What would proportional representation look like?

Image description: A polling station sign, pinned up on bricks painted with rainbow colours.
Polling station image by  thedescrier for Creative Commons

The campaign to reform our outdated voting system is gaining more traction than ever before, with campaigning organisations like Make Votes Matter and their recently launched project Labour for a New Democracy making huge strides towards fixing our broken system and getting the ever-evasive Labour Party to come out unequivocally in favour of fair votes.

But let’s fast forward to the day we finally secure our right be properly represented in parliament, by politicians we actually chose. How will voters’ visits to the polling station be different and what might we need to be aware of before we go and put that cross (or number!) in the box on polling day? Here I will attempt to explain the ins and outs of the most common proportional voting systems as well as providing some insights into the thoughts of some of the major parties and politicians in Yorkshire.

Single Transferable Vote

The Single Transferable Vote system (STV) is widely considered one of the most proportional voting systems available and is the preference of the Electoral Reform Society as well as the Liberal Democrats. The system is currently used to elect the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, local councils in Scotland and, as of November 2020, local councils in Wales.

When voting under STV, rather than putting a cross in the box next to their preferred candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3 etc. In practice this means that no votes are wasted, as any votes given to a candidate above the quota required to be elected (calculated based on the number of seats to be filled and the number of votes cast), are then redistributed to other candidates based on the voters’ second preferences. This eliminates the problem we have currently, where tens of thousands of votes essentially go straight in the bin when the candidate has already secured enough votes to be elected.

If no candidate reaches the number of votes needed to be elected, then the least popular candidate is eliminated and their votes redistributed to voters’ subsequent preferences until each seat is filled.

STV requires multi-member constituencies rather than single-member constituencies, as we currently have in the UK. So, for example, Bradford currently contains five parliamentary constituencies each electing one MP, whereas under STV they might all be amalgamated into one big Bradford constituency electing five MPs, depending on how the boundaries are re-drawn. It is for this reason that some are opposed to STV, as it could weaken the ‘constituency link’ MPs have under the current system.

Stewart Golton, who leads the Liberal Democrats on Leeds City Council, is their candidate for mayor of West Yorkshire and a proponent of STV. He told me:

“Our current voting system creates ‘safe seat’ that disencourage people to vote because they think their vote is worthless, and delivers lazy politicians that feel more accountable to party HQ than they do their electorate. PR means that every vote counts, voters feel better represented, and politicians need to work harder.”

Party List

Anyone who has voted in a European Parliament election in the UK since 1999 will have voted under a party list system. This is commonly used in Scandinavian countries and, like STV, tends to necessitate larger constituencies electing multiple members.

Unlike our current system, voters simply put a cross in a box next to their preferred party rather than a particular candidate. The parties draw up lists of candidates who are elected sequentially depending on their share of the vote. For example, depending on the calculated thresholds, if a party receives 5 percent of the vote only the first candidate on their list is elected, if they receive 10 percent the first two candidates are elected, and so on.

This system is highly proportional and very easy to understand but its critics argue that, like STV, it weakens the constituency link as elected members can often represent very large areas. In the last European parliament elections, for example, Yorkshire and the Humber voters elected six MEPs to represent the entire region. Some also argue that the system takes power away from voters, in that the parties tend to have complete control over which candidates end up on their lists and the order they are selected. This means that parties could potentially insert undesirable candidates, with voters having very little control over who their specific representative is.

Additional Member System

The Additional Member System (AMS), also known as Mixed-Member Proportional or MMP, is used very successfully all over the world, including in the UK (for elections to the London assembly, Scottish parliament and Welsh parliament) and in countries such as Germany and New Zealand. It is seen by many as a ‘best of both worlds’ system, as it maintains a strong local constituency link and is proportional.

AMS is essentially a combination of our current First Past the Post (FPTP) system and a party list system. Voters are given two ballot papers on election day – one to elect their local MP in exactly the way they do now, and another where they vote for a party rather than a specific candidate.

The list ballot is used to compensate for the disproportionality of the FPTP system. For example, if a party gets ten constituency MPs elected, but actually received enough of the popular vote to get 15 MPs (this is very common under FPTP), then five candidates from their list will also be elected as a ‘top-up’ in order to make the result proportional. The list MPs won’t have a specific constituency, but would most likely represent an entire region instead. In Scotland for example, 73 MSPs are elected to represent local constituencies and 56 are taken from the ‘top-up’ lists – seven MSPs for each of the eight regions of Scotland.

Labour MP for Leeds North West, Alex Sobel, is a fan of this system as he is keen to maintain the relationship voters have with a constituency MP. He told me:

“Winner-takes-all results throw millions of votes on the electoral scrapheap – which is why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have moved to more proportional voting systems already.  PR promises an exciting opportunity for citizens to consider, deliberate, and decide for themselves how the House of Commons should be elected.”

A downside of AMS however is that it wouldn’t eliminate the ‘safe seats’ that frustrate so many voters currently, due to the presence of the FPTP element. However, like all of the systems outlined above, voters would have more than one representative to go to with their concerns. This means that if their constituency MP is isn’t the slightest bit interested in a particular issue (again, very common currently) they can go to their regional MP or MPs instead, rather than being left completely voiceless.

Alternative Vote

It is worth quickly mentioning the Alternative Vote system (AV). In 2011, the coalition government held a referendum on whether or not to change our voting system to AV. The electorate voted 68 percent in favour (on a 42 percent turnout) of keeping FPTP. This resulted in critics of PR often arguing that “we’ve had a referendum on the subject and the public didn’t want change” in order to shut down any discussion on the subject.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, AV is not a proportional voting system!

Under AV, voters rank candidates in order of preference in the same way as STV, but the key difference is that AV would use the same constituency boundaries at FPTP, meaning it is still a majoritarian system. The more members being elected, the more proportional the result will be, which is why STV and party list systems are the most proportional. AV would be an improvement over FPTP in some aspects, as it would remove the need for tactical voting and allows voters to express support for multiple parties. However, in some circumstances, such as the 2015 general election, AV would have actually resulted in an even less proportional result than FPTP, as this report by the Electoral Reform Society outlines.

So the UK has never actually been given a choice about having a fair voting system, and a recent survey by the public administration and constitutional affairs committee found that 77.9 percent of people said their priority should be fixing our electoral system.

I’ve touched on a few of the most common proportional voting systems here, all of which have already been used successfully very close to home. There are, however, many more types of proportional voting systems and even many different ways of counting votes under the systems I’ve outlined above.

While different parties and politicians have their own preferences, Make Votes Matter, the most prominent campaigning organisation for fair votes in the UK, believes that Westminster’s electoral system should be decided by a citizens’ assembly in an “evidence-based, deliberative process”. The principles of a good voting system are laid out in their Good Systems Agreement which has been signed by many individuals, organisations and political parties, including every major ‘progressive’ party in the House of Commons apart from Labour.

Natalie Bennet, former leader of the Green Party of England & Wales and now a member of the House of Lords agrees with this approach:

“The fight that needs to be won is for PR – then we can worry about the details. I believe getting a modern, functional constitution for the UK requires a people’s constitutional convention to thrash it out – that’s the democratic way forward.”

Natalie also summed up the desperate need for electoral reform brilliantly when she said:

“The democratic need is obvious. The UK cannot be called a democracy until parliament reflects the views of the people, which it in no way does now, while the Tories have 100 percent of the power in the Commons after winning 44 percent of the vote. But there’s also a powerful argument for PR-elected governments providing better quality of governance. PR is really, really simple for voters. You vote for what you want, and you get it.”

So if, like so many people in the UK, you would like to be casting your vote under one of the above systems sooner rather than later, then get involved with Make Votes Matter, write to your MP, table a CLP motion if you’re a Labour member, chat to friends and family about fixing our crumbling electoral system over a (virtual) coffee. We need to do all we can to spread the word and keep the momentum building.

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