First Past the Post Vs. Proportional Representation

Never has there been a better time to evaluate the possibility of a complete overhaul to the political voting systems of the UK. As our country has just voted for the first hung parliament in thirty-six years, terms such as ‘first past the post’ and ‘proportional representation’ are being bandied around by our politicians. Yet many people do not fully understand what is meant by this.

Nick Clegg (the leader of the Liberal Democrats party) has now formed an alliance with the Conservative Party, and this was always going to be under the proviso that the country would be presented with the opportunity of a referendum over a new voting system. David Cameron, the new Prime Minister, appears to have honoured this condition and has been heard to mention a referendum on a number of occasions.

So, many people feel that there are fundamental flaws with our voting system. Democracy appears to be placed to one side when a government can be put together that is likely to go against the wishes of a large proportion of the country. This is the nature of a hung parliament, but we must remember that we have not been in this exact position for around seventy years. Also, although the Conservative Party did not achieve the outright majority of 326 seats at the last election, they were the party that secured the most – at 307 seats.

It is completely obvious why Nick Clegg is doing his damnedest to see the implementation of a proportional representation system. His party generally loses out in the majority of constituencies where first past the post is currently in place. With this system, it is a straightforward race to achieve the most votes; any candidates who secure anything less will not win the seat in Parliament – it really is as simple as that.

For many decades now, the Labour and Conservative parties have tended to win the seats in Parliament and the Liberal Democrats have managed to secure seats only in isolated pockets of the country.

The Liberal Democrats’ strongest argument here is that they actually managed to increase their vote by one percentage point since the last election in 2005, yet they secured five fewer seats. The first past the post voting system favours only the top two parties and the Liberal Democrats do not have a fair representation in the House of Commons, especially when you consider that they achieved 23% of the overall national vote.

Admittedly, we can all see that the Liberal Democrats have cause for complaint in this regard, but is proportional representation a voting system that can actually work for parliamentary elections? On a national level, probably not. If the entire national vote was apportioned to the relevant number of seats in Parliament, given the diversity of the UK, this simply would not work.

However, in a larger constituency or even at the regional level, this may become the way forward. For example, constituencies could become the size of a county or even a region. Then the number of votes received within this larger area could be allocated to the relevant number of seats that are available. This would help to ensure that regional (or even national) political party variations would be taken into consideration (e.g. Plaid Cymwu, SNP, Northern Ireland’s parties).

The term ‘proportional representation’ is not indicative of only one possible voting system. There are several and many of these work in different countries all across the world with perfect success. Moreover, proportional representation is actually already in practice for voting systems here in the UK today. The national parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rely on this method. Also, the elections to the European Parliament are carried out under proportional representation.

One other very important aspect that people feel should be investigated further in the UK is the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland become involved in the general elections to the same extent as England does. Given the fact that many powers have been devolved to other countries of the UK (especially Scotland), hackles definitely were raised when SNP and Plaid Cymwu were whining over the fact that they were not invited to participate in the Prime Ministerial debates.

There are some people who feel that general elections should focus primarily on English constituencies. Politicians from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not be permitted to take seats in the House of Commons when issues that relate only to England are being debated. When a non-devolved matter is being deliberated, it may be a good idea for relevant representatives from the Scottish Parliament or Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies to be officially entitled to sit in the House of Commons.

There is no denying the fact that the largest nation of the United Kingdom seems to be at a disadvantage in terms of politics. Why should the other three countries of the UK be entitled to have a say over issues that will never affect them, particularly when they already have their own independent legislative branches?

As you can see, there are many issues over our political voting system that need to be evaluated in the near future. Whilst the politicians are at it, they may wish to consider creating our written constitution once and for all too. It is somewhat embarrassing that the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries in the world that do not have a constitution in an official written form. I could not help but notice how this became an issue during the recent election; politicians who were looking to rule our nation had no idea of what the official constitutional law was on numerous occasions as the hung parliament materialised.

You may have also noticed that the new Government have already taken steps to set a fixed-term Parliament of five years; they are looking at the constituency boundaries in order to make them fairer. But fairer to whom? This could be another strong reason for the need for an official written constitution – one that would not permit new governments to manipulate boundaries in a way that would favour them at the next election.