We’re on the run-up to a general election in the UK. In theory, one person gets one vote, all votes are equal and every person gets equal representation in parliament. In practice it is far from that. Parties win seats in proportions very different from their proportion of the votes. Some parties get ten times more seats per vote than others, and that is far from fair and distorts the democratic working of parliament. The situation is made even worse by the particulars of UK party politics in this next election, where there seems unlikely to be a clear winner and we will probably need to have coalition government. The representational distortion that already exists is amplified even further when a party gets far more seats than it justifies and thereby has far greater power in negotiating a place in coalition.
For decades, the UK electoral system worked fine for the two party system – Labour and Conservative (broadly equivalent to Democrat and Republican in the USA). Labour wins more seats per vote than the Conservatives because of the geographic distribution of their voter base, but the difference has been tolerable. The UK’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, generally won only a few seats even when they won a significant share of the vote, because they were thinly spread across the country, so achieved a local majority in very few places. Conservatives generally had a majority in most southern seats and labour had a majority in most northern seats.
Now we have a very different mixture. Scotland has the SNP, we have the Greens, UKIP, the Libdems, Conservatives and Labour. A geographic party like the SNP will always win far more seats per vote because instead of being spread across the whole country, they are concentrated in a smaller region where they count for a higher average proportion and therefore win more local majorities. By contrast Libdems have their voters spread thinly across the whole country with a few pockets of strong support, and UKIP and the Greens are also pretty uniformly dispersed so reaching a majority anywhere is very difficult. Very few seats are won by parties that don’t have 30% or more of the national vote. For the three bottom parties, that results in gross under-representation in parliament. A party could win 20% of the votes and still get no seats. Or they could have only 2% of the vote but win 10% of the seats if the voters are concentrated in one region.
A Channel 4 blog provides a good analysis of the problem that discusses distortion effects of turnout, constituency size and vote distribution which saves me having to repeat it all:
Looking to the future, I believe an old remedy would help a lot in leveling the playing field:
Firstly, if a party wins more than a certain percentage of votes, say 1%, they should be allocated at least one seat, if necessary a seat without constituency. Secondly, once a party has one or more seats, those seats can have their parliamentary votes scaled according to the number of votes their party has won. The block voting idea has been used by trades unions for decades, it isn’t new. I find it astonishing that it hasn’t already been implemented
So a party with 5 seats that won 15% of the vote would get the same say on a decision as one with 50 seats that also won 15% of the vote, even though they have far fewer seats. In each case, the 15% who voted for them would see the correct representation in decision-making. Parties such as the Greens, Libdems and UKIP would have a say in Parliament representative of their level of support in the electorate. The larger parties Labour and Conservatives would have far less say, but one that is representative of their support. The SNP would have to live with only having as much power as the voter numbers they represent, a fraction of what they will likely achieve under this broken present system.
That would be fair. MPs would still be able to talk, make arguments, win influence and take places on committees. We would still have plenty of diversity to ensure a wide enough range of opinions are aired when debating. But when a decision is made, every voter in the country gets equal representation, and that is how democracy is supposed to be.
Further refinements might let voters split their vote between parties, but let’s concentrate on making the playing field at least a bit level first.