Why reforming Britain’s electoral system will be harder than ever

Will the system be different by 2020? Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Even before the full results of the 2015 general election were confirmed, a familiar cry was already being heard: the UK’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system was broken and in dire need of change. It’s easy to point to almost any detail from the election outcome to support this claim.

A Conservative majority government was formed with 50.1% of seats in the House of Commons but just 36.9% of the national vote. The Scottish National Party secured 95% of Scottish seats on a 50% share of the Scottish vote. UKIP won 12.6% of the national vote, yet won just one seat.

The UKIP story is especially illuminating as the party came second in 120 constituencies, became the third largest national party in terms of vote share, yet in the end made no electoral gains. Considering UKIP and the Green Party together, they won over five million votes between them, but only two seats out of 650. Analysis by the Electoral Reform Society shows that 63% of those who voted on May 7 did so for losing candidates, and that almost half of elected MPs won less than 50% of their constituency vote.

Looking at numbers like these, something seems decidedly rotten with our electoral system.

Alternative election outcomes

Had the 2015 general election been run under a more proportional system, we would almost certainly have got the hung parliament that most of the forecasters had assured us we were destined for. Under the Alternative Vote (AV) system, UKIP and the Greens would probably have won 82 and 24 seats respectively, while the Conservative majority would have disappeared. Such figures are only estimates because there’s no guarantee that people would vote the same way under a different electoral system.

We were given the opportunity to adopt the AV system in a 2011 referendum, yet it was decisively rejected, with 68% of voters opting for No on a 42% turnout, in part the result of the abject failure of electoral reform advocates to craft a convincing case in favour of change. Despite evidence that FPTP punishes small parties and artificially inflates majorities at Westminster, it remains the system we use.

Is there a chance of change?

A survey for the Independent, published before the election, suggested that around 60% of people want electoral reform so that smaller parties are more fairly represented. However, the chances of electoral reform in the next parliament are close to non-existent.

The Conservative Party is committed to FPTP and campaigned to retain it in the 2011 referendum. The new Conservative government will now push to implement constituency boundary changes pursued as part of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. These were previously blocked by their former Liberal Democrat coalition partners because of the failure to secure House of Lords reform.

These boundary changes will deliver more equally sized constituencies, and remove system bias which means that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative MP. They may also enhance the Conservatives’ chances of winning again in 2020. In this context, the Conservative government has no rational reason to pursue electoral reform.

David Cameron’s argument against the Alternative Vote.

An already busy constitutional agenda

The new government already faces a substantial agenda of constitutional politics without adding to the load. The 2015 Queen’s Speech is likely to contain measures to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, as well as legislation for a referendum on continued UK membership of the EU. Just these two pieces of business alone will eat up a lot parliamentary time which is then not available for all the other public policy measures the government wants to pursue.

Add to this the political and legislative workload involved in devolving further powers to Scotland – and potentially revisiting the Smith Commission proposals in the process due to the SNP landslide – while also crafting a working arrangement for English votes for English laws, and it’s obvious that the government has more than enough to be going on with as far as constitutional politics is concerned.

Electoral prospects under FPTP

So long as either of the two mains parties can win functioning majorities in the House of Commons, the chances of electoral reform will remain slim. If another majority government is elected in 2020, it will be easy to chalk the 2010 hung parliament up to simple aberration.

The 2015 decimation of the Liberal Democrats as an electoral force, combined with the inability of UKIP to translate its millions of votes into Commons seats, actually make it easier to dismiss electoral reform demands, because those with the power to pursue reform are those who sit on the government benches. The emergence of the SNP as the third largest party inside the Commons further skews the issue because their central political motivation involves Scottish independence rather than Westminster reform.

Crucially, by 2020 the Labour Party will be seeking to return to government after ten years in opposition. While it may later revive electoral reform should it fail to win a majority in 2020, Labour may decide not to adopt pre-emptive commitments on this issue before first testing the water to see if it can form a single-party government. After all, the Conservatives managed, against the odds, to secure a majority in 2015, and Labour may well take that as evidence that a resurgent opposition party could do the same thing next time around, irrespective of what polls may say nearer the time.

In the final analysis, despite current hand-wringing over the unfairness of first-past-the-post system, it is almost certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future. The truth is that those in favour of electoral reform had a chance to secure change in 2011, but they blew it. It’s likely to be a long time before another opportunity presents itself.

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