Proportional representation: The pros and cons
Is a radical reform of the voting system key to healing Britain's political divisions?
The European Parliament elections have renewed the debate about proportional representation (PR), an electoral system that some claim is fairer and more democratic than Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.
The EU elections use a type of PR called the D’Hondt method, under which each constituency gets a certain number of seats, which are assigned to parties based on their share of the vote, rather than the “winner takes all” FPTP system used in Westminster.
The Lib Dems have long campaigned for Westminster to adopt PR to give minority parties such as themselves a bigger voice in government.
Listen to The Week team debating the pros and cons of PR on The Week Unwrapped podcast:
The basic principle of proportional representation is that the make-up of an elected body should represent the nationwide vote share. This means if a party receives 20% of the vote, it should have 20% of the seats.
In practice, PR can be implemented in several forms, and even combined with FPTP or other electoral systems.
New Zealand is one of several countries to use mixed member PR (MMP). Voters elect a candidate for their constituency, using the FPTP system, and also cast a second vote for the party they would like to lead the country. These seats are then assigned to parties proportionately.
In the UK, the two most popular suggestions for a reformed electoral system are alternative vote (AV), which is not fully proportional but is still likely to increase the representation of small parties, and single transferable vote (STV), which is truly proportional.
In both systems, voters rank the candidates by preference. AV takes into account the first choices, then second and third preferences until a candidate reaches more than 50 per cent of the vote, when they are declared the winner.
To get elected under STV, explains Electoral Reform, “a candidate needs a set amount of votes, known as the quota”. Voting officials “work out the quota based on the number of vacancies and the number of votes cast”.
Each vote can be transferred from the first preference to the second preference, “so if your preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, your vote is transferred to your second choice candidate in accordance with your instructions”.
Adopting STV would mean a massive overhaul of the current system, as there would no longer be one politician representing each constituency. There would also have to be far fewer and much larger electoral constituencies to send proportional groups of MPs to Westminster.
So how does the system work and what are the arguments for and against?
The case for PR
More representative of national opinion: Under the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, power tends to end up with one party (or, occasionally, a coalition) no matter how small its majority, squeezing out minority parties. A more proportional system would give smaller parties and independent candidates a better chance of getting into Parliament, proponents argue, and introduce different voices to our national political life.
Some critics say this could make it easier for fringe extremists to enter Parliament, but PR seldom results in one party holding an absolute majority and rather forms governments that need to compromise and build consensus. This means that – in theory, at least – stable, centrist policies often prevail.
More representative of constituencies: FPTP allows MPs to be elected with a small overall percentage of the votes. Some representatives have been elected to Parliament despite 75% of their constituency voting for other candidates. An AV or STV system would take into account voters’ back-up choices to end up with a candidate that satisfies a majority.
End to “wasted votes”: People supporting Labour in a traditional Conservative stronghold, or vice versa, would not be “wasting” their vote. This would mean that the candidates in marginal seats would have the freedom to appeal to their core supporters, rather than swing voters.
This in turn could lead to a higher turnout at the polls, as voters feel more engaged. A study into voting patterns in New Zealand showed a “modest increase” in turnout after its switch from FPTP to PR in 1996, as well as a more positive overall attitude about the power of voting.
It’s used around the world: Some form of PR is used by the majority of the world’s leading democracies. Only a few countries, including the UK, the US, India, Canada and France, still have elections that are decided by plurality voting systems.
The case against
A pathway for extremists? If the 2015 UK general election had been held under a PR system, UKIP would have been the third-largest party in Parliament, with 83 seats instead of one. Good news for its supporters but worrying for those who linked the party’s popularity with resurgence of xenophobia and nationalism.
Similarly, recent polls indicate that as many as 19% of Brits say they would vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in a general election. Although the party is unlikely to win any constituency under FPTP, a PR system would give them around 123 MPs in this scenario.
Lack of connection to the community: Under FPTP, MPs serve the constituency they campaign in, so are more inclined to tackle important local issues. Under PR, electoral constituencies would have to be much bigger in order to have multiple seats to fill proportionately, possibly leading to local issues being overlooked.
Compromise is not always ideal: Neither the trade union reforms that Margaret Thatcher pushed through nor Tony Blair’s raft of improvements to public services could have been carried through without a strong governing majority.
The coalition governments that PR tends to produce are often weak and indecisive, detractors say. The Italian parliament, which uses such a system, has been prematurely dissolved three times since 2008. Plus, politicians have to actually form a coalition – following the 2010 general election in Belgium, negotiations went on for a record-breaking 541 days, leaving the country essentially ungoverned for more than 18 months.