Last night the House of Commons debated and voted on the second reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Consitituencies Bill. If made law this Bill will do two major things: change the size (population wise) and number of constituencies in the UK; allow a referendum to occur on the voting system used in UK Parliament elections.
It is this second point that is of concern to me as I write this. Our current system as used in Parliamentary elections is clearly unfair. We use a system known as “First Past the Post” (FPTP) and the two main arguments for it are that it (usually) produces stable, single-party majority governments and that it allows for MPs to have clear links to their constituencies. It works using a very simple method – each person votes for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes is elected. Many people will notice the flaw in this system quite quickly – it means that unless there are only two candidates it is entirely possible to have someone elected who was not voted for by more than 50% of the people. A quick example:
There are 100 voters in a constituency and 3 candidates. Candidate A receives 34 votes, while Candidates B & C each receive 33 votes meaning Candidate A is elected – despite the fact 66 people (just 2 short of double Candidate A’s number of votes) didn’t vote for them.
Usually the unfairness is slightly masked by the distribution of votes being not so evenly spread:
A gets 49 votes, B gets 45 votes, and C gets just 6 votes – again A wins, and C wasn’t going to win, but what if all of C’s voters hate the idea of A being elected but would be ok with B?
Or how about this:
A – 42; B – 30; C – 28. A is the clear winner, by 12 votes, but 58 people didn’t vote for them and not all of C’s voters would need to prefer B to A in order for B to win.
And, of course, when this is spread across a whole Parliament of MPs the unequal nature of the system becomes more obvious still – in the May election Labour got 29% of the national vote and 39.6% of the seats while the Greens got 1% of the vote and just 0.15% of the seats, the Conservatives got 36.1% of the vote and 47.2% of the seats while their coalition partners, the LibDems, got 23% of the vote and just 8.8% of the seats (the off-balance nature of the LibDems seat share means that the coalition’s share of seats is actually less than its share of the votes).
As someone who believes in justice, who believes that everyone is entitled to a fair vote and a fair say in who runs the country they live in, I have always wanted to see a change to our voting system. There are lots of different alternatives around, none of which is perfect, and they can sometimes seem confusing so you’ll find the Electoral Reform Society’s rather good guide to many of them here, while another alternative is offered here. My personal preference is for nationwide list-based (open or closed) elections for Parliament, however I recognise that losing the constituency link would be a great blow for many, even those who wish to see the back of FPTP. Of those alternatives that do allow for constituencies my preference would be for either the New Zealand system of MMS (also seen in Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections), or the new DPR system offered at the separate link above. The system being proposed for a referendum vote, AV, is my least favourite option – it certainly allows for some balancing out of votes in individual constituencies but the national result still relies on the individual results meaning an imbalance is still quite possible. That said, in my view it is a step in the right direction. Therefore I’m pleased that the Bill passed its second reading.
There is still a way to go before it becomes law, and there are still many issues to be discussed over the coming stages in both the Commons and the Lords, not least the issue of constituency “equalisation”. If it does pass, however, we will have the opportunity in this country of making our electoral system a step closer to a fair system, in which people are not forced into a decision over whether or not to vote tactically. It is an opportunity that I truly pray we will not miss out on. Having a referendum will give those who genuinely prefer the FPTP system to explain why, and for those who wish to change the system to put their view across in a national debate.
On this national journey of ours last night’s vote took us a step closer to having a say on whether we want to change our voting system. Whether you’re happy to keep FPTP, whether you’re a fan of AV, or whether you’d prefer something else entirely I hope you can agree that having the public debate is a step worth taking.