than the Conservatives received this year, but this seems to have gone without comment.

Ji Xiang said...

@FOARP: not the point. What was striking this year was the way that two parties (UKIP and the Greens) received only one seat each in return for such a large percentage of the vote, while the SNP received 56 seats after getting a similar number of votes. It really brings home the absurdity of the British electoral system.

FOARP said...

"while the SNP received 56 seats after getting a similar number of votes"

The SNP only stands in Scotland - would it make sense for it to have to run across the UK in order for it to win seat representing Scotland? FPTP has its problems, but it still maintains a link between each MP and their seat. PR on the other hand would doom us to never-ending coalition government (essentially, there would never be another government that implemented a coherent manifesto, and each manifesto would contain policies merely for the purpose of trading them away) allow in extremists, mean that there would be no way for a constituency to get rid of its MP etc.

Simply picking on the numbers of seats that UKIP and the Greens (total vote share: ~16%) won compared to the numbers of votes they received misses the big picture: in the end, there are only two areas of the country where a majority of voters wanted to be represented by them.

Ji Xiang said...

FOARP: coalition governments aren't such a dreadful thing. The rest of Europe has them the whole time. And hasn't Brtain just had one too?

Yes, there are disadvantages to coalitions. But they aren't as big as the disadvantage of leaving millions of people without representation. Surely just because someone supports a party which doesn't have the absolute majority of preferences in a certain area, doesn't mean they don't deserve representation.

The argument about proportional representation letting in extremists makes little logical sense. If a party is allowed to run, it should be allowed to win. If a party is inciting racial hatred, then it should not be allowed to run in the first place. Having an extremist party win one or two seats is not the end of the world.

The link between an MP and their constituents is a nice thing, but most democracies manage without it. And given that other European countries have higher voting rates and more political participation, Britain's form of democracy obviously doesn't work that well.

FOARP said...

I guess it comes down to what you value: if you think (as I do) that maintaining a link between representatives and the areas they represent, keeping out fringe maniacs like the BNP, and delivering a comprehensive manifesto are more important than the abstract question of whether parties that still only received a relatively small proportion of the vote should have one seat or ten (representing who? only the supporters of their party, not an area), the first past the post is the system you'll go with.

At any rate, the alternative vote referendum did address this. Whilst people can see that there are problems with first past the post, they can also see the advantages of it. When it comes right down to it, most people prefer a majority for their party than a permanent coalition. Very few in the UK actually like coalition government - and yes, the last government was a striking example of how even the supporters of the party that was dedicated to introducing a system that would create a system of permanent government by coalition were not at all prepared for the compromises that coalition government has baked into it. Rather than rewarding the Liberal Democrats for doing exactly what they had said they were dedicated to for decades (i.e., making compromises as part of a coalition government) they turned against them.

As for European countries having this system, well, permanent government by consensus does prevent decisive action being taken when it is required. We have seen how that has worked during the economic crisis of the last eight years: the repeated consensus that someone else should pay, particularly in Greece.

FOARP said...

Oh, and yes, had Ed Milliband's 35% strategy succeeded in delivering us a Labour government carried into government by the SNP, I really doubt we'd be hearing so much in the way of complaint about the voting system on the left, just as we didn't in 2001 and 2005. It seems unlikely that they would actually want the Conservative-UKIP-Ulster Unionist coalition that PR would have delivered based on last month's vote.

Finally, on the point of turnout, let's have a look at when low turnouts actually started:

1992: 77.7% (about the average for preceding decades, including the multiple-party era of the 1930's)
1997: 71.3%
2001: 59.4%
2005: 61.4%
2010: 65.1%
2015: 66.1%

These figures seem more to reflect that voting declined when voters abandoned the Conservative party following their turmoil over Europe in the 90's, and has steadily recovered as voters have returned to it.

Ji Xiang said...

"the abstract question of whether parties that still only received a relatively small proportion of the vote should have one seat or ten (representing who? only the supporters of their party, not an area)"

Only someone grown up under a first-past-the-post system would think it strange that a party should represent its supporters, and not an area. Isn't it all a single country?

I agree that most British people seem to prefer their current system, but most people can't really imagine the alternatives, right? Countries like Germany and France manage fine with proportional systems. Greece or Italy will have a chaotic politics regardless of what voting system they implement.

In the end you've obviously set your mind in favour of the first past the post system, and I won't be able to convince you otherwise. However, the reasons to prefer the proportional system go beyond "abstract questions". And it's not just to do with small parties receiving one seat or ten. It's to do with the Lib Dems receiving one seat instead of perhaps fifty or sixty. Maybe the voting system is the real reason that they did so badly.