Is first-past-the-post on its last breath?

The issue of electoral reform has returned to the floor of the House of Commons following a signed online petition calling for voting change. In the aftermath of another hung parliament election, MPs on Monday debated whether first-past-the-post voting should be scrapped for proportional representation.

“As a country we pride ourselves on our strong commitment to democracy and yet the vast majority of votes cast don’t make an impact on the overall result,” Caroline Lucas, co-Leader of the Green Party, said, lending her voice to the calls for electoral restructuring.

First-past-the-post is the UK’s electoral system, by which the candidate with the most votes in their local constituency is elected to a seat in Parliament.

On a national level, this means that the number of seats allocated to a party does not necessarily correspond with the percentage of votes the party garners overall. In the 2017 general election, for example, Liberal Democrats won only 12 seats with a 7 percent vote share, while the Conservative Party, receiving 42 percent of the vote, won 318 seats – nearly 49 percent of the House of Commons.

At the core of the debate, as Ms Lucas indicates, lies the idea of fair representation in democracy, the concept of “a rule of majority” versus “a rule of the people”.

Since its introduction in the 1800s, first-past-the-post has been a straightforward system for casting and counting votes.

In a two-party system, it normally determines a clear majority and leads to the formation of one-party governments. For instance, in 1997, Labour was still able to form a government with a 418-seat majority, despite a vote share of 43 percent.

Yet the UK is not a true two-party system; in the summer general election, Labour and Conservatives made up a little over 80 percent of the vote – in 2015, they only accumulated 67 percent.

First-past-the-post most disadvantages minority parties, whose voter bases are spread out nationally instead of concentrated in specific constituencies.

At the same time, it arguably serves to contain the impact of radical parties. UKIP mobilised 13 percent of the electorate in the 2015 general election, but only won one seat in Parliament. Two years later, after the Brexit referendum, their vote share dwindled to roughly two percent, and their MP lost his seat.

Perhaps ironically, however, smaller parties regain influence when the first-past-the-post system fails to fulfil its purpose in giving a clear government mandate. In the absence of a clear majority, these smaller parties are needed to form coalitions or can pose a greater opposition in the shadow cabinet.

Winner-takes-all systems can also be conducive to tactical voting. Specifically in marginal constituencies, members of the electorate may vote in such a way as to prevent a certain party from winning, rather than cast their ballots in favour of their preferred party.

Such “swing” constituencies play the greatest role in determining election results. Unlike constituencies that are firmly in the hands of an established party, marginal constituencies might choose an MP from a certain party one year, and elect a different MP from another party in the next election.

Thinking back to Ms Lucas’ words then, many voters feel their ballots are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The disillusionment of the electorate can be seen within turnout numbers. About 69 percent of UK citizens eligible to vote participated in the 2017 general election. When compared to turnout data from other European countries with proportionate representation, the percentage seems strikingly low. This past year, 76 percent of the electorate showed up at voting booths in Germany. In Norway it was 78 percent, and in the Netherlands an overwhelming 82 percent.

And yet, when the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum presented voters with the proposition of electoral reform, a 41 percent turnout voted “no” with an absolute majority.

In the face of the recent online petition, the question remains whether the referendum decision is still indicative of public opinion, six years and one hung parliament later.

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