Voting systems: The UK and Europe, and what is going wrong

justgrimes, 2010

Photograph: Flickr / justgrimes

Growing up in the UK with an Austrian citizenship and background, I have been able to experience two vastly different voting systems, and also witness how they affect their respective political systems.

In Austria, as in most other continental European countries, the voting system is proportional representation, whereas in the UK the system used is known as first past the post. The first past the post moniker refers to votes cast in the constituency. Everyone directly votes for the candidates running to become the MP in their local consti

tuency and the winner is simply the candidate with the highest number of votes; no majority is needed, hence the name first past the post. In fact, first past the post does not apply for the total number of MPs a party gains at a general election; in that case, a majority of seats is required, namely 326 out of 650 or more. This means that every vote made in the United Kingdom only affects 1/650th of seats. Proportional representation is a much simpler concept, although there are different ways of using the system. The most common, and indeed the one also used in Austrian general elections, is known as party list proportional representation. In party list PR, each party lists their candidates according to their importance to the party. The percentage of votes received corresponds to the number of seats the party will have in parliament, and the members of parliament for each party are given according to the party list. For example, if the party wins 74 seats, the first 74 names on the party list will become members of parliament.

Two of the main criticisms of proportional representation are that they allow extreme parties a foothold in parliament, and that coalitions will often form. Many countries using a proportional representation system have a threshold, which is the minimum percentage of the vote required to have representation in parliament. In Austria, this is 4%, which is a similar value to most other PR systems. This means that parties require a significant minority of the total vote in order to be represented. If a party receives over 4% of the vote, it seems justified to allow them representation, no matter what views they stand for. 4% of the total vote in the general election in the UK is totally meaningless, however, as it could mean the party has no seats or multiple, depending on where their voters come from.

Coalitions are another common reason for distrusting PR. It is thought that coalitions are rarely productive and fewer policies will become implemented, as the parties in the coalition are not willing to compromise on their core beliefs. I, however, contend that coalitions can often be of benefit, as they more honestly reflect the views of the electorate. Often also, coalitions are beneficial as they represent a greater number of voters than in first past the post systems. It must be said, however, that there is often less hostility between different parties in other countries than in the UK, due to historical differences, and so grand coalitions between the main conservative party and main social-democratic party are easily possible and productive. In the UK, the Conservative and Labour parties would find it difficult to productively work together. As much of the coverage for the 2015 UK general election has indicated already, a coalition in the next government is the most likely outcome, which proves that coalitions do not just occur in PR systems. It must also be noted that as more parties are represented in PR systems, more ideologically similar coalitions are able to form. The expected 1 or 2 seats for the green party and 5 for UKIP will not greatly help Labour or the Tories come May when deciding with whom to form a coalition.

A key reason for supporters of first past the post in the UK to hold this belief is their view that anyone can go to their local MP when they have a problem, which gives them a direct link to the federal government. They believe that as MPs are not locally chosen in PR systems, there is less of a link between people and the government. This, however, is not the case. In PR systems, there is often a greater emphasis on regional and local governments, and any formal complaint will be dealt with at the relevant level of government, which gives citizens the same level of political interaction. Indeed, voter turnout is on the whole higher in countries with PR, as people feel that their vote could actually make a difference on a national level.

My main reasons for disliking the first past the post system are tactical voting and the skewed number of seats for the main two parties. Tactical voting arises in constituencies when there are only two candidates with any likelihood of becoming elected. The tactical vote here will be for the candidate the voter finds the ‘least bad’, as the candidate they would actually like to vote for has no chance of being elected MP. If they had followed their heart and voted for their preferred candidate, their vote would have been wasted. That is why it is often argued that it is often not in someone’s interest to vote for the green party or the SNP or UKIP, as it could be a lost Labour or Tory vote. In swing constituencies this is especially relevant, as voting for a favoured party will likely have a negative consequence. In PR systems, your geographical location does not affect the impact of your vote on the general election.