Is it time for the UK to change its electoral system?


This week, the POI editors will be debating electoral systems, discussing which one is best suited for UK politics.

The current electoral system, First Past the Post (FPTP) has been used in UK general elections since 1950. FPTP is a majoritarian system, a winner takes all.

Across the UK, other electoral systems are in place. For example, elections to the Scottish Parliament use the Additional Members System (AMS); a hybrid system incorporating majoritarian and proportional elements. While elections to the Northern Irish Assembly use Single Transferable Vote (STV), a proportional system.

Following the 1997 landslide victory, Blair’s government commissioned the Jenkins Report, which provided 4 categories an electoral system must meet; proportionality, government stability, voter choice and the retention of MP Constituency link.

FPTP has been criticised in recent years, and in 2011, the British public voted in a referendum proposing replacing FPTP with Alternative Vote (AV). Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was an open critic of FPTP, and as a result made electoral reform one of the major issues on his party’s election manifesto.

The public voted overwhelmingly against AV, with the ‘No’ vote securing 67.9% of voters. Despite being rejected by the public, turnout to the referendum was only 41%. Brining into question how much the public care about which electoral system is used.

All electoral systems come with their own merits and downfalls; is FPTP still up to scratch for use in UK general elections?

Written by POI Correspondent, Emer Kelly

It is broke, so fix it! – a Labour article

First Past The Post (FPTP) is demoded, divisive, and is stagnating British politics. Mistrust and disillusionment with politics are such familiar sentiments in this day and age, that many feel like their vote doesn’t mean anything, that it won’t make a difference. Whilst I am a firm advocate of voting, and believe everyone should engage with elections, the downcast are not wrong to think that often their vote is worthless. As a result of FPTP, nearly 170 seats in Parliament are considered ‘safe seats’, having not changed since 1945. Paired with the lack of trust in our politicians, one cannot blame those who are hesitant to get involved.  

Evidently, British Politics is in need of a shake up – the constructive kind – in the form of Electoral Reform. I believe that AV – the Alternative Vote – is the best reform on offer. 

To those of you who haven’t studied the different electoral systems on offer, those of you who have more interesting things to do, the AV system was the subject of a referendum in 2011. Unfortunately, a less than impressive ‘Yes’ campaign resulted in the rejection of the reform, seeing instead the continuance of FPTP. 

The Alternative Vote system is a step towards making representation more representative, by ensuring the winning candidate has 50% of the vote. To be precise, voters rank candidates in order of preference, if a candidate receives 50% of first preferences they are elected. Simple. 

If no single candidate, however, has 50% then the bottom candidate is eliminated and the second preference votes are allocated to the other candidates. This process continues until a candidate emerges with 50% of the vote. 

What makes this system great is that it ensures a greater consensus surrounding candidates, as voters can vote for the candidate they actually prefer as a first option, rather than having to tactically vote. Recent years have seen sharp increases in websites dedicated to tactical voting based on desired policy outcomes. 

The Alternative Vote system would also eliminate the problem of ‘safe seats’ in which candidates feel they are free to act in whatever manner they wish, with minimal political impact. With the added pressure of requiring 50% support, Members of Parliament would be held to account for their actions and voting record, ultimately improving representation of constituents. 

It is also important to consider our voter registration system in the United Kingdom. Despite the efforts of many to encourage people to register as voters, there are still millions of britons who are either wrongly registered, or not registered at all. What is even more worrying, are the statistics showing that there are disproportionately low levels of registration amongst more vulnerable segments of society. According to a recent report from the Electoral Commission, 24% of black voters in the UK are not registered. Clearly this poses huge problems to British democracy, as not all groups will be equally represented if they have low registration rates. 

The Labour Party has considered making Voter Registration automatic, much like in Canada and Belgium. Cat Smith, Labour’s Shadow Minister for voter engagement highlighted the failings of the current registration process; “millions of people are still missing from the register, with disproportionately low levels of registration amongst mobile, marginalised and vulnerable voter groups.”

The entirety of Britain’s electoral system needs an overhaul. We are in a moment of political crisis, and change is the only way we can drag ourselves back out of the mud. British citizens need to feel like their system works, or we risk losing future generations to the same pernicious disillusionment that is currently plaguing politics.

Written by Labour Writer, Isabella Jewell

Point of information

If you look closer AV is not all it seems – a Conservative response?

In the 2011 referendum on the future of our voting system, AV lost heavily continuing our tradition of voting for our MPs via FPTP. This week Miss Jewell has written in defense of AV arguing that there is still life left in this system. Though I do agree with her on the issue that it provides a greater consensus for MPs as well as a stronger mandate for them, this is jot enough for us to bring this system back from the dead.

The first reason why is that if we used AV in the 2015 General Election you would have seen an even more disproportional outcome than from FPTP.  More seats for the Conservatives with the same percentage of votes.

It is also no surprise that a member of the second largest political party in the UK want AV has politically it helps them. Small parties challenging Labour will simply get swallowed up with the use of AV. In the UK the Green party got one percent of the vote and therefore, received one seat. In Australia the Green party received twelve percent of the vote however, they also received one seat. To those saying that AV is fairer, I’m not sure Miss Jewell is correct.

Written by Conservative Writer, Jack Kane

Miss Jewell’s optimism is misplaced – a Liberal response

Miss Jewell’s article focuses on the failure of FPTP and therefore concludes that AV is the best form of electoral system that can be provided. Alas, I find this confusing. I not only expected Miss Jewell, as a Labour supporter, to be in favour of some sort of proportional system, but her criticisms of FPTP also apply to AV.

AV does have some benefits, that I cannot deny. However, the possibility of it solving ‘safe seats’ within the UK seems to be too optimistic. AV is just another type of FPTP. To say that replacing first past the post with another first past the post system will fix all the problems with first past the post appears to be pointless.

Also, because it requires systems to gain 50%, you can have parties that are not favourite in a constituency ending up winning. Does this not seem unfair?

Written by Liberal Writer, Max Anderson

Yes, there is a liberal who likes First Past the Post – a Liberal article

I am in favour of First past the post (FPTP). If you never thought you would hear a liberal supporting FPTP well, today is your lucky day. I know most liberals will not agree with me, and my position is not helped by the fact the first article I found defending FPTP was a Telegraph article reporting on David Cameron. Most liberals would love to see any form of proportional system because it would give the Liberal Democrats a shot at achieving more seats, but I am not just going to support a policy that I do not believe will help this country. Therefore, let me tell you the two main reasons as to why I believe FPTP is an important system that should remain the main form for elections

Now I am not saying that AV, SV or any other form of electoral system are bad. My two colleagues I am sure will provide fantastic evidence for why they should be used and in some cases I agree, but my concern is with national elections like the looming vote on the 12th December.

My reasoning for denying a proportional system purely comes down to history. For those of you who know me, my other great passion other than politics is history. Both Italy and Germany pre-World War two suffered greatly under a proportional system, leading to breakdown in government, constant elections and no new consensus of policy being enacted. Both of these systems allowed extremists groups a foot in the door and led to their ultimate failure.

Italy today still struggles with their proportionally system, mainly down to their North-south divide. The two ends of Italy both vote for very different parties, causing chaos in government, leading to a breakdown in government, no long term policy plans and rising debt. As our country becomes more divided, especially north and south, Ireland and Scotland versus Britian, the class battle and not the metion generational disagreements, how many parties could their be? Division will grow.

I know Germany has succeeded with proportional systems, but it is a very different country than Britain. Their social mobility is much stronger than ours, causing less class conflict, mainly stemming from an excellent school system. You cannot point to Germany and ‘say cause it works there, it will work here.’

My final reason, which I have hinted at a lot throughout this article is the necessity for action. I would prefer a party that can take a country forward, not have multiple fighting and leaving the country with no long term plan. Evidence of infighting can be shown by Brexit and the NHS, with no long term plan and action. Although I dislike Brexit, I think most of us would like to see a decision simply be made so business can continue to grow and to move on and deal with real problems facing Britain.

I am not saying FPTP is perfect. Far from it. I know it’s flaws too well, but don’t allow a load of A-level text book response to the question ‘Why is FPTP not great (20)’. Countries need a single-party government to carry a country forward, not be left in a Constance catch-22 with no plan, no policy and no government, just continuous elections.

Written by Liberal Writer, Max Anderson

Point of information

Oh dear Mr Anderson, where to begin – a Conservative response

Mr Anderson this week has written a bizarre defence of First Past the Post and it is concerning that he fails to make any good points on the easiest electoral system to defend. Furthermore, the inept of not addressing FPTP weakness is also of great concern and Mr Anderson must address this.

Firstly, when Mr Anderson talks about proportional systems in Italy he talks about it being extremely divided and that PR does not help themselves. He must understand that the political system in the UK would fair far greater than Italy due to our north-south divide not being so toxic. He talks about a growth of new parties if we were to have any proportional system. What a crazy claim especially when most PR systems have thresholds to stop smaller parties getting seats.

Mr Anderson writes “As our country becomes more divided, especially north and south, Ireland and Scotland versus Britain.” First of all, Mr Anderson has not specified which Ireland we are supposedly against, he means Northern Ireland. Secondly Scotland and Northern Ireland are part of Britain Mr Anderson, you meant to say England

Written by Conservative Writer, Jack Kane

The status-quo isn’t working, so why defend it? – a Labour response

Mr Anderson’s support of FPTP is surprising, for someone who is afraid of a “lack of consensus” in Parliament. I hate to break it to him, but under our current two-party system, we have seen a huge lack of unity in stances regarding Brexit. Despite two parties dominating Parliament, internally they are fragmented and do not stand under one clear message. We should be looking towards cooperation, be it through coalition or cross-party pacts, as a means of creating political consensus and bringing the country back together.

Under a system of AV, we remove the extreme aspect of pure Proportional Representation, as I described in my article, it’s the ‘unity system’, as the candidate selected boats a support of over 50%. In simple terms, AV removes the unrepresentative aspect from FPTP by ensuring that MPs are representing the wishes of a majority in their constituencies. Furthermore, MPs would be forced to be more accountable to their constituents, due to their need to earn support at each election.

FPTP is deeply flawed, Mr Anderson has admitted it. But instead of persisting with something that is broken and rendering our politics unbearable for many, why not make a positive change in supporting the Alternative Vote? It is a way to bring consensus and trust back to the UK.

Written by Labour Writer, Isabella Jewell

Conservatives support FPTP but AMS should be looked at carefully – a Conservative article

As the Conservative editor for POI you would expect me on the issue of voting systems to be a keen supporter of First Past the Post and to write about it this week. Well you’re half right. I do support FPTP due to it providing a fantastic constituency link between us and our MP and furthermore, FPTP has created multiple majority governments since its inception in 1950 allowing them to rule decisively and effectively. Yet, with the FPTP coming up short in 2010 and 2017 is it time to look elsewhere? This week I will discuss if AMS, the Additional Member System is a possible right step for the UK.

Firstly, AMS works like this. “Voters have two ballot papers. On the first is a list of candidates who want to be the local Member of Parliament.” This is the constituency link like in FPTP. On the second ballot paper you vote for which party you want in parliament. Each party will in advance publish a list of who are there candidates, this is the party list part of AMS. The first votes are counted in the same way as FPTP and the winner is the one with the most votes. “The second ballot papers are then counted. The people counting look at how many seats a party won on the first ballot paper. They then add ‘additional members’ from the party lists to make parliament match how the country voted.”

So now we know how it works, will it work for the UK? Well the advantages are that we keep the constituency link. This is great for multiple reasons firstly, it allows us to make our representative more accountable to the policies and decisions that they make. At each election we directly decide if we want them to represent us. Secondly, we are able to vote for a candidate who not only has the same ideals as their party, but also someone who supports the needs of the constituency and will go against their party if they feel their constituents are not being well done by.

The other positive feature of AMS is how it is far better than FPTP when it comes to proportionality due to the added party list system. To use the example from the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP received 45% of the vote and received 53% which is reasonably proportional. It is especially proportional in comparison to FPTP when it is used in the Westminster elections. In the 2015 General election the Conservatives won 50.9% of seats with only 36.9% of the vote. The same goes for 2005 where Tony Blair’s New Labour won 54% of seats with 35.2% of the vote. Finally, from the 2001 general election where Tony Blair won re-election, his party won 40.7% of the vote but was rewarded with 64% of parliaments seats. Crazy statistics from a disproportional system.

As I said earlier I do support FPTP and in recent elections we have seen in recent times FPTP providing better and fairer results than the ones I’ve just stated however, we must be aware that FPTP can create some crazy results that can be unfair. With the regional party list part of AMS creating a fairer system than FPTP it is important that we see another way of voting. Though I support FPTP I am looking at AMS with interest. I hope others do the same.  

Written by Conservative Writer, Jack Kane

Point of information

A fine idea that I still worry about – a Liberal article

I am happy that Mr Kane decided to favour AMS. It means that all out editors agree, to an extent, that proportional electoral systems would not work in the UK. I still think this is due to their failure to establish a strong single party government.

AMS has had periods of a single-party government, as Scotland has demonstrated. However, this is not consistent. I agree with Mr Kane’s argument, and agree that AMS is a strong form of electoral system, however the reason I do not favour it is that it can very easily end up with a coalition.

Written by Liberal Writer, Max Anderson

Let’s make the misrepresentation born out of FPTP a thing of the past – a Labour response

Mr Kane’s support of change is a refreshing new stance, given the general Conservative hesitation regarding reform. His arguments for AMS are well structured, and underline a clear need for greater representation of UK citizens.

I fully agree that FPTP often results in unrepresentative allocation of seats, and I believe this is one reason that mistrust of Parliament is so widespread. I do, however, think that AMS maintains this unrepresentative aspect of our current system, due to its use of FPTP.

Mr Kane argues that the ‘constituency link’ aspect of AMS is a vital part of our democracy. I agree, that is one reason that Alternative Vote is a great system; we maintain close contact with MPs in our constituencies, whilst at the same time making them more representative of constituents. It is also the necessity to have a greater share of the vote that renders MPs under AV more accountable, something that Mr Kane has praised in his article.

Let’s cut the rotten part out of our politics; FPTP maintains misrepresentation and mistrust, AV is the best alternative.

Written by Labour Writer, Isabella Jewell

Max Anderson
Publisher/Founder at Point Of Information | Website

I am currently in my second year of reading Politics at the University of Exeter. My first interaction with politics was at the tender age of four years old.

Jack Kane
Conservative political writer at Point Of Information | Website

Hello, my name is Jack Kane and I am third year undergraduate at the University of Exeter. I am a studying Politics and will graduate Exeter in the summer of 2020. I have been interested and engaged in Politics since a very young age.

Isabella Jewell
Labour political writer at Point Of Information | Website

I have just finished my second year at The University of Manchester studying French and Italian and am about to leave the Northern Powerhouse for a year abroad.

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