How people elect parliaments
If at any time soon the British Parliament legislates to reform the nation’s electoral system, it will almost certainly require the support of the Scottish National Party.
After the recent June 8 elections, the House of Commons again has no major party with a dominant majority of the 650 seats – the second time this has happened in the past three elections.
Majority governments of the Conservative and Labour parties have for over a century embraced the existing single-member division plurality (or ‘first-past-the-post’) voting system.
SMD-plurality voting severely limits voter choice, and wildly diversifies the real influence each voter has depending on where they reside at the time of each election.
After three highly unsatisfactory elections in a row in 2010, 2015 and now 2017 in terms of party representation in the Commons, UK reform organizations such as the Electoral Reform Society and the Making Votes Matter Campaign have increased their campaigns to see the voting system reformed.
The third-largest UK party – the Liberal Democrats – and national minor parties such as the Greens and the UK Independence Party would all endorse most of the fairer alternatives to SMP plurality voting. The nation’s regional political parties would likely do so well.
The Labour Party – faced with increasing diversity on the political left – also has a growing internal movement for electoral reform, headlined by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.
Rather than parliamentary manoeuvres, LCER is campaigning to increase support for reform at the party’s grassroots, and will attempt to influence party policy at Labour’s conference in September.
The Labour Party’s LCER reform group
recently released a comprehensive
statement of their arguments and goals
A future Labour government that wins a parliamentary majority under the current voting rules could well repeat their past habit of keeping the SMD-plurality system.
But any minority Labour government formed in the near-future will most likely be one which governs with the support of the Scottish National Party (SNP), or else both the SNP and the pro-reform Liberal Democrats.
The SNP has grown to prominence in the past two decades under the Additional Member System (AMS) of party-proportionality (which involves a mix of party-appointed seats as well as local plurality-elected MPs) that has been used to elect the Scottish Parliament since 1999.
However in Scotland all local government elections are now conducted using the single transferable vote method (STV), which maintains direct voting for individual candidates, but also minimizes distortion of voters’ influence and of the seat shares which political parties end up with.
Elections in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland have also used the STV system for many decades.
The SNP position in regard to national House of Commons elections is strongly in favour of some form of proportional representation, a category that includes any of STV, AMS or possibly just a system of party-proportional allocation of seats to party nominees.
In its 2015 Commons election manifesto, the SNP explicitly called for the House of Commons to be elected using the STV voting system.
In the recent 2017 national election, their stance had blurred slightly to a non-specific support for any of the proportional voting systems.
However there have also been calls within the party to change the system for Scottish parliamentary elections to use STV instead of AMS.
In the present House of Commons elected in June – and scheduled to run until 2022 – any legislation for voting method reform would need the support of every parliamentary faction other than the governing Conservatives, including the 10 MPs of the government’s nominal allies, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
All these parties have some strategic reason to embrace reform, but it would be a highly unusual alliance that did so.
The UK Parliament – unlike many parliaments in Australia which have dealt with minority government situations – has little experience with legislation being passed in the teeth of government opposition.
The governing Conservatives could potentially drag their feet in the task of implementing any new voting system that they opposed.
There are, however, many parts of the country where conservative voters are also disempowered by the current plurality system.
Conservative reformers know that their supporters in the north of England as well as in Scotland, Wales and in parts of London have endured decades of little or no political influence.
UK political parties hold conferences annually, and policy issues such as preferred voting methods are typically dealt with at party conference level.
This year the Labour Party is meeting from 24 to 27 September, and the SNP from 8-10 October.
The Conservatives will meet from 1 to 4 October, but no move towards electoral reform from the government seems likely.