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Elections & Voting Explained

Why are there now a variety of electoral systems?

In 1996, the electoral system in the UK was by first past the post for European, Westminster and Local elections.  It was only in Northern Ireland that a different system operated and the Single Transferable Vote was used for local elections and European elections there. Now First Past the Post is only used for Westminster and for English and Welsh local elections and other systems are used for European, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Local elections, London Assembly and Mayor elections, English City Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.

Still largely attached to FPTP

The two main parties are still attached to First Past the Post (FPTP) in Westminster elections. If a proportional system was used they would be in permanent coalition, probably with the Liberal Democrats. There is still the argument that a general election is designed to show the electorate’s view as to which party should govern the country and that only FPTP does this. The argument had more substance when the two parties had almost all the votes in the 1950s and when the Conservative and then Labour had large majorities between 1983 and 2001.  It becomes less convincing with when the two parties are closer together in popular support and smaller parties are gaining more electoral support. In the 2005 general election, Labour won a comfortable majority with 35% of the vote and with a lower turnout, the support of only 21% of the electorate. In the 2010 general election only a third of MPs were elected with over 50% of those voting.

The Liberal Democrats have always supported a change to a PR system and there has been increasing support within the Labour Party. The 1997 Labour Party manifesto promised an inquiry into the voting system and a referendum on whether there should be a change. The Jenkins Commission in 1998 recommended the Alternative Vote for single member constituencies and a party list proportionate system for an extra number of MPs. Secure with a large majority in Parliament, Tony Blair chose not to act on the report.  Labour promised a change to the Alternative Vote system in its 2010 manifesto and the Liberal Democrats bargained a referendum on this as part of their Coalition Agreement with the Liberal Democrats but a referendum in 2011 rejected this.

Europe

In 1999, European Elections in the UK changed to proportional representation with the closed party list system.  Proportional representation was used in other countries for these elections and so pressure was put on Britain to conform.  Voters are sending MEPs to the European Parliament where they join a party group and not electing a Government as in Westminster elections and so the Labour Government did not resist the change, especially as the Labour Party Conference had already supported the proposal. A closed list rather than an open list system which many countries use was chosen and this gives more control to the central party as to which of their candidates gets elected.

Scotland

The Labour Government’s decision to create a Scottish Parliament in 1997 raised the question of which electoral system to use.  The campaign for a Scottish Parliament was broad based and it is unlikely that the SNP and the Liberal Democrats would have mobilised their voters for a Scottish Parliament elected with a FPTP system that would favour Labour.  In any case key politicians wanted to avoid the adversarial style of Westminster and create a more consensual form of politics. The Additional Member System was adopted so that there are still 73 single member constituencies elected under FPTP but an extra 55 MSPs were elected on the basis of making the overall balance of the Parliament closer to the support for the different parties in each region. A Party that did very well in the single member constituencies might get no additional members if its overall vote did not warrant it.  There was also the calculation that, if Labour became unpopular, it would be difficult for the SNP to get a majority, though in 2011 they did, if narrowly.  The same system was applied to the Welsh Assembly.  Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition after the first two Scottish Parliament elections and their Scottish Government decided to adopt a proportional system for Scottish local elections and chose STV.

Northern Ireland

The Single Transferable Vote system is used in Northern Ireland for the Assembly and for local elections.  It was actually used in the elections for the first Northern Ireland Parliament in the 1920s so that both Catholics and Protestants were evenly represented but then abandoned and the result was a permanent Protestant control based on about 55% of the vote and discrimination against Catholics in Government policies.  The conflicts from the 1960s led British Governments to impose STV in local elections and then for the New Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 with a requirement that politicians of the two communities should share the Government of Northern Ireland.  It is also the system used in the Republic of Ireland.

Mayoral Votes

When the position of Mayor of London was created and then a provision was created for Mayors to be elected in other big cities, if a local referendum supported the idea, the Supplementary Vote system was chosen rather than the Alternative vote.  It was felt that a Mayor should command majority support but that under the Alternative Vote system, where voters ranked all the candidates in preference, a candidate that no one put first choice but no one was very much opposed to could be elected.  Under the Supplementary Vote system one of the two candidates with the most first preference votes would be elected. The Additional Member System was chosen for elections to the London Assembly.

Local Elections

Elections of local councillors in England and Wales are the only elections, apart from Westminster, that are left with FPTP. Many different parties and also Independent candidates contest these elections and receive a reasonable proportion of the votes and so councillors are regularly elected only about 30% of the votes.  In many areas one party remains in control of the council for long periods despite getting less than 50% of the vote. In Wales, the Williams Commission has recommended that there should be fewer local authorities and this may lead to a debate on the electoral system.  In England entrenched Labour and Conservative party groups that permanently control their councils will not want to change the system but pressure may build up in the near future and the Liberal Democrats have suggested that a change to a proportional system in English local government will be one of the conditions for them to enter a national coalition government.

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