Better Safe Than Unstable
'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'
Kyra Hardy | 9 July 2018

Theresa May is the Prime Minister. Her Conservatives won 49% of the seats in the House of Commons in the 2017 general election but they only won 42% of the national vote. She was short of a majority, but if May had won a few hundred more votes in the right constituencies, she would have retained her majority. Is this fair?

Here are the possible voting systems we could use in a general election: First-Past-The-Post (FPTP), Additional Member, Single Transferable Vote, Alternative Vote and Supplementary Vote.

The discrepancy in votes to seats is due to the type of system used. Our FPTP voting system is used in the House of Commons and local elections in England and Wales. This means that an MP wins a constituency not if they win over 50% of the vote, but if they win more votes than any other candidate. FPTP is a constituency system where voters mark an ‘X’ next to their preferred candidate. Each constituency is roughly equal in size and returns a single candidate; this is often seen as the ‘winner takes all’ effect. The other systems try to mitigate this effect in various ways, to try to make elections more ‘proportional’ to the public’s will than they are under FPTP.

Figure 1 shows the results obtained by each party had different systems been used. The four systems being compared are First-Past-The-Post, Alternative Vote, Additional Member and Single Transferable Vote. Under FPTP, the Conservatives gained 317 seats - meaning they narrowly lost out on the majority they needed (which is over 325 seats). Conversely, under Alternative Vote, the Conservatives would have gained only 303 seats. Under the additional member system Conservatives would have gained a mere 273 seats. Finally, under the Single Transferable Vote system Conservatives would have gained 283 seats. Clearly the Conservatives benefited most from the FPTP voting system: with other more ‘proportional’ systems, they would have seen a decline in their share of seats in the House of Commons.

On the other hand, Labour saw a rise in votes when using the Alternative Vote, with an increase of 24 seats. The SNP generally saw a decline across all four systems other than FPTP, whereas the Lib Dems saw equal fall and rise in seats under the four systems. So the result of the 2017 general election would certainly have been different if an alternative voting system had been used. But the devil is in the detail, as the outcome would have varied considerably from system to system.

Figure 2 compares the two voting systems of FPTP and proportional representation. Proportional representation, as the name suggests, ‘proportions’ a party’s seats to its share of the vote - in contrast with the very unproportional system of FPTP. Clearly, had proportional representation been used instead of First-Past-The-Post, the Conservatives would have lost a considerable number of seats - 41, to be precise. Labour too would have lost seats, but only one. On the other hand, minority parties would have benefited enormously because electors voting in ‘safe seat’ constituencies (that is, seats which are normally taken as ‘safe’ for the Conservatives or Labour) would not have wasted their vote. Instead, their vote would have helped count towards the minority party rather than not at all. Although Conservatives would have still been in the lead, they would still not have won a majority (over 325 is needed) and there would have been more opposition within the House of Commons to the Conservative minority government.

The Electoral Reform Society is calling for a change to the UK’s voting system after counting 22 million ‘wasted votes’. A wasted vote is any vote which is not for an elected candidate or a vote that does not help to elect a candidate; this surge of wasted votes can disenfranchise the electorate and causes them to become disengaged with politics as a whole.

Overall, had a different system been used, it would still have been the case that no single party would have been able to obtain a majority and thus govern Parliament on its own, leading to a coalition or minority government (as we have today). Although the FPTP system does show strong signs of discrepancy between votes obtained and seats won, it makes it easier for a single party to form a government. This is better than a coalition because it is stronger.

Do not get me wrong - FPTP is not ‘fair’ - but at least it reduces the probability of fragile coalitions or minority governments forming. So, as the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’...


Original Image by Millie Bobrowski.

James Routledge 2016