The UK Electoral System

Last night’s debate between Scottish political leaders revived interest in the question of which electoral system would best serve the interests of the British people; this will doubtless be discussed again after the General Election.

The case for retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system was clearly articulated by the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, who pointed out that all the MPs elected in Scotland should be representing Scotland’s interests irrespective of what party they belong to – even if some of them belonged to the Monster Raving Loony Party.  Although that point was intended to reassure listeners that nothing is wrong with the present electoral system, it ignores one of its major problems: if one party has an overall majority, as the Conservatives had in the Thatcher years for example, Scotland only has influence if there are sufficient Scottish MPs in the winning party to persuade the UK government to take Scotland’s needs into account.  Those Scottish MPs would also have to be brave enough to disagree with their party leader if necessary, even though dissent might limit their career prospects.  A dominant party in a UK government, whether Labour or Conservative, can safely ignore Scottish interests.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, made another telling point: people are forced to vote tactically in a first-past-the-post system if they support one of the smaller parties; they recognise that simply to vote for their preferred party would result in a wasted vote so they vote for whichever of the other parties they least dislike.  Their interests would not be represented through the electoral system.

Unsurprisingly, UKIP’s Nigel Farage agrees.  Although he was not part of last night’s debate on Scotland, he made the point when interviewed by Andrew Marr yesterday.  Suppressing UKIP by retaining a first-past-the-post system is less satisfactory than allowing it to be proportionally represented; it is better to prevail by finding the winning argument than by suppressing proper representation.  Several Conservative MPs might join UKIP if they felt that there was a realistic chance of them being elected.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon argued for proportional representation, even though she acknowledged that it might give her fewer seats according to the current opinion polls.  She described her own experience of how a government can work if it has no overall majority: it has to adapt its policies on an issue-by-issue basis to reach a satisfactory compromise.  She pointed out, for example, that if necessary she would vote against cuts in disability benefits even if that meant delaying the agreement of a UK national budget.  This gave the impression, as was doubtless intended, that Scottish voters who vote for the SNP would enable it to influence a future Labour government – not necessarily in a formal coalition which, we are told, would not be offered anyway.  Many Scots now feel able to vote for the SNP without the risk of leaving the UK.

Negotiation on individual issues would enable disparate voices to be heard.  It is in the Scottish interest not to have one party with a strong overall majority to form a UK government, and a similar logic applies to other regional parties.  Proportional representation, and the resulting need for negotiation between parties, would reduce the risk of having a UK government which doesn’t listen to disparate views and it would eliminate the need for tactical voting.  There would be much less need for the Scots to leave the UK if it had such a system.

There are three risks with proportional representation: that it might be difficult to reach any agreement on important issues, that individual MPs would be less accountable to their constituents, and that small parties might end up with disproportionate influence (as has been the case in Israel, for example).  These problems can be largely solved by tailoring the design of the system, for example with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system favoured by the Electoral Reform Society (although “ballot papers can get rather big and confusing”).  In contrast, the current first-past-the-post system can make a single party too powerful, allows it to make bad decisions on the whim of a strong leader, and enables it to ignore large areas of the country.

Suitably-designed devolution might meet Scotland’s needs, but many other people are effectively silenced by living in a constituency which is dominated by one party; recent low turn-outs at General Elections may be more due to frustration and disenfranchisement than apathy.  The striking increase in support for small political parties reveals a healthy interest in British politics.  It is time to readdress the question of what would be the best electoral system for the UK, as well as finding a robust form of devolution.