I’m not sure this will catch on as a Christmas song, but it certainly gives me a good opportunity to talk about my favourite subject – electoral reform! Given the festive season, perhaps I can talk about Proportional Representation in a slightly different way than usual. I have talked about proportional representation before in an article about cake and also on an episode of Family Politics.
Who’s In Charge?
Santa’s Elves, or at least a close approximation
It goes without saying that Santa is the one in charge of his workshop. Of course, Mrs Claus is in charge of Santa, but for the purposes of this analogy let’s just consider Santa. This is effectively a hierarchy. What Santa says, goes. The elves have little say in how the workshop is run, despite making up the clear majority of the people present.
Where the leader in question is a benevolent and competent individual, this system can work. Unfortunately, here in the UK, we have no such guarantees. Our leaders have proved time and time again that they are neither benevolent nor competent.
So how might proportional representation fix this issue?
Power Should Reflect Support
As a basic principle, it is pretty clear that power should be based on support. Is that what happens now? The answer is no, as shown by the fact that the 2019 General Election resulted in the Conservatives getting 43.6% of the votes, 56.2% of the MPs and, as a consequence of getting majority control of the House of Commons, 100% of the legislative power.
What does this mean? It means that with a minority of votes, our government got all of the power. Smaller parties, including the main opposition, have no real power other than to question the government. This means that:
|Party||Vote Share||Power Share|
|Scottish National Party||3.9%||0%|
|Green Party of England and Wales||2.6%||0%|
You can see from the table above that the Conservatives are only in a majority position now by essentially stealing the votes that were cast for smaller parties, most notably the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. This is a consequence of our First-Past-The-Post system for elections, and this distortion is why the Conservatives fight so hard against electoral reform.
If you look at this and think it’s fair, then I don’t know how to persuade you otherwise except to get you to think of how you would view it if your chosen party wasn’t a beneficiary of this system. Our current system is designed to give majority control to minority parties. Almost all other votes as discounted. This has the perceived advantage of allowing fast lawmaking, but that speed comes from a system which discourages co-operation for the good of the country. Indeed, the traditions and customs of the Houses of Parliament start with the assumption that there will be a government and an opposition rather than a collaboration.
Incidentally, do you know how the distance between the front benches in the Commons was decided? It is two extended sword lengths, stemming from a time when crossed swords were actually a possibility if the benches weren’t sufficiently separated!
Swordsmen getting ready for a fight
How might we fix this problem? A simple solution is just to assign seats according to votes. That would mean that the 2019 election would have resulted in the following:
|Party||Vote Share||Number of Seats||Actual Number of Seats|
|Scottish National Party||3.9%||25||48|
|Green Party of England and Wales||2.6%||17||1|
In addition to this is the Speaker, who is an MP but does not participate in votes or elections for the most part, which means that his constituency is effectively unrepresented as well. This takes the total to 650.
If the system was adjusted to make seats match votes better, we would have 64 more Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons, and would be a very significant force that would need to be negotiated with and considered for all major decisions. On their own, the Conservatives would not have the power to implement any legislation, so this persuasion would be absolutely essential for introducing any new laws at all. This would give power to smaller parties in the form of influence to pass legislation for the price of support for their own initiatives at a later stage.
Under Proportional Representation we would see much better representation of a multitude of views and backgrounds within government debates, and views would actually need to be understood and accommodated before laws could be passed. I can only see this as a positive.
Actual enquiry from a potential constituent
One argument against a change is the break in ties between constituency and their MP. I would counter this by asking whether anyone considering supporting me feels well represented now. The current MP, David Simmonds, is a Conservative politician. I have already been approached by potential constituents that wanted to talk to me in preference to him because they felt that he did not represent their interests. As such, local representation is something of an illusion.
How might it work with a more proportional system? Let’s take the Liberal Democrats as an example. If we had won 75 seats in the General Election, we could assign each MP to, say, 8 or 9 constituencies. Assuming a constituency size of 70,000 and a vote share of 11.6%, this equates to 64,960 to 73,080 constituents who likely votes for Liberal Democrats. In other words, the number of people in their patch who voted for them is broadly equivalent to the current constituency size (deliberately so).
What this means for the Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner constituency is that we would likely share a Conservative MP with one other constituency, so Conservative voters would still have near-undivided attention from an MP. Rightly so, as for some reason 55.6% of voters supported the Conservatives in 2019. Labour would likely assign a third of an MP to the constituency, Liberal Democrats around a ninth. This means that all residents would be able to approach an MP covering our constituency who also reflected their political beliefs.
There’s a much better way to elect governments. I think that Proportional Representation is the way forward. This will better reflect the electorate in government, promote co-operation between parties and encourage longer-term political decisions than those with short-term reputational gains.