Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
After the crucible of a General Election cools, the heat of electoral reform lingers. Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, told The Observer:
This election is the nail in the coffin for our voting system.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage described Britain’s electoral system as “bankrupt”.
In British politics, when the parliament is dissolved, a General Election is held. An election is put to voters in every constituency, and each constituency returns an MP (Member of Parliament) to the House of Commons. These constituency elections involve only a single ballot to decide their MP. Each voter can place a lone mark next to the person they wish to be their MP, and the candidate with the most votes becomes the representative. These MPs typically stand for political parties, and act as an electoral college to decide the government. The monarch then invites the person considered most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and act as Prime Minister. Ministers are subsequently appointed by the Prime Minister, and a government is formed.
The method of election for the individual constituency elections is called First Past the Post (FPTP). In the academic argot, these are single-member elections chosen by plurality voting: each elector votes for one choice, and the candidate that receives the most votes wins. This is true even if that candidate receives less than half of the legitimate votes.
There is a conflation, probably unintended, made by proponents of electoral reform. This conflation masks a particularly elaborate form of begging the question.
Each elector has a single vote, and that vote only affects the result in the constituency election for their MP. For instance, take the voters in Witney. Those voters are not voting for David Cameron to be Prime Minister, or even for the Conservative Party; but for David Cameron, the Conservative candidate for Witney.
There is no national or regional vote in British parliamentary elections. The sum of votes for local candidates stanading for particular parties is not a meaningful number. When proponents of electoral reform point to the 3.9m UKIP voters or 1.2m Green voters in 2015, and say their respective representation of one MP each is ‘unfair’, this assumes there is a national vote. When electoral reformists comminate FPTP, it is not the method of choosing the single-member constituency elections that is under criticism, but the fact that single-member constituencies are the exclusive means to become a representative.
This is why the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system was unsatisfactory to reformists, despite being wrongly and repeatedly labelled as ‘proportional’. The Alternative Vote proposal would have changed the methods by which the single-member constituencies were elected, from plurality voting to instant run-off voting. The AV referendum would not have changed the fact there are only single-member constituencies.
If a new referendum on electoral reform is sought, it should focus on whether this link — each voter has one constituency with one MP — should be broken, rather than making minor tweaks.