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Entries in UK General Election (1)

Tuesday
Jul172007

The one thing Gordon Brown should do

We've got a new prime minister, so it's time to get political. Ish.

There's been a lot of noise on the blogosphere - and elsewhere - about what Gordon Brown should do now that he's prime minister. I've read an interesting mix of instructions, from the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade, calling for the removal of immigrants from the UK, to anti-war protestors calling for the removal of troops from Iraq. Depends whether you're on the Sky News or the Guardian website respectively.

A lot of people have extensive 'to-do' lists for Gordon - and admittedly, I have a quite a long wishlist myself - but if I met him, I'd ask him to do just one thing. And it's something which should transcend political divides; a political reform that, if they hold democracy dear, no left-winger or right-winger should be afraid of. I would ask Mr Brown to introduce a fair voting system, in place of the first-past-the-post voting system which is currently used in the UK.

In the UK voting system, an MP is elected to represent a constituency if they get a higher number of votes than any of their opponents in that constituency. This is not the same as winning a majority of votes. For example, a candidate could win a seat if she got 10,000 votes and her two opponents got 9,500 and 8,000 votes. In spite of the fact that far more people effectively voted against the winning candidate than for her, she would still win.

This may seem unfair at a constituency level, but it leads to incredible distortion at a national level. As an example of this, consider the 1983 and 2007 elections, which led to large majorities for the Tories and Labour respectively.

1983 Election*
The 1983 election saw a massive Tory landslide - they got 397 parlimentary seats compared to Labour's 209 - and a 'mandate' for Thatcher to carry out her revolution. But she only won 42% of the vote: 58% of the UK population did not want her party in office. But the Tories' 42% share of the vote resulted in them winning 61% of the seats in parliament. Is this fair?

1997 Election*
Labour's 1997 landslide is just as dubious. Their remarkable 418 seats in parliament and their historic majority was on the basis of winning 43% of the vote.

Although in both elections it was clear that the parties that ended up in government won the largest 'chunk' of the vote, they did not win the popular vote outright and ended up with majorities which, on the basis of votes cast, they did not at deserve.

In fact, since 1945, no party that has entered Government has won a majority of the votes (i.e., more than 50%). Labour came close in 1951, with 49.4% - and actually lost the election.

The 'strong government' argument
The main argument that I've heard being made in favour of the first-past-the-post voting system is that it produces 'strong' governments, as opposed to fragile coalitions that are prone to collapse. That may or may not be the case - but it's irrelevant. A strong government that effectively was not elected is not preferable to a coalition that was, regardless of its perceived 'strength' or coherence. In any event, my home country, Ireland would disprove that particular notion, with one party, Fianna Fail, having been in power for most of the past 25 years under a proportional representation system, in coalition with various minor parties.

If it's good enough for them...
The answer to all this is obviously to switch to a voting system where the number of seats a party receives broadly corresponds to the number of people voting for them. This doesn't mean doing away with constituencies or local MPs - it just means switching to proportional representation. And besides, if PR is good enough for elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - surely it's good enough for UK general elections?

More information
Make Votes Count - http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/about.html
Electoral Reform Society - http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

* Statistics from House of Commons Research Paper 03/59: UK Election Statistics 1945-2003