Has the time come for electoral reform?

It is easy to forget but during the last parliamentary term we had a referendum on voting reform. The choice was given to voters to move from the current system of First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote model. The proposal was heavily defeated and seemed to put an end to the debate about voting reform. However the General Election results and the subsequent distribution of seats has raised questions once again.

The drive for change has been led by the Greens and UKIP who feel let down and under-represented by the current system. The Greens gained over 1 million votes and UKIP almost 4 million yet both only picked up one seat. These numbers are in stark contrast to the average number of votes which were needed per seat for the Tories (34,000), Labour (40,000) and the SNP (26,000). This has led to a petition calling for a “fairer” voting system being signed by the leaders of UKIP, the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru and presented to Downing Street.

On the face of it, these numbers seem compelling, however we should remember why we currently have First Past the Post. The population as a whole have voted for this system and therefore the chances of another referendum are slim. The system does have its strengths, notably in providing a stable government and despite what was said about this election it has created this result again. It also creates a link between an MP and his or her constituency.

There is presently no clear alternative. Many potential voting systems have been suggested, but there does not seem to be an obvious winner. All other options including those based more on proportional representation have their weaknesses. A “fairer” voting system probably means different things to different parties and in the absence of a clear alternative the case for change appears weak.

The distribution of seats after the result of this election makes this an obvious gripe for seemingly under-represented parties. The current system does disproportionately impede the smaller parties and therefore could be perceived as being unfair. From their perspective a change is considered necessary. However, regardless of the increasingly noisy voices there is little chance of change occurring. The new Conservative administration will feel they have bigger priorities and anyway have a political interest in maintaining the current system.  So don’t expect change any time soon.

Article by Mike Hough

Photograph – Electoral Reform Society

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