“Unfairness” of the voting system

Before, during, and after the May 6th British General Election there has been a huge amount of talk, mainly by the Liberal Democrat party of the “unfairness” of the electoral system used for British General Elections.

When judging an election system you have to ask what is its purpose?  The main practical purpose of a General Election is surely to choose a government.  In effect until the latest election and apart from the exceptional circumstances of World War, the House of Commons has acted more like an electoral college to choose a Prime Minister who then chooses members of his administration from the elected House of Commons principally, but also, increasingly of late, from the unelected House of Lords.  The question then arises how “fair” or “unfair” has the system been over the post-war period which covers 65 years and 17 general elections (not including 2010) – an average of 3 years and 10 months per parliament.

Over that period, the party which got the most votes formed the government in all but two cases – October 1951 and February 1974 – where the differences in seats and votes between the largest and next largest parties were very small (+1.9%, -0.25% in 1951) and +0.9%, -0.7% in 1974).

The most significant change that has occurred over the period is that the two largest parties from whom the choice of government has been made, no longer together represent the vast majority of votes, having declined from 83% in 1945 to 80% in 1979 and to 73% in 1997 and 65% in 2010.  In this most recent election the two largest parties obtained only 42% of the electorate.

Clearly now despite the reluctance of the Labour and Conservative parties to accept this, the present “electoral college” system in the House of Commons is not only grossly unrepresentative of the voters, but cannot as we can see, be relied on to do its job of selecting a government.

The unrepresentative character can be quantified by the number of votes which were needed on average to elect an MP.  These are: Conservative (34,989), Labour (33,350), Liberal Democrat (119,788), Democratic Unionist Party (21,027), Scottish National Party (81,898), Sinn Fein (34,388), Plaid Cymru (55,131), Socialist Democratic Labour Party (36,990) Alliance (42,762) and Green (285,616).  The average votes per seat for the whole country is 45,691.  On this basis, with its party votes concentrated geographically, the four Northern Ireland parties fairly closely mirror the Conservative and Labour votes per seat.  The most glaring undemocratic result of the 2010 election is that for the UK Independence Party which received 917,832 votes without obtaining any seat.

The alternative vote system now offered by the Conservatives to the LibDems does not, as William Hague claimed yesterday, constitute a real “choice” for the British people.  It may shuffle power between the three main parties by reducing the number of LibDem votes needed to obtain a seat.  It will do nothing for the 917,832 UKIP voters who have no voice in the new House of Commons – as indeed is its intention.

Given the wide geographical distribution of the UKIP votes and those of other parties which fielded 300+ candidates, it is doubtful if anything except a full PR system will give it anything like a representative number seats in the House of Commons (19 in the case of UKIP).  Possibly the de Hondt system used in the European Parliament elections with say around 27 super constituencies in England, each with around 20 MPs, 3 such constituencies in Scotland, 2 in Wales and one in Northern Ireland, might produce a roughly proportionate result for parties winning 3-5% or more of the vote.  Five percent would represent 33 seats in the House of Commons.  The candidates could still canvas and be attached to an individual constituency as now, but the decision to elect them would be determined by the vote in the super-constituency to which it belonged.

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2 Responses to ““Unfairness” of the voting system”

  1. Haydon Bradshaw says:

    A good summary.
    However there is another dimension – a chance for gentle reform.
    The boundary Commissions have not being doing their job, or the terms of reference are inadequate. Leaving aside the three island constituencies, the largest voter turnouts are more than twice the smallest. To be representative, numbers could be ±5,000, but are now ± 15,800. We now have many small safe seats with very high majorities, obtained with few votes – stagnant backwaters of voting apathy? where maximising expenses might rise up complacent MP priority scales?

    In the Coalition Agreement notes it is said that if the AV referendum goes through, the number of seats could reduce by 150. If the smallest are merged, boundaries would need shunting across the country (disturbing some MP comfort zones).
    Of the 150 smallest voting turn-outs, 106 have majorities of over 20%, 73 over 30%, 32 over 40% majorities!
    Of the smallest 150, 121 are Labour, 8 Conservative, 8 LibDem, 5 DUP, others 8. 99 of these Labour seats have majorities greater than 20%. This cannot be healthy for the vitality and vibrancy of the Labour party. It also partly accounts for Labour’s high numbers of seats in relation to votes given.

    Fewer, larger seats could give us less extremist, more balanced constituencies; less complacent, higher quality MPs, better discussion in the house, a useful saving in pay and expenses, and more representative democracy.

    Email if you would like to be emailed a scatter diagram showing the distribution of 650 constituencies between size of voter turnout, and the size of their majorities; dots of the 150 smaller constituencies coloured to show which are held by the major parties. LibDems in green. haydon.bradshaw@zen.co.uk

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  2. Stephen Bush Stephen Bush says:

    Thanks for this comment. This issue is going to be very live over the next 9 months. I have emailed you to get the scatter diagram.
    What seems odd to me is the Tory-dominated government seem to have accepted the AV system as the only choice on the referendum ballot paper.
    Yet AV will only help the Lib Dems as the likely recipient of Labour preference votes, while the Tories will at best get the UKIP preference votes which will usually be fewer than half the LibDems.

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