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2020

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Time to Level the Playing Field


As the dust settles on the seismic result of the UK general election in December, parliament is now dominated by Conservative MPs, many of whom won seats in areas people didn’t quite expect. Prime Minister Boris Johnson now commands an 80 seat majority in parliament as a result of that election. You would be forgiven for thinking that since this is the biggest Conservative majority since the Thatcher years that there was a huge swing in public opinion and votes towards the Conservative party. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The Conservative vote, in fact, barely budged from the vote share achieved by Theresa May in 2017. Boris Johnson oversaw only a modest 1.2% increase in the Conservative vote. 43.6% of those who voted supported the Conservatives, far short of a majority of the vote. Why then was there such a large shift in the number of seats in parliament and why do we now have a government that a majority of us did not vote for? The First Past the Post electoral system.


For those who are unfamiliar with the First Past the Post electoral system (FPTP) in the UK, it is essentially a system which ensures the success of bigger parties in what is a winner takes all setup on a constituency by constituency basis. Instead of ranking candidates in order of preference as we in Northern Ireland are familiar with at assembly and council level, we only get one (untransferable) vote for Westminster elections. The winner does not need to win a majority votes, but simply needs to get more votes than any other candidate in the constituency, even if they only achieve a small share of the vote. In my view, this is a deeply flawed electoral system and must be reformed.


Nationally, there is a massive Conservative majority in parliament which 56.4% of voters did not want. Surely this is absurd? This is how the UK voting system has worked for years and this is nowhere near the starkest example of how this system produces misrepresentative parliaments. In 1997 Tony Blair’s Labour achieved 43.2% of the UK vote yet won the biggest majority in modern times, a majority of 179 seats! How can this be representative or fair? Clement Attlee’s Labour won a huge 48.8% of the vote in 1951 (indeed more than the Tories), and yet it was Churchill who was returned with a majority in parliament. There are countless examples of misrepresentative parliaments being produced by this system and the huge flaws with FPTP are certainly not new and by no means limited to national results. In December for instance 45% of voters in Scotland backed the SNP and yet they won 81% of the seats they contested. Again, this is hardly a fair reflection of those who voted.


Another drawback to this system is the fact that it makes tactical voting and electoral pacts inevitable. Due to the fact this is a system where winner takes all in each constituency and votes aren’t transferable, there is often an unfortunate situation where voters feel they cannot vote for the candidate which best represents their views and feel they have to tactically vote for a 'lesser of two evils' candidate to prevent a candidate they firmly oppose being elected. This, again, misrepresents the views of voters as they often go against what they truly believe in and vote for parties they do not think best reflect their views. As a result of this kind of necessity to prevent 'bad candidates' getting elected, there are often electoral arrangements/pacts between political parties where they cooperate and help each other by standing aside in certain constituencies to ensure candidates with the 'wrong views' don’t get elected or to ensure candidates which share a common cause with other parties is elected. This, while effective and successful in many cases (for example the cooperation between most anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland in December) is an unhealthy development that measures should have to be taken for a constituency to be accurately represented under this electoral system.


There are often arguments made against a more representative electoral system such as the fact that it would not provide stability and that one party governments have freedom to go about their agenda with a safe majority in parliament to get it through. I reject this notion. There have been multiple minority and coalition governments formed under hung parliaments, most notable would be the previous hung parliament under Prime Minister Theresa May which saw two and a half years of political chaos in Westminster. This was delivered under the FPTP system. A more proportionate system would mean that cooperation between parties would be necessary to run the country in a pluralist way and ultimately the views of all the voters would be more widely reflected in parliament and indeed government. This can only be a good thing as it would restore confidence amongst the public that politics can accurately reflect their views rather than having to choose a lesser of evils come election time.


When people discuss ways in which there should be a new, more reflective voting system there are often many different views on what system would be best to replace FPTP. Personally, I strongly believe that the local constituency element is extremely important, and MPs should have to be accountable to and represent their constituencies as they serve as their representative. Under a new system I would want this to be maintained rather than making a GB European Election style model where regions elect MEPs through party lists. I firmly believe that the use of the STV (single transferable vote) on a constituency by constituency basis would be the best system. Single seat constituencies could be maintained, and it could operate in the same way in which, for example, Dáil by-elections in the South do. This would require a candidate to win a majority of the votes by the end of the counting process, ensuring that voters are more likely to be represented by their MP. In addition to this, it would also ensure that voters use their vote in a way which more accurately reflects their views and eliminates the necessity to have electoral pacts or arrangements among political parties. Overall this would be a system which would be more reflective both locally and indeed nationally and would also be a healthier democratic system. Others may have different ideas about what should replace the current system but ultimately the immediate reality is that First Past the Post must go.

Jamie Kennedy is a Politics Student at Ulster University. He is a Green Party member, and stood as a candidate for the party in the 2019 Local Election.


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