Participation, Politics and Constitutional Reform

I thought I’d write about something light for a change!

No, seriously, the reason I’m writing this blog is three-fold –

  1. I care about electoral systems and about electoral reform in the UK because I firmly believe an intrinsically unfair and skewed system turns people off
  2. In the run-up to the next General Election, I think it’s useful to look at our system of voting, so that we at least understand the inherent flaws it has
  3. After the Scottish referendum there has been talk of constitutional reform – something that is long overdue – and something that ultimately needs to include a look at our electoral system.

In this post, I’ll talk about the 2010 election results and what that tells us about our democracy. In a future blog I’ll talk about why constitutional reform needs to look at the electoral system, too.

And in a second future blog, I’ll describe a system that in my view might square the circle.

Some numbers first

At the moment, we have a ‘first past the post’ system of electing representative at most levels. Here, I am concentrating on the national picture.

We have 650 constituencies. You may assume that these constituencies have roughly the same number of people voting, i.e. roughly the same population.

You’d be wrong. The smallest constituency, Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles) in Scotland had an electorate of 21780 in the 2010 election. The largest constituency, the Isle of Wight, had 109922; that is a staggering difference. In fact, it is a difference of a factor of 5. So the value of 1 vote in Na h-Eileanan an Iar is worth 5 votes in the Isle of Wight.

Of course, that’s just the two outliers; but what of the distribution across all 650 consitiuencies?

Here’s a picture to show you the distribution of the sizes of electorates across all constituencies:

Size of Electorate

So even thought most of the constituencies are bunched between 60 000 and 80 000 (and that’s still quite a range) the spread is still quite wide.

Why is that so? That’s for another post – it will take some digging; but on the face of it, there seems little to justify this inequality in the number of electors.

But what do I mean by electors? I assume that it means: people who are registered to vote. There is no population register that would provide a good indication of the population of a particular area other than the census – which happens every 10 years – and the electoral register, which contains only those people who are registered to vote. So it excludes anyone who isn’t eligible to vote and it excludes anyone who doesn’t register despite being eligible.

So: in order to see whether one factor in the difference of the size of the electorate in each constituency might be the difference in registration rates, I would have to compare the 2001 census with the 2010 electorate numbers for all 650 constituencies. So, as I said, that’s for another post.

The next question: is there a regional difference in the average size of electorate? Well, yes, there is, but it’s not quite as stark as the numbers above.

Here’s another picture, which shows the average size of constituency for each of the 12 electoral regions:

Size of electorate - reg average

The blue regions have an average electorate of below 70 000; the others have an average of above 70 000. The range of these averages is from 56628 for Wales and 74979 for the South East.

So, the conclusion from these numbers would be: because we have a first past the post system applied in each constituency, the actual size of the constituency matters very much. The huge differences therefore could have quite a distorting effect on the composition of the House of Commons.

The result

The first past the post system has one major flaw: all votes cast for anyone other than the winner are lost. And depending on the margin of the victory, winning a seat from the party that holds it can be very difficult.

Much is made of the ‘marginal’ seats; these are the seats where the winner didn’t have a huge majority and where technically – and quite often actually – another party can win next time round.

So it’s also useful to look at the range of margins. So here’s a picture that shows the margin (grouped into bands):


It is maybe also interesting to know the range this represents: the smallest majority was 42 votes; the largest majority was 27826.

But in a constituency where there is a small margin, there will be a lot of people who feel that their vote has not had an impact.

If voters felt that their vote would affect the overall picture of the political make-up of the House of Commons, even if their preferred candidate in their constituency lost, then there might be more of an incentive to vote; and there might be more of an incentive to be targeted about voting.

The other way of looking at the result is to see the percentage of votes, which the winners got. Again, this is a broad range.

The picture shows this clearly:

Percentage polled by winners

So that means that about two thirds of MPs are elected with less than half of the votes cast in their constituencies.

Lots of small parties – a boon for democracy?

I’m not using 2010 because it was very unusual in terms of the result – although it was unusual in some regards. I am using it because it is the most recent set of results we have.

First of all, how many political parties do you think stood for election? Well, I am absolutely sure you’d be as surprised as I was to learn that there were 135. Yes, you did read that number correctly.

Of course, quite a few of them didn’t make much by way of inroads, and quite a few of them only stood a few candidates – if that.

There were quite a few so-called parties or groupings which were just a small group supporting an independent in one locality. But between them, they stood over 300 candidates and whilst their share of the vote overall was small, if they had formed a party and run on a joint ticket, they would have achieved enough of a percentage to gain seats in some proportional systems.

But the fact that there are all these small groups – and many of them very locally focused does suggest that for some the fact that a national (general) election is about national policy for the good of the country as a whole is relatively low on the list of priorities.

The Constituency MP Model – and its flaws

The constituency model – where the winner is established only within a specific defined constituency – and there is no room for balancing the representation in the House of Commons against the balance of political opinion across the country is intrinsically flawed.

I have often heard it said that the benefit of this system is that you can choose your representative (notwithstanding that each political party chooses who to stand in a constituency) and that you then have someone who is your representative, almost your advocate in parliament.

But that is not the only, and not even the primary job of parliament and parliamentarians. Yes, of course, those people who represent us should have a working knowledge of the area and the people they represent. But their main job is to make laws and policy for the good of the country as a whole. The very fact that MPs feel that they have to ‘advocate’ on behalf of their constituents can lead to them railing against a policy, which they and their party support because it negatively impacts some of their constituents. The ‘not in my back yard’ approach writ large!

And the fact that MPs feel that it is their job to intervene on behalf of individuals with local and other authorities is, generally speaking, a distraction from the real job of making good laws for the country as a whole.

I don’t want an MP who will do some sort of special pleading for me with some local, regional, or national government or other agency; I want an MP who gets what I mean by good policy for the common good.

So having a system that focuses on ‘my local MP who speaks up for me as an individual’ rather than our MPs who represent our political views which we hold not for our own personal benefit but because we believe that a better society is better for all, is deeply flawed.

What are the alternatives?

I know that we’ve just had a referendum recently on an alternative system of voting. That was deeply flawed too, but that’s again, for another blog.

But there are systems – not the one we were given as the only alternative to the system we have – that manage to combine the ‘local MP’ concept with proportional representation that deserves the name.

Watch this space for another blog describing one such system

What I want to do here – and what I want to finish with is to look at what the House of Commons would have looked like if there had been a completely proportional system – i.e. all seats had been allocated on the basis of the percentage of votes cast nationally for each of the parties. There are some caveats to this: first, some parties didn’t put up candidates everywhere; that affects the regional parties especially. And so that skews the result.

The picture below shows the result for the 7 parties that would have come top of the list in a completely proportional system.

Seats - actual and by %

What it shows are a number of things:

The two big parties would have gained far fewer seats; the Liberal Democrats would have had a much stronger voice; two parties that did not make it into the House of Commons would have got in with significant representation. The fact that they are both parties whose views I do not agree with at all doesn’t really come into this. Democracy isn’t about getting in who I like; it’s about electing people who represent the broad views of the voting public. And if that means that parties such as UKIP and the BNP get 20 and 12 seats respectively, then that will give everyone else something to think about!

It also shows that the Scottish National Party and the Green Party would have had more representation.

There are other changes to parties that are currently in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein, the DUP and the SDLP would all have had marginally less representation; Plaid Cymru would have had marginally more representation; Respect would not have won a seat.

And Finally….

Do I think that a completely proportional system would solve all problems? No, I don’t; I think a system that is completely proportional would throw up it’s own problems and instability might be one of them.

Do I think we need to have a conversation about what kind of voting system we want? Yes, I do. And that conversation needs to include issues around the size of constituencies, the representation of regions, especially those where strong regional parties exist. And above all, we need to have an open and informed debate about the pros and cons of any number of possible systems. And the constitutional review – if it’s not done on the quick to favour those already in power – may just give us the opportunity.

But make no mistake, those that call for a quick fix, a solution that wraps further devolution to Scotland up with ‘devolution’ in other parts of the UK without thinking through the whole system and how it would hang together, are doing so not because they think it will give the best answer, but because they know it will solidify their power base. Don’t let them get away with it.


About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
This entry was posted in Behind the Headlines, Constitutional Reform, Politics in context, The mechanics of politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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