Electoral Reform: We need it, but it won’t happen anytime soon

5 Jun 2015


Electoral reform is back in the spotlight, though seemingly for a very brief time.  However, it is not all likely that we’ll see a change to the system in the next five years and there are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, there are more important things to be getting on with.  At least that’s what the Government says, and to some extent they’re not wrong.  The economy, jobs, the NHS and all the issues which were important before the election haven’t gone away and it would be irresponsible to potentially mix everything up in parliament at this moment in time.  However, with UKIP getting 3.8 million votes and just one seat, and the Greens getting over 1.1 million votes an just one seat – while the SNP take 56 seats with just 1.4 million votes - there is undoubtedly a need for debate over our electoral system.


The main problem with electoral reform is that nobody can agree on what changes need to be made.  It is not as simple as some make out, for example PR (proportional representation) enthusiasts might suggest a UK-wide PR system.  On the face of it, yes, it looks as if it is representational.  But one of the wonders of the FPTP (first past the post) system is that people in small areas (the constituencies) have their interests represented by their local MP in parliament.  This is a key part of our democracy and an over-simplified PR system would put this under threat.


However, for all its positives, it’s still impossible to get past the fact that parties such as UKIP and the Greens are scandalously underrepresented by FPTP.  With regards to UKIP in particular, this election result has inspired a large number of people to come out in support of electoral reform, when they might not have before.  On this basis we have an argument for some form of electoral change.


Before I go any further, I think it’s important to debunk an argument that has been made by those opposing electoral reform.  A somewhat dangerous opinion is that the ‘public rejected electoral reform in 2011 when they voted against the AV (alternative vote) system in a referendum’.  This is wrong, so, as David Cameron would say: let’s be clear; they didn’t vote for against electoral reform.  They voted against a specific change to what you write on the ballot paper.  If the referendum came out as a ‘yes’ win, the only thing that would change would be you ordering the candidates by number instead of marking only one.  Everything else would be the same; the constituencies wouldn’t have changed and there would still be one MP would be elected per constituency. Therefore, when the public voted against the change they weren’t voting against electoral reform as a whole, as has been argued by some – they were voting against one, specific and (relatively) minor change that would not really help the smaller parties who get voted nation-wide, but not seats.


So how can we reform the voting system in a way which would retain the benefits of FPTP but also allow all parties to be represented fairly?  I think that we should keep the House of Commons as it is, albeit with minor changes to the number of seats and constituency boundaries as the new Conservative government is proposing.  The House of Lords is where the change can really happen.  Our upper house isn’t that powerful (a good thing when it’s not democratically elected) but it does present the perfect opportunity to refresh democracy in the UK.  I don’t know if we need to get rid of the House of Lords completely, but its position as the upper house in our political system should be scrapped.  In its place could be a democratically elected senate – where members are voted in by proportional representation based on much larger areas of the country.  A certain number of members of the upper house would be elected per area (for example, the EU areas could be used – London, South East England, Scotland etc.).  The upper house would have much more power than it does now and would be able to moderate and introduce legislature.


However, there are bound to be numerous people who disagree with this idea.  There will also be a lot of people who disagree with the idea of electoral reform altogether, while there are also those who will agree that we need electoral reform but then disagree about the nature of reform we need.  And that is why the electoral reform campaigns probably won’t get anywhere anytime soon.  People in favour of reform can’t agree and thus anti-reformists have the upper hand.  Despite this, I still believe that we need to have open debates about the future of our electoral system and that we need to look in to ways of altering it to make it more representative.  While simple country-wide PR is not the answer, neither is rejecting reform altogether.

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