Counting is a rudimentary mathematical skill, but in the UK’s general elections, some votes count more than others. Whatever else can be said about yesterday’s results, they highlight the need for urgent electoral reform.
I don’t normally venture into the murky world of politics in my blog posts, but today I’ll risk it in order to state the blindingly obvious: Boris Johnson did not get the majority of votes. His party got the majority of seats in the Commons. Big difference.
With 43.6% of all votes, the Tories managed to secure 56% of the seats in the House of Commons. Sound fishy? That’s because voting in this country is based on an archaic system known as first-past-the-post (FPTP), by which you only vote for your local MP, the candidate with the most votes in your constituency gets a seat in the House of Commons and the party with over 50% of seats in the Commons rules. It’s simple, but there’s a huge snag. Since no one bothers about the overall number of votes a party gets, if you don’t vote for the winning candidate in your constituency, your vote literally doesn’t matter. It just goes in the bin. And if you live in a populous constiuency, even if you vote for the winning candidate, your vote has less weight than if you lived in a small constituency. For instance, the SNP managed to secure 48 seats with a total of 1.24 million votes, yet the Liberal Democrats only secured 11 seats – but got a whopping 3.68 million votes (rounded).
So what would yesterday’s results have looked like in another country, for instance Germany, which has a system called proportional representation? Proportional representation basically means that the number of seats in parliament is awarded to each party based on the overall number of votes they receive from the electorate nationwide. Based on this, figures would look very different. The main losers would be the Tories and the SNP, losing 81 and 23 seats respectively, whereas Labour, Lib Dems and Greens stand to gain the most with 6, 64 and 17 extra seats.
This would change the political landscape immensely, not least because if Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and the Green Party decided to form a coalition – and let’s be honest, there’s more common ground between those four parties than there ever was between Lib Dems and Tories in 2010 – they would hold over 50% of the vote share (50.3% to be precise) and thus be able to form a viable coalition government. Yes, there might be the odd squabbles about which policy gets implemented how and so on, but all agree to end austerity, to protect the NHS, to invest sensibly in public services and to tackle climate change. Anyway, I digress.
The Nitty Gritty
Granted, our current system is beautifully simple – you know that if you’re candidate wins, they’re going to be your voice in Parliament (if you can get them to listen to you in the first place!). Proportional representation is going to be a little more tricky to work out. But does that mean we are to not worry our pretty little heads about it? No way! After all, it works in many well-established democracies around the world, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Finland and New Zealond among them. It’s just that the rules are slightly more complicated – but no more than, say, the rules of Monopoly. Worth the trouble when so much hinges on it!
There are different ways of making it work, but here’s a first rough draft that would allow the UK to implement this system with minimum trouble:
- Prior to the election, each party publishes a ranking of their candidates (how do they decide? I’m sure the parties can find an adult solution).
- Come election time everyone votes for their local candidate. However, rather than just counting towards the candidate, votes also count towards the overall result of the candidate’s party (independent candidates may present a problem here, but there’s a way out of that, too – Germany gets people to cast two votes: one for their local candidate, one for the party they want to support).
- Overall number of seats in Parliament are awarded based on overall vote share, so if your favourite party, let’s call it Free Soup for All (FSA) got 28% of all votes nationwide, they will get 28% of the seats in the Commons, i.e. 182 seats.
- This is where it now gets a little bit tricky, so stick with me – the candidates for each party have their ranking adjusted by whether they won in their constituency (they move up) or didn’t (they move down). Let’s say your party, FSA, won 182 seats, but only 160 of your candidates won in their respective constituencies. This means that your party gets to put an extra 22 MPs into Parliament, and because we’ve got the pre-published ranking, we know who those people are going to be. FSA’s main rivals, the Loophole Lovers (LL) won the most votes in 212 constituencies, but only got 24% of the vote share. This means that they only get 156 seats – again, we know who those people are going to be because LL told us beforehand who their top people are.
Now, there’s been a lot of debate around this, and the main argument that’s been put forward against this way of doing things is the danger of a hung parliament – no one party being able to form a strong and stable government. But this is just hot air – the system works in many well-established democracies, and in Germany, where I’m from, coalition governments are the order of the day – parties manage to come to adult agreements without horse-trading or selling their soul. I suggest that this is exactly what would have happened yesterday – a four-party coalition of Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Greens would have commanded over 50% of all votes and seats, and given that their manifestos varied more in their details than their overall aims this could well have worked.
One last drawback for which I don’t have a ready-made solution is that this system would weaken the link between MPs and their constituents because there’s no guarantee that your local MP will make it into the House of Commons. I’m sure there are good ways of solving this problem, too, but it’s late and I can’t think of one right now (or be bothered to look one up).
The point is – yesterday’s election should not be called “democratic” or the “will of the people”; more people voted against Boris than for him. He claims the tiny majority at the referendum gave him the mandate for a Brexit at all costs; were he principled enough (which he isn’t), he would own up to the fact that no, this time round he has not got the mandate of the people to rule this country now. But only electoral reform will change that – please tell me how to bring it about!!
All charts based on figures from The Guardian (accessed 13/12/2019)