Is the UK electoral system fair?

The debate on the way we decide local and national elections in East Sussex is now more heated than ever. “It frustrates me when we are told we have this fantastic democratic system when, quite frankly, we don’t,” said James from Hastings.

In 2017, a petition calling for a change to the voting system hit 100,000 signatures, meaning it had to be discussed in Parliament. Under the current voting system it doesn’t look likely that Labour and the Conservatives will loosen their grip on Hastings. In the latest general election, these two parties made up over 93% of the votes in the constituency.

The main opposition to the First Past the Post (FPTP) system which we currently use, is proportional representation. In proportional systems, seats allocated are directly proportional to votes cast, compared to FPTP, where voters get one vote each and the candidate with the most votes wins.

“The first past the post system is an electoral system designed for the nineteenth century, defended aggressively in the twenty first by those parties it benefits most,” said Councillor Nick Perry, Liberal Democrat candidate for Hastings & Rye.

Councillor Perry and his party is are firm supporters of proportional systems for general elections; “It means people’s vote is equal. At the moment if you’re in a marginal constituency your vote counts a lot more than someone in a safe one.”

However, Councillor Godfrey Daniel of Braybrooke and Castle, disagrees. He argues that one of the benefits with FPTP is a clearly identified MP with every constituency; “The other systems give disproportionate power to the smaller parties.”

“The problem with proportional representation is you end up with a system which doesn’t represent an area. If you look at MEP’s, there’s a dozen of them for the South East, we’ve only got one Labour one and that person can’t represent every labour voter in about eight counties.”

For some, the current voting system leaves us with a Parliament with different intentions to the voters. The 2016 EU referendum used a first past the post system to decide if Britain was to remain in the EU. The result was a narrow 51.9% leave to a 48.1% remain, meaning over 16 million Britons didn’t get what they wanted.

“Parliament is not representative of the voters”, said Anthony Tuffin, a member of the political pressure group Make Votes Matter. A group which wants to use a proportional system for voting in general elections and describes FPTP as a “primitive voting system”.

“The 25th general election left us with a Parliament which was overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU and yet that didn’t represent the people’s view.”

Tuffin is an advocate of the single transferrable vote, a form of proportional representation. In this system, voters list candidates in order of preference. To get elected, a candidate must obtain a quota determined by a mathematical formula; the number of votes divided by the number of seats.

Each voter has one vote. Once the counting has finished, any candidate who has more number ones than the quota wins a seat. But, rather than ignore extra votes a candidate got after the amount they need to win, these votes move to each voter’s second favourite candidate.

If the quota isn’t reached, the least popular candidate is removed people and  who voted for them have their votes changed to their second favourite candidate. It’s a process of elimination until each seat hosts an MP.

“Countries like Germany, New Zealand have extremely stable governments. I would argue of the reasons for this is a proportional system,” said Nate Higgins, External Communications Officer for the Young Greens.

On the other hand, Councillor Daniel argues that one of the disadvantages of proportional systems is they are more likely to give power to extremist parties, for example, AFD in Germany, a far-right party which some describe as German Nationalist.

“Look at Britain. We’ve not had extremist parties represented in Parliament, but we’ve had them represented in the EU which uses Proportional Representation. This is why (Nigel) Farage is powerful.”

Yet Councillor Perry thinks the opposite, “It’s more likely that they would get representation sure, but it’s important to debate with people who have extreme views.”

“They wouldn’t get anywhere near government I would’ve thought, but I think it’s one of the things you have to accept if you want people to have fair votes.”

One of the criticisms aimed at FPTP is that people often vote through gritted teeth. They may support a party but don’t want to vote for that party’s leader. Higgins explained that a single transferrable vote system can fix this;

“In a single transferable vote system, you get to order the candidates in the same party. Say you’re in Labour for example and you’re in the momentum wing, you could order your momentum candidates higher than the other Labour candidates. You could even order Green candidates above progress Labour candidates. That’s what I really like about the system.

However, Councillor Daniel sees this as a limitation, “In all these proportional systems it’s usually a list system, like there is in Wales and Scotland. People just get seats without being voted in anywhere, because they’ve got a certain proportion of the votes.”

“And so the party will control that, parties tend to control things. I wouldn’t trust the party organizations of any party to make the right decisions over who should be the MP.”

“In Hastings the local people select their candidate, it’s not up to the central party to get involved. If you do a list system the people on the list have decided for the national party, not the local party.”

With 80% of developed democracies use some form of proportional representation, it isn’t out of the question that the UK could turn to one of these systems in the future. This would certainly be a step into the unknown for the people of Hastings.

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