Tuesday, April 7, 2015

UK election 2015:Why first-past-the-post?

In a previous post, I provided an outline of the parties contesting the UK election. For this post, I would like to discuss a particular aspect of the election: the electoral system. (For those that don't know about electoral systems, these posts might be helpful)

The single-member plurality system is used in the United Kingdom. This system is extremely simple; parties nominate candidates, voters vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. However, the system has complicated implications for voters and politicians, and a significant debate has taken place regarding it.

Where does it come from?

Plurality systems have been used in the UK since the beginning of elections. The system would have been considered the 'natural' way to hold elections; indeed, the only challenges to plurality were first considered in the 18th century, and systems of proportional representation were only developed around the start of the 20th.

However, single-member plurality systems are relatively new for the UK. During early electoral competition for the House of Commons, most electorates elected two members, using an electoral system where voters voted for two candidates, and the two candidates with the most votes won. Under this system, the party with the most votes usually won both seats

During the late 19th century, some electorates switched to the Limited Vote system. Under this system, some electorates were changed to elect three members, but voters still had two votes. The three candidates with the most votes won. This system created a problem for parties, as they had to divide their votes between their candidates in order to maximise their seats. However, they eventually manage to master this, making the Limited Vote ineffective in preventing single-party domination for electorates.

In the first decades of the 20th century, single-member constituencies were introduced, and by 1950, all electorates in the UK were single-member.

What does it do?

The single-member plurality system is fairly disproportional, and tends to favour large parties. It usually produces majority governments (with obvious exceptions). For these reasons, UK governments tend to be dominant in Parliament.

The system discourages the formation of national small parties, as these parties are unlikely to win seats. Parties like UKIP and the Greens are disadvantaged. However, small parties can win seats if their support is concentrated in a specific region. This is how the SNP, Respect, and Plaid Cymru can win seats, even with small nationwide votes.

For example, at the 1983 general election, the Conservative Party won 397 seats (out of 650) with 42.4% of the vote, the Labour Party won 209 seats with 27.6%, and the Social Democratic-Liberal alliance (the predecessor of the Liberal Democrats) won 23 seats with 25.4% of the vote. To put this another way, it took 0.11% of the vote to elect a Conservative MP, 0.13% to elect a Labour MP, and 1.1% to elect a Social Democratic-Liberal MP.

Why is it good?


Simple! (Andrew Reynolds)
Under single-member plurality, voting and understanding how votes transfer into seats is very easy. This is one of the key reasons that single-member plurality is advocated over systems of proportional representation or other majoritarian systems that are accused of being complicated. 

However, some have suggested that simplicity may not be important in electoral systems, on the basis that it is not necessary for voters to understand exactly how votes are transformed into seats: they just need to understand the basic ideas of the system. Nonetheless, certain experts are unwilling to accept this, and thus simplicity remains a popular idea.

Stable government

Single-member plurality tends to produce single-party government, at least in the United Kingdom. Unlike coalition governments, which can be unstable and indecisive, single-party governments are relatively unified, and majority governments are able to be decisive as they have control over Parliament. This has been used as an argument against the introduction of alternative voting systems, as it is feared that non-single-member plurality systems will endanger the stability of governments.

In some cases, this is right. Countries with overly proportional systems of proportional representation, like Israel or the Netherlands, tend to have unstable governments. However, this is not the case for all countries with proportional representation; Germany, for instance, has had reasonably stable government with proportional representation.

Also, some of the electoral systems proposed for the UK have not been proportional. For instance, the Alternative Vote/Instant Runoff system has been suggested. This system, while being somewhat more likely to produce minority governments, seems unlikely to produce more minority governments if Australian experience is anything to go by.


Another argument for the use of single-member plurality is that it allows politicians to stay accountable to voters. Under single-member plurality, all MPs are directly accountable to a constituency, and the voters of that constituency are able to remove that MP easily. This is in comparison with some party list systems, where senior party members are unable to be easily removed. Under SMP, voters can (and do) remove senior party members. 

This also means that (in theory) local members are required to pay attention to their constituency, and even ministers need to ensure that their seats are happy with their representation. However, this does not always happen: members that take their seats for granted can still be re-elected. Other electoral systems also provide this accountability, so this feature is not unique to single-member plurality.

Why isn't it good?


The single-member plurality system is extremely disproportional. Proportionality, in an electoral system, means how closely shares of seats are matched to shares of votes. This is measured using the Gallagher Index. Under single-member plurality, the candidate with the most votes wins, whether he wins by one vote or by fifty thousand. This creates an extremely weak link between votes and seats. It means that parties can win shares of seats far above or below their vote shares, and in some cases win all seats in a parliament with far less than all the votes. In other cases, a party can win a majority of seats with fewer votes than another party, if that other party has won large amounts of votes in safe seats.

Regional vote variations usually prevent extremely anomolous results in the UK (not so much in certain other countries that use or have used the same system). However, such results are neither impossible nor uncommon; plenty of local government elections have resulted in single-party councils.

Small parties with consistent levels of support nationwide (in the UK, those would be the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and UKIP) do worst out of single-member plurality. Regionally based parties (SNP, Plaid Cymru) can do well, while large parties with consistent support nationwide (Labour and/or Conservative) also do well. At some points in history, Labour or the Conservatives have fallen back on their regional strongholds when their national support became too low to win many seats.

One of the alternatives proposed to single-member plurality, the Alternative Vote, is also disproportional. Most of the alternatives proposed, however, have been an attempt to inject proportionality into the system.

Safe seats

One of the other problems with single-member plurality is that it can create safe seats for certain parties. A safe seat is a seat held on such a significant margin that one party is certain of winning it.

The problem with safe seats is that it reduces political participation. In a safe seat, opposition parties as well as the party holding the seat make less effort to campaign, thus meaning that people are less likely to vote. Those that do will vote for the better known government candidate, thus making the seat even more safe, thus ensuring that the opposition will campaign even less. This is borne out by the evidence; in the 2010 election, marginal seats had turnout 9.2% higher than safe seats.

It is true that the Alternative Vote system may not solve this problem; however, certain proportional systems have been shown to reduce the instance of safe seats.

"Tactical voting"

The idea of tactical voting is relatively unusual to Australians. Basically, tactical voting entails voting for a candidate that is not your favourite in order to stop  a candidate you strongly dislike.

For example, let's take a hypothetical Green voter in a marginal constituency with three candidates: Labour, Conservative, and Green. This voter most strongly supports the Greens, doesn't really mind Labour, but loathes the Conservatives. Now, during the campaign a poll comes out saying that the Conservatives are on 48%, Labour are on 45%, and the Greens are on 7%. Who does this voter vote for? Voting Green will be true to your ideology, but voting Labour will help you defeat the Conservatives.

This is a serious dilemma for minor party voters, and it is used in campaigning in tight seats. It is not unique to the UK: in the 2000 United States presidential election, a contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, supporters of Green candidate Ralph Nader faced the same dilemma. In the US, it is called the 'spoiler effect'.

There is a reason that Australian voters haven't heard of this. Under the Instant Runoff/Alternative Vote system, you can vote for your favourite candidate first, thus giving him/her your support, and put the candidate you hate last, ensuring that he/she will never get your support. 

What's been done about it?

Non-single-member plurality systems were rare in the UK for a long time. The Single Transferable Vote was used for Northern Ireland's devolved parliament and local government from 1973 onwards, and for Northern Ireland European elections from 1979 elections onwards. 

Under Tony Blair's government, however, proportional representation received a large boost. Mixed-member systems were used for the Scottish, Welsh, and London parliaments, while party-list proportional representation was introduced for European elections. An inquiry into a change from single-member plurality for the House of Commons was set up, but the government failed to act on the recommendations. Directly-elected mayors were introduced, elected using the supplementary vote. In 2007, the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish government introduced the single transferable vote for local elections.

The referendum

The first concrete step towards electoral reform took place after the 2010 election, when the Liberal Democrats set a referendum on electoral reform as a condition for entering government. The Conservatives promised that they would hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

This referendum was held in 2011. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP all lined up in favour of the change, while the Conservatives and British National Party lined up against it. After the referendum was announced, support for the switch was high.

However, the Conservative campaign was very successful. The No2AV (as it was known) campaign recruited the support of some Labour MPs, and played off a general sense of uncertainty about how the system would work. It was claimed that under AV, voters for small parties would have their votes count multiple times (conveniently ignoring, of course, that under AV voters for all parties have their votes counted multiple times). Antony Green's blog has more detail on this.

As a result, the referendum was lost. 68% voted No, while only 32% voted Yes. Only nine counting districts out of 440 recorded a Yes majority.

What does the future hold?

It's hard to say. UKIP and the SNP are vague on electoral reform, but both supported AV. In the case of the SNP, they are likely to benefit from single-member plurality, so they may not want to press electoral reform too hard. The Greens  and Liberal Democrats explicitly support proportional representation. Labour supported AV, but it is unlikely that proportional representation is on the cards under a Labour majority government. The Conservatives view electoral reform of any sort as a Satanic plot. 

Were the Liberal Democrats to hold the balance of power, they would probably want another referendum on electoral reform of some sort. If UKIP and/or the Greens win a significant amount of votes but not many seats, this referendum may succeed, but it depends on the proposal.

It is true that political parties without the power to change electoral law have the will to change it, while parties with the power to change the law don't have the will. However, the 2015 election may be able to produce anger against single-member plurality that forces parties to change their attitudes.

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