Red: Liam Astle
Why should we reform our current voting system? Looking at first past the post, an electoral system in which the person with the most votes wins the seat, the flaws within the system are fairly evident and are most clear when it comes to the 2015 election. Under the current electoral system, you don’t need to have the majority of the country supporting you in order to form a government—the Conservative Party won a 51% of the seats in the Commons, with only 37% of votes. By definition, the will of the people is misrepresented if a party forms a majority government without a majority of the votes.
In the same way that a government doesn’t require the support of the majority of voters, nor does a member of Parliament need the support of a majority of their constituency. Take Alasdair McDonnell in Belfast South: a Social Democratic and Labour Party MP, who was elected on 24.5% of the vote last year, holding the UK record for the lowest share of the vote in any constituency. Do we really believe this is sufficiently representative of the voters of Belfast South?
Then there’s the inevitable factor of tactical voting. Surely, in a modern democracy, a voter should be free to express their democratic choice in the candidate they most believe in, rather than the candidate they disagree with the least. Democracy should be the people expressing their will, not being forced to make a choice for the convenience of two big parties.
So, if these are the problems with first past the post, what’s the solution? First, there’s the possibility of replacing the current system with the alternative vote, which would allow for the most continuity. The current electoral map would be retained, with constituencies remaining the same in size and makeup, but due to the ranked ballot voting system, people would be free to express their choices and vote per their will. There’s also the knock-on effect of safe seats becoming far less safe and allowing for greater representation for smaller parties, thereby better representing the voters. However, due to AV being a majoritarian system, there can still be cases of the people’s will being misrepresented in the overall seat makeup of the Commons, though it would avoid the constant coalitions we’d see under a proportional representation system.
Moreover, electing the Upper Chamber under the single transferable vote (STV) would allow for a greater democratisation of the system, resulting in direct proportional representation of our regions. STV would be more appropriate for representing regions instead of individual constituencies, since the system relies on bigger constituencies to elect representatives. This would ultimately allow for greater representation of small parties, better representation for our regions and nations, and for a much more democratic system, with both voting systems being tailored to the needs of the respective Houses of Parliament.
Blue: Altair Brandon-Salmon
One of the great tragedies of Western foreign policy since the Second World War has been the assumption that if certain governmental structures work in your country, then they will work in someone else’s too. This seductive but foolhardy notion, which has all too frequently resulted in costly wars abroad, also underpins arguments over electoral reform. Proponents point to countries such as Australia, Belgium and Norway as nations which employ proportional voting systems and claim those successes can and should be translated into our political system, replacing first past the post (FPTP). Yet this seems to iron out the differences between countries, as though the wants and needs of the electorates in these diverse countries are the same. We need to recognise that different democracies have different demands.
It’s striking that, of the liberal democratic permanent member countries of the UN Security Council, all three, the UK, US and France, have majoritarian systems like FPTP for elections. When we turn to the world’s 10 largest economies, of the nine which democracies (China being the non-democracy), five use FPTP. So, when we compare the democratic world powers in terms of political and economic influence and size, we can see FPTP has been a wide-reaching success. This utilitarian argument is seldom made when discussing electoral reform. Critics would challenge that correlation does not equal causality, and at any rate, if we pursue a utilitarian strategy, should we emulate China, as it has been an undoubted global success despite its oppressive political system?
While it would be foolish to claim that the UK or US are amongst the largest economies due to their voting systems, we should also observe that in the Anglo-sphere, the countries which are the most successful, like the UK, US or Canada, all embrace a majoritarian system. To claim what works in Japan will smoothly function in the UK seems to utterly ignore the crucial variances which exist amongst democracies. One of the main virtues FPTP delivers and which is prized by the British electorate is a strong, majority government, ruling with the checks and balances provided by a well-organised opposition. The presence of minor parties like the SNP, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens in Parliament ensure a plurality of views are represented without having undue influence, while extremist parties such as the BNP are shut out entirely. The standard single-party government is able to deliver a coherent policy platform, without the dilution and paralysis that we see in multi-party governments in Italy and Belgium. Those who would argue a government needs 50% +1 of the vote to be entirely legitimate ignore that the British electorate expect their government to be strong and dynamic on the global stage, delivering economic and foreign policies that ensure the UK maintains its international status. None of these priorities would be as well achieved under a coalition government which is the inevitable result of a proportional electoral system. For the UK to remain one of the leading democracies, we need an electoral system which creates a government able to meet the priorities of the body politic, making it crucial to keep FPTP.