The election and why hung parliaments aren’t so bad

This is going to be fairly dry and politics-heavy I’m afraid, but it’s an important issue so people aren’t taken in by tabloid lies.

I’ve been pretty quiet about the election, which most of you are probably happy about, I like to think of the blog as a kind of haven where you’re not bombarded by people telling you which way to vote. I myself will be voting Lib Dem because I like my local party team, they seem to be pretty good on science policy and because I think we need to reform the political system, something Labour promised to do in 1997 and didn’t.

Anyway I was absolutely dismayed to read this article in the Guardian yesterday where David Cameron:

accused Clegg of wanting PR “so we have a permanent hung parliament, a permanent coalition, so we never have strong and authoritative and decisive government”. He added: “It’s now becoming clear he [Clegg] wants to hold the whole country to ransom, just to get what would benefit the Liberal Democrats.”

Now I’m no expert on the British political system but I know a fair bit about electoral systems, and this statement is completely misleading. In case you don’t know, our electoral system is probably one of the least democratic in the world. It’s called First Past The Post (FPTP) and it’s very simple. You vote for your local MP, whoever gets the most votes in each constituency gets a seat in Parliament, and whichever party gets a majority of the seats in Parliament forms the government from his party. Now people are talking about a hung parliament, where no party gets a majority of the seats and so two parties have to join together to form the government. This is very rare, and indeed the last time it happened in 1974, the government only lasted for 7 months.

Back at school, we compared different electoral systems and had to give the advantages of FPTP. Here they are:

1. Simple to understand.
2. Strong MP-Constituency link.
3. Gives decisive result, avoids hung parliaments.

I hope you realise the first one is a poor argument. The simplest system to understand would be to not have an election at all, and we wouldn’t want that. Besides, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) is used in Ireland and the Northern Irish elections (and indeed in the European Parliament elections) and they don’t seem to have any huge problems. The one that is quite confusing is the Additional Member System (AMS, or Top-Up system), but that hasn’t been suggested AFAIK.

The second argument is good. The MP-Constituency link means how simple it is to understand who your MP is, and how well your MP represents you. In party list systems, it is not very clear who your MP is, and the same in AMS. It is very clear in FPTP, in which each constituency has one MP. However, arguably the MP-Constituency link is much stronger under STV, because each constituency has multiple MP’s, so you are more likely to have an MP with which you agree. Imagine a Conservative voter in a Lib Dem constituency under the current system – they’re effectively unrepresented in Parliament, they have to rely on MP’s in other constituencies to represent them. So actually our electoral system fails here too.

So we get to the last one, which is what most people say is the best reason to keep our electoral system: it gives a decisive result and avoids hung parliaments. First of all there is this assumption that hung parliaments are weak and get nothing done. Sure, in our country that happened last time, but look at all the other countries where hung parliaments and coalition governments happen on a regular basis; Ireland, Austria, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Turkey and Switzerland. Are these countries that don’t get anything done, that are ‘paralysed’, to use David Cameron’s word? The only example the Conservative newspapers have been giving, as far as I’ve seen, is Italy. This is the Sun’s page 3 girl today via @samcare:

The Sun hits a new low in spin

Now, it’s not true that Italy has had 61 governments in 65 years (as far as I can tell it’s had 17 general elections since 1945). But even if it is true, Italy has some other problems besides the electoral system and coalition governments, like the Mafia getting involved in politics. In fact, Italy is one of the worst examples they could bring up, because IIRC in Italy they have proportional representation by a list system (again, not what is being proposed for the UK), but then whichever party gets the most votes gets an extra 50 seats, so what’s the point in having PR? I could be making that up but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

This is to avoid the main point, however, which is that a system which gives a majority government (let’s do away with this ‘decisive result’ euphemism) to a party which does not have the majority of the vote, is profoundly undemocratic. We have had a majority government (ie. with over 50% of the seats) after every election in the UK since the end of the Second World War, except for the coalition government I mentioned earlier in 1974, and like I say that lasted 7 months. Guess how many of those governments has had a majority of the vote? Go on, guess!

None. Not one.

How is this possible? Well, parties that have concentrated support, like Labour which is traditionally based in the North-West, London and Glasgow above all, win more seats than parties with more dispersed support, like the Lib Dems. In the last election, Labour’s 35% of the vote got them 55% of the seats. On the other hand, the Lib Dems got 22% of the vote but only 9% of the seats. That is undemocratic. In fact, it’s entirely possible for a government to get a majority of the seats, and therefore form government, when they don’t even get a plurality of the vote (ie they get less votes than another party but still make government). That stinks of a broken system.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s more to democracy than just representation. It would be far less democratic if no party did anything and noone got their way, for example. But clearly the system needs to adapt to let other parties get their share of the seats, and if that means coalitions are more common, then we’ll adapt to that too. We have to get rid of this cricket game idea that we’ve had in our politics for too long. But I cannot bear hearing politicians using the worst feature of our electoral system to justify its existence.

There are other problems with the electoral system too. Seeing as there is no separation between the Cabinet and Parliament, do you even know what you’re voting for in this election? Are you voting for who you want to be Prime Minister? Are you voting for what party you want in government? Or are you voting for your preferred candidate from your constituency? Given this lack of clarity, and the fact that people don’t often vote according to manifesto promises, no Prime Minister since the Second World War has had a mandate to govern. That’s worrying, and it’s something we can change. It’s time to prove how flexible our constitution can be.


5 Responses to The election and why hung parliaments aren’t so bad

  1. Well said, Mike. This is an old bugbear of mine too. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that STV (even a strict single-representative-per-constituency STV system) is miles ahead of FPTP in terms of basic democratic representation.

    And, when people complained at the last Scottish election that the ballots were too complicated, I found it very difficult to refrain from suggesting that perhaps they were therefore underqualified to choose political leaders. I mean, my 2-year-old daughter can rank her pyjamas (of which she has 4 sets) in order of preference. Is it really so difficult to rank the 4 best parties?

    (I know, there were something over a dozen options on our ballot – but you weren’t required to rank *all* of them. In fact, you could just put a “1” in your favorite, and pretend you’re still in the old, broken system, while letting those of us who give a damn get a bit more involved in the democratic process.)

    Anyway, I may be a British citizen next election, so I can finally start participating directly in this mad system. (Either that, or I’ll be back in Canada, and participating directly in *that* mad system.)

  2. grammarking says:

    The only way you can say STV is too complicated is if you also claim our voters are more stupid than say, Irish voters.

    Although I’m glad electoral reform seems to be on the agenda, I’m not sure a hung parliament involving the Lib Dems is going to happen. Sure, they look popular, but the current electoral system is so skewed against them, and Labour and the Tories disagree with them on so much, that I think a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories is more likely.

  3. grammarking says:

    I should also say that I emailed all my local candidates almost 2 weeks ago and I’m yet to receive a response from a single one of them.

  4. squonky says:

    An excellent post which I found after posting some similar comments to my own blog last night (I found you after clicking one of my own tags). I do hope that whoever ends up governing this country after Thursday we end up with an electoral system which more closely reflects the views of the electorate. As you said, there are many other things wrong with our system in the UK, but reform of the voting system seems like a pretty good place to start.

  5. Fia says:

    Bravo grammarking. Electoral reform is essential. Us Brits aren’t terribly good at sitting round a table and working to reach consensus. We need to learn how to do it. PR gives true representation to what we actually think. As we’re human, we think in far more than polarised stances. Look how the lines between left and right have blurred (bar the extremists of course). Adversarial politics (underlined by the facing benches in parliament) doesn’t help either. Arthur’s round table needs reinventing for the 21st century 🙂

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