Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

The Advantages of the UK Electoral System

Much maligned and unloved here Dr Melanie Sully writes an op ed in the "Wiener Zeitung" 28.5. 2015 " Das Wahlrecht - ein Recht auf eine Wahl" in German with English summary on the first past the post system in the UK.

The Election System - the right to choose by Dr Melanie Sully Wiener Zeitung op ed 

Here English summary:
In the UK a campaign is underway supported by the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) for a reform of the electoral system to overcome the obvious distortion in the vote. The aim is the introduction of some kind of proportional representation. Just four years ago proposed changes in the electoral system were rejected in a referendum by a two-thirds majority.

Despite the oft mentioned point that the British first past the post system promotes contacts between the MP and their voters, there are a number of other merits in this system.

▪ In a country without a fully-fledged federal system or second chamber for the purpose, it can give a voice to the regions. A proportional model with for example a five percent hurdle would exclude all 56 SNP Members, the Welsh Nationalists and all the parties in Northern Ireland (as well as the Greens). This could be an attractive option for the main parties to assuage demands for change.

▪ Resignation or death of an MP leads to a by-election in which voters could choose a candidate from a different party. In Austria another candidate on the same party list moves up without any interim consent from the voters. Similarly if an MP decides to switch parliamentary parties, they can trigger a by-election and explain the change to their voters.

▪ First past the post facilitates “recall” whereby in cases of serious misconduct an MP could be required to fight for the seat again in a by-election.

▪ Not all votes are wasted. State funding is allocated to parliamentary parties such as UKIP with one MP and topped up according to the number of voters the party won altogether.

▪ Unlike in Austria, an independent candidate can stand for election to the British House of Commons, free from a political party. All that is required is ten supporting signatures and a 500 Pounds deposit which is returned if the candidate wins over 5% of the vote in that constituency. If elected the MP has far more rights in debates than in Austria and can expect infrastructure to be put at their disposal.

▪ Voters choose in the UK between different election manifestos which often are very detailed. They do not usually end up with a coalition pact lacking voter legitimacy. The Liberal Democrats were punished by voters in part because they breached an election promise to do away with student fees.

▪ Nor is it axiomatic that women are penalised under the British system. With almost 30% female MPs now at Westminster this compares favourably with Austria. Women in fact were the stars of the election campaign proving that it is media visibility as much as an electoral system which makes the difference.

▪ The election night itself is gripping political drama. It is the time when the mighty must fear for their job and when government ministers and high ranking opposition politicians can be unseated by outsiders that would have probably been ranked at the bottom of a party list.

Whatever the merits or otherwise changes to the election system should be put to those most concerned by any refor, ie to the voters in a nationwide referendum. Trust in politicians can only be restored if the latter start trusting the voters.

See also chapter by Dr Melanie Sully: •Election Systems in the United Kingdom, Prof Dr Melanie Sully, Review in Gesis Leibniz Institut für Sozialwissenschaften

 Election Potpourri – the British Way chapter by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(adapted from a chapter in “Demokratie im Umbruch?” ed. Klaus Poier, Böhlau, Vienna 2009)

 

Political Scientists spend a lot of time working out election systems and analysing results. The type of system employed can influence the final result so the “will” of the electorate is linked very much to the set of rules governing elections. In the long run those that actually decide what election system is to be in force are the politicians themselves in government. The question has to be asked is why should a governing party that got into office on the basis of one system possibly have any interest in changing the status quo? For elections have to do with that very scarce commodity in politics – power. This is a sensitive area and attempts at reform have to be careful to avoid charges of manipulation.

Elections can be a fundamental driving force behind change if there are strong suspicions of fraud and abuse as the so-called “coloured revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia demonstrated. Simply holding an election may be an advance on no elections at all but certain standards have to be in force and enjoy consensus support even in a deeply divided society. With this goes the ability to accept loss of power and defeat at the polls with dignity. The transition from one party to another in government should be as orderly as possible. This means documents and computer discs should not be destroyed or tampered with and full information provided to the incoming government. In addition the dignity of the transition is manifest in the manner which former contestants for office treat each other. In Britain the candidates assemble on election night together to hear the result usually announced by the local mayor or presiding officer. Whilst the supporters will obviously cheer their candidate, the losers usually gracefully offer congratulations to the winner and even manage a shake hands. Often the disappointment is clear especially when a high ranking minister loses a so-called “safe” seat in a landslide election.

The Transition

The transition takes place very quickly in Britain. Firstly the election process itself is relatively short and once a Prime Minister has decided to go to the country, the date can follow within three or four weeks. The longest part of the whole exercise is the count itself which can drag on to the day after the election. Polls close at 10pm and the first results in small constituencies follow about an hour or so later. Very often there is a side contest so to speak between constituencies to be the first “to declare”. More remote areas, the far flung parts of Scotland and rural constituencies can take until the following afternoon to get a result[1]. If the declaration is close the candidates can call for a recount and the process goes da capo. This happened in 1964 when Harold Wilson was finally elected for Labour after a long spell of Conservative rule. His majority in the Commons was very small and every seat counted so in some constituencies there was not just one recount but several. The result was different each time but the object was for one candidate to come out first more times than his rival.

Once the count has been successfully completed then the transition goes into top gear and the government is in place within hours[2]. If there is a change in the prime minister at Number 10, the removal vans discreetly go to the back entrance to take away personal belongings. The victor will be on the way to an audience with the Sovereign and by the time they get back to Downing Street, the place is vacant for the new occupant. It just remains to phone up the ministers to be and with equal speed the cabinet is in place. No long coalition negotiations or bargaining for posts or endless meetings with the head of state. No media speculation and tantalising guessing games on tactics. This too is absent in the campaign itself. The eternal question of “who with whom” just does not arise. The British system also allows not just for a different government to be elected but for a real transition of power between competing political groups and ideologies. Often coalition government does not herald in a power change but just “more of the same”. Theoretically a so-called “hung parliament” could emerge in Britain where no party has an overall majority in the Commons. The monarch would not be dragged in as a “referee” but would consult with elder statesman to hammer out a solution.

 

Winner Takes All

But British parliamentary or “general” elections usually produce a clear winner and loser. This reflects very much the political culture and parliamentary system. The small House of Commons chamber is arranged for a two party system with the government benches confronting the opposition parties. There is no semicircle or horseshoe sitting arrangements blurring the division between government and opposition parties. The division is physical and clear. There are the “ins” and “outs” rather like in cricket and ideally they take it in turns to govern separately. The largest opposition party goes by the rather grand name of “Her/His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. It is a different concept of politics whereby the opposition is the alternative government.

The system in force for parliamentary elections has come under attack because it leads to a distortion of the relation of seats and votes and governments with minority support in the country. Some may say this is not really democratic. The OSCE has drawn up a set of principles for countries to adhere to in the management of democratic elections (universal, equal, free, secret, fair, transparent and accountable). As a member of the OSCE Britain has signed up to these commitments. Occasionally OSCE teams have investigated alleged abuses of the postal vote in Britain. Generally though the involvement of “outsiders” is not welcome in the management of British elections. These OSCE principles are in themselves abbreviated and vague enough to be open to interpretation so the Copenhagen Document on Elections and Democracy 1990 was drawn up and is still today the guide for assessing free and fair elections in the OSCE region. The Organisation is concerned that in many countries the commitments are not followed especially when there is a limitation of competition between parties, problems with electoral registration, pressure on voters, media bias and insufficient procedures for complaints and appeals. There is far more to the holding of free and fair elections than the type of electoral system used[3].

Britain’s old and tried system of “first past the post” or winner takes all has its fans and also critics.[4] It is argued that the majority system strengthens the link between Member of Parliament and constituent and in Britain most voters know who their MP is and often write or complain to them on a number of issues. On the other side the system favours the two big parties, Labour and Conservative and also parties that have concentrated their strength in specific geographical areas. The Liberal Democrats in 2005 won 22% of the vote but only got 62 seats out of 646 in the House of Commons. In 1985 the Liberals won 25.4% of the vote but only received 3.5% of all seats.[5] In other words important is not only how many votes a party gets but where the votes are cast. The Westminster model for all its faults is a safety net against extremist parties that might enjoy a sudden rise to fame.

The proponents of the Proportional Representation system favour compromise and consensual politics but some analysts argue that on many issues a compromise cannot be reached sensibly eg on the reduction of nuclear weapons or the introduction of a single European currency. A party is either for or against and voters can make a choice knowing this. Compromise politics can often lead to a fudge and possibly the opposite of what voters had intended not to mention the complicated coalition negotiations. New Zealand moved away from the Westminster model in the mid-1990s and adopted a German style PR system and the first election was followed by long haggling on a government.[6] This was a radical change for the country that was reckoned to be “more British than Britain”.

 

Potpourri

But “the home country” too has moved away from the Westminster model for some elections so now there are many systems in Britain such as AMS and STV depending on what election is held. Arguably this variety could confuse voters used to one model for every election. With devolution though elections are now held to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly following the German model.[7] With Blair’s constitutional reform came also elections to the London Assembly and mayor. European Elections too are now held on the basis of a PR system. In the 2004 EP election following a judgement of the European Court of Human Rights the UK for the first time arranged elections in Gibraltar by “attaching” it to a constituency in southern England. This was challenged by Spain but it was agreed that the rules of franchise mean each member state decides who is enfranchised.[8]

 

So in Britain there is:

-          the Additional Member System for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly,

-          Party Lists PR for European Elections with the Single Transferable Vote in Northern Ireland,

-          Supplementary Vote for the London Mayor, a variation of the AV system in Australia and Malta, and

-          AMS for elections to the London Assembly.

-          The “first past the post” remains in place for parliamentary elections to the House of Commons and for local elections held in May.

 

This means a voter in London has four different voting systems: European Parliament, Mayor, London Assembly and House of Commons for four different elections.

In the debate on electoral reform under the Blair government the McDougall Trust reported on findings for the Jenkins Commission on four main criteria important in the conduct of elections:

 

  1. broad proportionality,
  2. the need for stable government,
  3. extension of voter choice,
  4. the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies.[9]

 

Some of these principles are not necessarily compatible with each other such as points 1 and 2. Further some questioned point 3 asking in fact whether voters themselves wanted an extension of choice. The Commission recommended a variation of the AV system Alternative Vote as used in Australia. This model was once passed by a British Parliament in 1931 but never came into to force because a general election was held. Winston Churchill opposed the change describing the AV system as one where “the most worthless votes were given to the most worthless candidates”. Clearly trying to find the ideal election system is not so simple and like democracy itself maybe after all there is just a potpourri of different models, imperfect and inadequate but better than nothing at all.

 

 



[1] In the June elections 2009 to the European Parliament, the count began in most of the UK on a Sunday. On the Isles of Scotland however a count cannot take place on the sabbath and began the next day.

[2] See Melanie Sully, “The New Politics of Tony Blair”, 2000.

[3] For general questions on elections in Britain see the Electoral Commission www.electoralcommission.org which deals with who is entitled to a postal vote and the franchise eg ex-pats can vote if not resident in Britain for 15 years after leaving and if they are registered in their last constituency and British citizens. Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain can also vote.

[4] See, P. Norton, „The case for first past the post“, Representation, Summer, 1997.

[5] House of Commons Library and “Times Guide to the House of Commons”.

[6] See J.Boston et. al. „New Zealand’s Experience with MMP”, Representation, Spring, 1998.

[7] For more see, A. Siaroff, „British AMS versus German Personalised PR: not so different“, Representation, Summer, 2000 and T. Lundberg, “Experiences with PR in Scotland and Wales”, Representation, Spring, 2002 and issue 36, 1999, Representation, “Electoral Experimentation in the UK”.

[8] See OSCE report on European Parliament elections, 2004.

[9] D. Farrell, M.Gallagher, “Submission to the Independent Commission on the Voting System”, the Mcdougall Trust, 1998.