Proportional representation and the 2015 general election – how the picture might have looked

Keeping the faith: 2010 protest in favour of proportional representation. Rob Brewer, CC BY-SA

The country awoke the morning after the election – if indeed it had slept – to a widely unexpected and surprising result. Despite polls predicting little room between Labour and the Conservatives and pundits forecasting weeks of coalition negotiations with a range of possible unions, David Cameron achieved something that had not been seen since Thatcher in 1983. The Conservatives increased their seats in the Commons, thus achieving what had been seen as an unlikely majority to form a single-party government.

It is hard to escape, however, the shortcomings of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral process. Indeed, Douglas Carswell, the newly-elected UKIP MP for Clacton, used his victory speech to hammer home the fact that millions of voters were supporting UKIP, but due to the system, these votes did not necessarily mean seats. The numbers spoke for themselves: 1.5m Scots voted for the Scottish National Party (SNP), giving rise to 56 seats. Conversely, almost 4m people supported UKIP – and that party won just a single seat.

Under the FPTP system, the 650 commons seats are contested in 650 constituencies. The MP candidate who achieves the most votes in their constituency, takes one seat in the chamber. The problem is, however, that constituencies vary greatly in size and population. As a consequence, the number of votes cast in favour of a particular political party will not necessarily equate proportionally to seats in the House.

Electoral reform has been considered in the past. In 2011, motivated by the first hung parliament since the 1970s and encouraged by the Liberal Democrat’s part in the following agreement, a referendum was held on the possibility of FPTP being replaced by the Alternative Vote (AV) system. At the ballot box, this would have given the public the opportunity to number their potential candidates by preference. Due, perhaps in part to a rushed and uninformed debate, the referendum failed dramatically. The issue has not gone away, however, and in the run up to the 2015 election, parties gave space in their manifestos to the need for change.

Very different picture

Proportional representation (PR) is widely identified as the preferable and obvious alternative. This means that seats are allocated proportionately to votes cast and can operate in a number of different ways. It is used, for example, to select members to the European Parliament. If the House of Commons, post the 2015 general election, were to be viewed from the perspective of PR, however, the results would be markedly different from the results to which we all awoke on May 8.

How the Commons might have looked with proportional representation. Electoral Reform Society

Under proportional representation, the Conservative lead shrinks and the smaller parties enjoy results relative to their support. Of note, the 82 and 50 seats hypothetically allocated respectively to UKIP and the Lib Dems is in stark contrast to the disappointing results actually achieved on the night.

Going forward, it is not necessarily just a case of altering the geographical discrepancies between constituencies and changing the way in which we allocate seats. Our constitutional system is founded upon a parliamentary and governmental system that requires the government to command a majority in the commons in order that policies and reforms having the backing of the elected government can be sustained.

This would not be the case on the basis of the above figures – the Conservatives (as the winning party) being outnumbered 239 to 411. The very nature of our political system could change, therefore, in the event of fundamental electoral reform. Coalitions could, for instance, become the norm.

That is another discussion for another day. The argument goes that the public deserve a government and a House of Commons that reflects their votes. FPTP for many years has arguably not provided that; proportional representation could be the answer.