PR Disaster

With the election over, Britain has effectively chosen the party that wants to move the deckchairs around as the Titanic sinks rather than the party that wanted to drill additional holes in the hull of the sinking ship. The end disaster will be the same, but the nation will stay afloat a little longer this way. Whether that additional time will allow for somebody with a better plan to take charge is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the politicians on both sides have already booked their places in the half-empty lifeboats.

The clearest result of the election has been to show how desperately the UK needs proportional representation. We’ve seen some ridiculous results. The SNP received a fifth of the votes received by UKIP and the Liberal Democrats combined, yet gained five times the number the seats – and it won almost all the Scottish seats with only half the Scottish vote. At the same time, UKIP firmly placed itself as the second party in many English constituencies, yet only won a single seat, effectively disenfranchising a significant number of voters.

The big problem is that while all votes are supposedly equal, they patently aren’t. Where you live has an enormous impact on whether your vote counts or not. If you are the only supporter of your party in your constituency, you’ll never elect the person you want to represent you, regardless of how strong the party is elsewhere (or, as in the UKIP case, regardless of how many times you come second, you’ll never gain a seat even if the other parties manage to poll first in some seats whilst trailing terribly in others). Then, there is the way in which it effectively takes more votes to elect a Conservative MP than it does a Labour MP due to the way in which constituency boundaries are drawn. It might not, as we’ve just seen, guarantee a Labour victory, but it does mean Labour get proportionally more seats than the Tories, with both parties receiving far more seats than their share of the vote justifies, just as the SNP have managed to receive a significant block of seats despite receiving far fewer votes.

During the dissection of the voting results, there were some attempts to justify such problems, such as the argument that UKIP lost from spreading itself too thinly rather than concentrating upon a region and building a powerbase in the manner of the SNP. That might be true, but it’s talking about managing a symptom rather than curing the disease. Such targeted electioneering, like tactical voting, makes a mockery of democracy as, again, it means not all votes are equal as they would be under Proportional Representation (PR), where the number of seats received reflects the number of votes cast.

There is also the argument that a constituency MP is supposed to represent all their constituents. Now, of course, some principled men and women do just that. Unfortunately, too many don’t. Indeed, the system of ‘whipping’ MPs means they are expected to vote as their party demands, regardless of the views of their constituents (even those who voted for them). There is certainly some merit to the argument of tying an MP to a place and its inhabitants, rather than reflecting some nebulous group of voters spread across the country, especially as means voting for a specific candidate rather than a party, which then gets to choose who to appoint. However, besides working better in theory than reality, such arguments don’t rule out PR – for a start, it would be possible to have one house elected on a constituency basis and the other via PR.

The need for a change has also been called into doubt by some pundits who have claimed that the British voted against voting reform and in favour of retaining the first-past-the-post constituency system. However, that vote allowed only a choice between the current system and the Alternate Vote (AV) system, which works on much the same principle as the current system and is effectively a version of tactical voting. Nobody wanted it, as it would have done nothing to resolve the fundamental issues. Rejecting AV was in no sense a rejection of PR – indeed there were calls for PR to be offered, but these were ignored.

The only way to ensure fairness and good government will be to introduce Proportional Representation and ensure that everyone’s vote has equal value. It would be possible to take advantage of the reform to reduce the bloated number of seats in parliament – if a quarter of one percent of the vote won a party one seat, there would be 400 seats in parliament, a more reasonable number than at present and much fairer to the electorate.

But, whatever the details, it is clear the system must be reformed.


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