On Elections

How people elect parliaments

UK House of Commons debates proportional representation

The debate over electoral reform for the United Kingdom has moved a small step forward, with a debate in the House of Commons on the subject.

In response to well-supported public petitions, the Parliament organizes special debates on nominated issues, which are held in the Westminster Hall chamber.

Advocates for electoral reform, led by the Making Votes Matter group, rounded up over 100,000 signatures earlier in 2017 to call for getting rid of the plurality voting, or ‘first-past-the-post ‘(FPTP) voting sytem used to elect the House of Commons.

The debate that the petition triggered was due to be held earlier this year, but was delayed by the abrupt calling of the UK general election in April.

The petition sponsors’ introduction to the debate argues that specific polls on the subject show that a majority of British people favour some form of proportional representation in parliament.

“Our FPTP voting system makes Parliament unrepresentative”, according to the debate sponsors.

“[At the recent elections] one party got 37% of the vote and 51% of seats, while 3 parties got 24% of the vote but share 1.5% of seats.”

“FPTP violates the democratic principle of majority rule and causes problems like costly policy reversals.”

Britain came close to adopting the single transferable vote (STV) system for Commons elections in 1916.

Shortly afterward the STV system was adopted for elections in Ireland, where it has continued in use for over a century. STV was also adopted in Tasmania in 1896, and was considered for adoption in Australia in 1902.

Later British debates on reforming the voting method flourished in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s.

The governing alliance between the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties led to a referendum in 2011 offering a limited choice between two forms of voting in the existing single-member constituencies: the current plurality, ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system and a preferential version – similar to that used in Australia – termed the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV).

But because the 2011 AV option was no-one’s preferred choice, reform support for it was very lukewarm. The referendum saw a low voter turnout, and the existing system’s supporters outnumbered support for AV by a solid margin.

The current reform proponents argue that 2011 referendum “was on a system that is often less proportional than FPTP, so the rejection of AV could not possibly be a rejection of PR.

“In fact, so few voters wanted either system on offer that the turnout was just 42%.

“There are tried and tested PR systems that keep the constituency link. They would make every vote matter equally, rather than allowing a minority of swing voters in a few marginal seats to pick the government.”

The current Conservative Government is opposing the motion to be debated today, arguing that “the First Past the Post voting system is the best system for elections to the House of Commons. “

“The system is well established and understood by voters and provides a clear link between constituents and their representatives in Parliament.

“More often than not, it results in a government with a working majority in Parliament making decisive government possible.”

But as reformers point out, a majority of those polled disagree about the Government’s conclusion that plurality voting is the best system.

Often the dominant parliamentary majorities which arise from plurality elections have no actual basis in majority voter support.

And there are many other well established and understood electoral systems in use around the world, at least some of which – such as the STV systems of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) systems – can provide clear links between local districts of electors and the chosen representatives.

Both STV and MMP systems are in use in the British Isles themselves, across Ireland and in Scotland, Wales and the city of London.



The debate: Hansard transcript of the debate on 30 October 2017



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