The UK now has a Conservative majority government, after a night where the SNP took over Scotland, the Liberal Democrats self-combusted, Labour did poorly, and the Greens and UKIP barely made a dent in the Commons.
However, looking over the votes cast tells a different story. When comparing only the larger and non-nationalist parties, and looking at how many votes it took to get an MP elected, the imbalance is stark:
- UKIP (624 candidates): 3,875,409 votes per seat
- Green Party (568): 1,154,562
- Liberal Democrat (631): 299,983
- Labour (631): 40,258
- Conservative (647): 34,292
Unsurprisingly, calls for proportional representation have now erupted, and for the first time the ‘left’ is joined by the ‘right’, given that UKIP amassed a third of the votes the Conservatives did, but the latter party got 331 times as many MPs. (The Greens did ‘better’, in getting a single MP on about an eighth of the Labour vote, which returned 232 MPs.)
However, there’s also considerable push-back against the idea of proportional representation, not least people saying: But do you really want 80 UKIP MPs? Of course not. My political leanings are progressive, not extremist Tory. But I recognise that they are my political leanings, and not those of an entire country. I feel it’s absurd over a million votes returned just one Green MP, but it’s actually more unfair all those people who voted UKIP have barely any representation in the Commons.
The ‘80 UKIP MPs’ argument also supposes British people would vote in exactly the same way under a PR system, which no-one knows for sure. Certainly, people would be less likely to vote tactically, and there’d be no safe seats. But even if PR did return that number of UKIP MPs, better the UK is mature enough to own its politics and who supports whom, rather than attempting to sweep it under the carpet — especially if trends continue. Although many small-party voters are now disillusioned, what if they double down in 2020? How will the UK look if the Conservatives and Labour between them amass 16 million votes and 85 per cent of the seats, but UKIP and the Greens get half as many votes, but still only a few seats between them?
The narrative surrounding various other aspects of PR is also troubling. I keep hearing the argument was laid to rest when we got a referendum on PR, but we never had that. In 2011, we were offered the choice of the status quo or switching to Alternative Vote, described by some as a “miserable little compromise”. AV is not a proportional system — it essentially assist the third party at the minor expense of others. At the time, the Liberal Democrats would have benefitted slightly; now, UKIP would. In either case, the result would not be proportional.
Additionally, many argue PR would wreck the constituency link, but that doesn’t necessarily have to happen. Electoral systems like AMS retain such links, and the UK could have reform where MPs for the Commons were returned on a fairly tight regional basis, for example by county rather than region. (The latter is currently how MEPs are elected, and would perhaps be an option should the Lords be replaced by an elected senate.)
The final issue is that coalitions are inherently unstable, apparently. If we were to head down the PR route, a majority government would be extremely unlikely in the UK. (But if it did happen, it would be because the majority of the country actually voted for the party in power, unlike now, when just over a third of voters — and under a quarter of the electorate — backed the Conservatives.) The thing is, I don’t see Nordic countries descending into chaos because of their proportional systems, and Germany seems to be doing quite well, despite electing its parliament in this manner.
Still, with the Conservatives in power now and Labour still presumably reckoning it can again win a majority in 2020, I doubt we’ll see any electoral reform happen. Far better to bang on about fairness while ensuring most votes fundamentally don’t matter, and gamble on winning those few that do. Politics: British style. Partying like it’s 1899 in 2015.