08 May 2010

Voting Reform

In my last blog I said that in the UK only the votes of about 10% of the electorate actually matter as a result of our voting system. Now the election has happened we have no party with an overall majority, and the the subject of voting reform has come to the fore as the basic unfairness of the system has become clear to everyone. All the smaller parties know that without proportional representation they will always be grossly under-represented in parliament, and conversely the two largest parties know that the current system can deliver them absolute power with only minority support from the voters.

This election dramatically illustrates how unfair the current system is with the Liberal Democrats getting only 8.7% of the seats with 23.0% of the vote, whereas the Conservatives got 47.1% of the seats with only 36.1% of the vote. With these figures I find it hard to accept that our first-past-the-post system can even be counted as democratic. The Conservative share of the vote means that 63.9% of the voters voted against them, so their claim to have the right to rule is tenuous at best. The other parties have even less claim to rule alone: the voters have in effect voted for coalition.

Our voting system has two main faults: you can only vote for one candidate and this encourages tactical voting, or voting for a major party even though one of the minor parties may be the first preference (the "wasted vote" argument). Secondly the number of votes received nationally has a non-linear relationship to the number of seats won. A small percentage, such as UKIP's 3.1%, delivers no seats when it should have resulted in 20. The first problem can be fixed easily, without a radical change to the current system, by introducing single transferable voting (usually called the Alternative Vote System when applied to single member elections) to the existing constituencies. By allowing voters to place their preferences in order, the need for tactical voting would go and everyone could vote naturally without feeling that their vote was wasted if they did not put one of the two major parties as first choice. There is no real argument against the single transferable vote, and it should have been introduced a long time ago, but unfortunately it does not really address the non-linearity problem: only a proportional representation system can do that.

The Jenkins Commission produced a report in 1998 which recommended the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) system which, although it is not fully proportional, still looks like a good compromise. It does seem that an increasing number of people accept the voting reform will happen - let us hope that it comes sooner rather than later.