“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.