Five reasons we desperately need to change the voting system

22 million voters had no influence on the outcome of the election

 

Nearly a fifth of all English votes are now represented by just two MPs. Half of all UK votes went to losing candidates.

This is the result of what the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) calls ‘A Voting System in Crisis’, the title of their new report into ‘the most disproportionate result in British election history’.

Smaller parties have added to the chorus of voices calling for reform after the election; nearly a third of the electorate voted for a party other than Labour or the Conservatives.

But it’s not just political parties who have an interest in reform. For the sake of democracy, voter engagement and unity we desperately need to get rid of the First Past The Post (FPTP) system, and here’s why:

It’s bad for morale

Since 2001, no single-party government has had the support of more than 40 per cent of voters, and the Conservatives are now governing on less than 37 per cent of the popular vote. Taking turnout into account, the current government commands the support of just a quarter of the electorate.

This is disastrous for morale and voter engagement. The many protests that have taken place since the election – some serious and thoughtful, some hysterical and counter-productive – are symptomatic of the frustration of voters who know their voice doesn’t count on polling day.

It threatens the Union

For the first time, the parties with the largest number of seats is different in each of the four nations of the UK: the Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the DUP in Northern Ireland.

But the actual vote share of the parties is far more nuanced than this: for example, the Conservatives have 15 per cent of the vote in Scotland, but this has been represented by a single seat in the last two elections. Last month 50 per cent of the Scottish vote share translated into 95 per cent of seats for the SNP.

In this way, FPTP exaggerates national and regional divides and threatens the future of the Union; the Unionist voice in Scotland is now extremely weak, despite the fact that over half of Scots voted against independence.

It increases sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland

As the ERS points out today, community pacts between Northern Irish parties lead to unrepresentative seat share. At this election, the unionist parties jointly endorsed one candidate in four seats – East Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, North Belfast and Newry and Armagh. This allowed the DUP to unseat Naomi Long of the Alliance Party in East Belfast – despite the fact that she increased her vote.

Essentially, people are not voting for their preferred candidate but for the unionist or nationalist who is most likely to keep the others out, and parties are stepping out of some seats in order to win disproportionate representation for their community in others.

Many commentators have said that this enforces divisions, calling it a ‘sectarian headcount’.

It wastes votes

Noone’s vote should be wasted. But a month before the election, the ERS correctly guessed the winner in all but five of 368 seats, so predictable is the phenomenon of ‘safe seats’. The ERS estimates that almost three quarters of votes are ‘wasted’ because they either provide surplus support for incumbents in these seats, or they vote for a losing candidate. The ‘winner takes all’ effect of FPTP means that smaller parties achieve little or no representation.

According to the ERS, 22 million people who voted had no influence on the numerical outcome. This drives people towards tactical votin – ERS research found that 9 per cent of voters were planning on voting tactically – for the ‘least bad’ choice.

It creates unstable governments

The Conservatives may have a majority now, but it is a slim one. With the party only ten seats ahead of the combined opposition, Cameron will find it difficult to push through controversial policies. While this is welcome news for critics of Tory policy such as the repeal of the Human Rights Act, it means the government is unstable and makes passing legislation a lengthy and time-consuming process.

We are living in a multi-party era, where coalition governments may make more sense, logistically and democratically, than shaky single-party ones. It is high time that our electoral system reflected this.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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