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Discussion > How should the UK elect MPs and counselors?

How should the UK elect MPs and counselors?

In England the system is First Past The Post and whichever party can raise a voting majority in Parliament gets all the power. This tends to favour the exiting major parties. Minority parties such as the Greens and UKIP may get a lot of votes nationally, but few MPs.

In Northern Ireland the Assembly and local councils use the D'Hondt method . A Single Transferrable Vote elects a number of candidates from each voting area in proportion to their electoral support. Ministries, committee chairmanships etc are then allocated according the number of elected members from each party.

In a divided country like Northern Ireland that removes the opportunity for one group to dominate, but it has disadvantages.

The day to day business of running the place gets done, in a rather uninspiring fashion. It is very difficult to do anything new because you need a consensus. It is easy for one party to veto any new idea one might have. This might be because it favours one group over another, because it conflicts with an ideology, or just because they want to annoy you.

If you want an authoritarian government wielding high policy to support an ideology, keep FPTP. If you want all the minority parties to have influence, go for D'Hondt.

In Northern Ireland D'Hondt ended the Troubles at the cost of a very uninspiring Assembly. Jaw jaw instead of war war.

Would it work at Westminster. God knows!

Dec 5, 2016 at 7:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Entropic Man

Many thanks for this post, which panders to me greatly, since I've been banging on about this on unthreaded for some time (probably too long:-)).

As I've mentioned on unthreaded, I have 2 main problems with FPTP, at least at Government level. First, and significantly, is the fact that it perpetuates the 2-party system, and leaves smaller parties almost entirely unrepresented, even if they achieve reasonably significant votes. That strikes me as rather undemocratic. That's bad enough, but my second objection is in some ways more important to me - the fact that (at least until now) the vast majority of seats are "safe", thus meaning that they are unlikely to change hands at any general election. This effectively disenfranchises 80-90% of the electorate, and means that a small number of seats effectively decide general election results. This can't be right in any meaningful democracy.

I also have a huge problem with a completely unelected House of Lords, which I regard as an affront to democracy, but that's a separate issue to how we should elect MPs (and councillors).

An interesting test of some form of PR -v- FPTP is to see how the House of Commons would be made up following the 2015 general election, assuming MP numbers were in direct proportion to votes cast for each party.

Conservatives: 240 (they actually won 331).
Labour: 198 (they actually won 232).
UKIP: 82 (they actually won 1);
LibDems: 51 (they actually won 8);
SNP: 31 (they actually won 56);
Greens: 25 (they actually won 1);
Plaid Cymru: 4 (they actually won 3);
Sinn Fein: 4 (they actually won 4);
SDLP:2 (they actually won 3);
UUP: 3 (they actually won 2);
DUP:4 (they actually won 8);
Alliance Party: 1 (they actually won 0).
Three other fringe parties might also have won a seat each, having failed to win a seat under FPTP.

Whether one thinks a House of Commons configured thus differently is a good or a bad thing I suppose depends on many factors. For instance, if we disregard the highly unlikely outcome of a Conservative/Labour coalition, then no Government could be formed on the above figures with a majority in the Commons unless it was comprised of at least 3 parties. The most likely outcome from PR would probably be a Government comprising Conservatives, UKIP and some Unionists from Northern Ireland. Anathema to some (I wouldn't be too happy with that myself!) but it would arguably represent the wishes of the people better than a Conservative Government with an absolute majority based on 36.9% of votes cast.

Food for thought anyway.

Dec 5, 2016 at 8:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

Entropic Man,
Interesting that the Scottish Parliament has
73 are elected as First past the post constituency MSPs and;
56 are elected as Regional additional member MSPs. Seven are elected from each of eight regional groups of constituencies.

I read somewhere that this method was devised to prevent a single party taking overall power. In that objective it has just about failed leading to a minority government by SNP. Although it has resulted in the Green Party getting 6 seats on 0.6% of the Constituency vote and 6.6% of the Regional vote; whilst the Lib Dems got 5 seats on 7.8% and 5.2%. So for small parties not exactly equitable.

There seems to be a growing number of voters who feel they are not being represented by the current FPTP system. Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Green Parties so far, I suspect something needs to change before the disenfranchised outnumber those who voted for the winning party.

Dec 5, 2016 at 9:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Mark Hodgson

Interesting numbers.

I note that FTTP has favoured the major parties in England and Scotland. In Northern Ireland the FTTP figures look more like the STV results for the Assembly. Perhaps constituency boundaries play a larger part here, giving very definite tribal outcomes.

I've lived under a D'Hondt government for 20 years. It has saved 150 lives a year compared with the Troubles, but that is its only obvious advantage. Remember the risk of D'Honte. Essentially the choice is between D'Hondt and FTTP is the difference between representative government and effective government.We might end up with a government like Italy!

Even if you want a D'Hondt system it would have to be passed into law by Parliament. Turkeys voting for Christmas?

Dec 5, 2016 at 9:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Same applies for the US election; you can't change the rules after the game has begun.
So you can't say "this is how would have been if we count the popular vote or PR"
The gme replayed would have played out different ...with different strategies and more people voting etc.

In the UK I think many more people would have voted UKIP.


Balance of power paradox
- Another point in elections of any type I think it is unfair when a tiny party can hold the balance of power and thus leverage disproportionate favour. Maybe 2 different houses with 2 different voting system is a solution.

A kind of PR I like
...is to to stop giving ONE vote rather, you'd if 50,000 people vote for you, then your vote carries 50,000 points in a HoC vote. Also the Labour votes in your area don't disappear rather they are passed to the nearest Labour MP ..That way everyone's vote counts.

I do think gov should be as small as possible ..and let agreements be made between individuals or corps..instead of micro-managing.

Any system of gov which places all power in one big man is bad..there should not be presidents.

Dec 5, 2016 at 9:17 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

First Past the Post has some great advantages.

1) It gives decisive results based on a pre-determined electorate. It is known in advance if the constituency looks reasonable. It's not some abstract community that picks the candidates from a list.

2) It reflects how most people think about their representatives by allowing the electorate to vote against the candidate - not for them. It's very hard to vote for someone you actually want but it's easy to vote against the one you detest the most. Sometimes the MP does something so odious (cash for questions, racist mayoral campaign) that everyone unites to kick them out.

3) The deals are usually done before the vote so as the coalition is obvious. If the votes do come out a as a balance then the FPTP system breaks down. A coalition made after the vote is a theft of the votes and will lead to the offending party being decimated - quite rightly. This gives power to the electorate and away from the dealmakers. It's more democratic than post-election coalitions.

No system will suit you perfectly except your own absolute dictatorship. As we all can't have that FPTP is the best choice. Someone gets a dictatorship but if they annoy us we can get rid of them without bloodshed.

Dec 5, 2016 at 9:23 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

@M Courtney Don't you think that the "winner takes all of FPTP encourages forms of corruption,
ie making promises to special groups in order to scrape past the post.
Going soft on Asian grooming gangs for fear of losing the Bangla/Pak vote ?

Dec 5, 2016 at 10:18 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

FPTP is unfair, but the Italian alternative of uniting unlikely bed mates, is not conducive to sound Government, even though Berlusconi quite enjoyed himself, most nights.

Dec 5, 2016 at 11:35 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

I don't disagree with the criticisms of PR -v- FPTP (especially that it can give small parties disproportionate influence in a hung Parliament), though I'm not so convinced regarding the claims in favour of FPTP. The question for me really is "which is the least worst system"?

FPTP was always hailed as offering decisive and firm majority Government. I suspect that's a claim which started to break down 40 years ago and as a claim is looking increasingly dubious. PR is always held up as producing Italian chaos, but Germany votes on a PR basis too.

Maybe constituency size is relevant, as EM suggests. Maybe, as I suggested, and stewgreen picked up on, an answer might be to have different voting systems for the 2 Houses of Parliament?

My main concern with FPTP remains that it effectively disenfranchises millions and gives voters in a small number of swing seats disproportionate influence, while discouraging millions of others from even bothering to vote, as there is little or no point in them doing so. Fewer than 2/3 of the registered electorate voted in the 2015 general election. Thus we have a majority Tory government elected by approx 1 in 4 of the electorate.

Sandy S - interesting points about the Scottish devolved Government electoral system. Thanks.

Dec 6, 2016 at 8:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

The Fourth Republic suffered from a lack of political consensus, a weak executive, and governments forming and falling in quick succession since the Second World War. With no party or coalition able to sustain a parliamentary majority, Prime Ministers found themselves unable to risk their political position with unpopular reforms.

Dec 6, 2016 at 8:43 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

The vote against idea is interesting
Maybe you could have one house, where you vote against the party you want to stop the most.

Or a vote for and another one against.

Whatever system you choose..it is the checks and balances that also make democracy.

So although the US vote system is rubbish.
It has free speech, free media, and seperate judiciary . so beats every other country.

Like in the UK you are not allowed to say things,
and other countries have a smaller media, so some issues don't get a voice.

Dec 6, 2016 at 11:45 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Mark Hodgson
Your post of Dec 5, 2016 at 8:09 PM and numbers; are they a straight conversion of percentage to seats with no threshold? If a straight conversion do you know how would a threshold of say 7.5% change the seats?

Dec 6, 2016 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Italy is held up as an example of how proportional representation leads to weak government.

By contrast the following European countries have some form of PR.
Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Changing Prime Ministers every other week hasn't stopped Italy developing, in the early 1990s it was the 4th largest economy globally, Although since then growth has been very weak if there is growth at all. So no different from most Western Economies, sometimes doing well at other times doing no so well. Currently 8th largest GDP in world, per capita by World Bank between Japan and Kuwait.

On the plus side the Italians have got the smooth transition between PMs down to a fine art.

Dec 6, 2016 at 12:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS, the Italians also have bribery, fraud and corruption down to a fine art, and much of it ought to be in museums and galleries

Dec 6, 2016 at 2:55 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Sandy S

My numbers were a straight % transposition. I'm aware that some countries (Germany, I believe) require a party to obtain a minimum % of votes before it obtains any seats. This has the advantage of preventing fringe parties having a disproportionate influence when an election is a close-run thing under PR.

Accordingly, you raise a very interesting question. If the threshold were set at 7.5%, then in 2015 only Conservatives, Labour, UKIP and Lib Dems would have returned MPs. Surprisingly the same is true even if the threshold were set at 5%. SNP obtained just 4.7% of the UK vote, and Greens obtained 3.8%.

I like the idea of a threshold, but maybe it should be set at 2.5%? Even then, only Greens and SNP would have jumped that hurdle. Plaid Cymru and all the Northern Irish parties would have failed.

Dec 6, 2016 at 7:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

One of the major problems with the EU is that is can't radically change direction, even when the majority of the population want it to. The EU is a massive example of PR. PR persuades poltiticians to make deals with each other rather than do what one set of the public want. The current system works because when one political side is too far off course, the public can vote for the other side. Weirdly PR takes power away from the public.

Dec 10, 2016 at 8:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Tiny CO2

I follow your comments at various sites and almost always agree with with what you have to say. Sometimes I pause and am so impressed I think "I wish I'd posted that comment."

However (not surprisingly, since I'm criticising FPTP and arguing it should be replaced by something else, possibly PR) I don't think I agree with you here. The EU has disenfranchised the electorate. The EU Parliament is little more than a meaningless puppet. Most of the powers reside in the hands of an unelected clique who aren't interested in what the people think.

In the UK, FPTP effectively disenfranchises perhaps 80-90% of the electorate - those of us who live in "safe" seats. Parliament (well, the lower House, not the upper) might be elected, but only a select few who live in marginal constituencies get to decide who forms the Government of the day. Then the Government (and much of the opposition) decides it knows best and can safely decide to ignore the electorate until perhaps 6 months before a general election is due.

Yes, if the Government has made itself unpopular, it will probably be booted out, but only to be replaced by the other lot (Conservative or Labour depending on which of them was last in Government), who will then ignore the electorate, eventually makes themselves unpopular, and be booted out to be replaced at some point by the first lot. I'm not sure that's a system which really works well or which gives the electorate any meaningful control over our self-selecting political elite, much more than we can control the unelected self-selecting elite in the EU.

Dec 10, 2016 at 8:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

:-) back at you for great comments.

FPTP isn't great but it's been substantially corrupted by the EU in two way. First, a lot of our decisions have been made there and second, politicians have used it as an excuse not to do those things they've promised their electorate. Yes, many of the decisions locally and internationally have been made by civil service types. They thrive on weak governments and tie everyone up un paperwork. But look at how much better May has been able to operate with a massive madate from the public (yes I know it's still chaos but that's politics for you). The referendum was FPTP not PR, because there were only two options. Part of our current inertia is the desire of some to turn it into a PR election. All it achieves is a weakening the government's bargaining position.

The Conservatives were elected on a promise to reduce immigration. The basic demand by the Leavers was to reduce immigration. Most of the population of the EU are unhappy with mass immigration but when PR is used, the immigration issue dissolves into the woodwork. MPs don't have to listen to their electorate because they swap acting on immigration with something else they pretend the public want just as much. The whole 'vote blue go green' was politicians listening to each other rather than their voters.

UKIP and the Greens and even the Lib Dems are not in power because the public don't want them to be... yet. The SNP had no trouble rising to power but as they're almost a single issue party, they probably won't gain national power without forming a union with Labour. The public dropped the Lib Dems and even UKIP to vote Conservative at the last election specifically to stop that happening.

Power sharing doesn't lead to happier voters. The Lib Dems hated it when their party shared power. They didn't like any of the compromises the party had to make.

Dec 10, 2016 at 9:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

It's a mistake to think that declining voting is a sign of deeply unhappy voters. By and large the public are disinterested because things are either not that bad or not bad enough for any party to have a new position on a problem. Apart from UKIP none of the parties was serious about reducing immigration. Cameron massively underestimated public feeling about it and thought a throw away policy would do. He assumed that a lack of trouble equated to a lack of feeling. While historically this was true, it has been rapidly rising up the list of issues. Like many, I was surprised by the results of the referendum but then I'm not directly affected by immigration. If nothing is done to curb it, people will seek a new party to do what the others refuse. That's when you see a really unhappy electorate.

I actually like Jeremy Corbyn. He stands for clear things... and a lot of those who've demanded a real Labour party are either delighted or horrified and little in between. Too many Labour leaders have nothing in common with the majority who have traditionally voted for them. Ironically Corbyn exposes the massive split. I'm not sure what kind of leader they can have now that could satisfy both sides. How could PR satisfy Labour supporters when there is no common world view between them?

What the public want is not PR but multiple referendums and nobody is offering that.

Dec 10, 2016 at 10:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Incidentally I think Labour may vanish with the urban elite going to the Lib Dems, the working class going to labour and the students and luvvies going to the Greens.

Dec 10, 2016 at 10:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

When you wrote 'labour' the second time , you meant UKIP or Conservatives ?

Dec 11, 2016 at 12:21 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

UKIP - it was late.

It's worth noting that most of the MPs hate Brexit with a passion. It's actually a measure of how rattled they are that they're letting it happen at all. Some of those who are fighting it hardest are those with little likelihood of future roles in government and a high chance of being deselected eg Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry. Zac Goldsmith's failure to get elected was partially good news for Brexiteers. It was a former strong Lib Dem seat, a strong Remain area and from 1997 - 2010 it was a strong Lib Dem seat. He wasn't even standing as a Conservative and mid term elections are often protest votes too. All those things considered, it's no surprise he lost.

Labour did very badly in both areas and I don't think Corbyn is solely to blame.

Dec 11, 2016 at 10:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Tiny CO2

Sorry I disappeared for a while - I've been away visiting family. We can agree on your comment (following) (as amended courtesy of stewgreen):

"Incidentally I think Labour may vanish with the urban elite going to the Lib Dems, the working class going to labour [UKIP] and the students and luvvies going to the Greens."

I suspect Labour are finished. They no longer represent the people they were formed to represent. I regard them these days as nothing more than the party of the public sector. They try to appeal to immigrants, but in doing so they alienate their traditional core support, which they (arrogantly and stupidly) take for granted. The last 2 by-elections are no more than straws in the wind, but losing your deposit twice in quick succession doesn't augur well at the next general election.

Dec 12, 2016 at 7:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Hodgson

Mark Hodgson, Jeremy Corbyn has been Democratically elected to ru(i)n the Labour Party on behalf of those the Labour Party had previously got rid of.

Last Past the Lightswitch, Please Turn-Off.

Dec 12, 2016 at 9:17 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Mark Hodgson
Since the Labour Party was formed things have changed beyond all recognition. The GIG economy, homeworking, zero hours contracts, online shopping and the minimum wage to name but a few. Many of those who might have once needed a Trade Union don't feel that it will help them. Perhaps because the Trade Unions have restricted powers in the UK and therefore don't see the connection between work, unions and Labour. I think there is a high probability that your assessment will turn out to be correct. I guess it depends how well and how quickly UKIP moves in on Labour's home ground.

The first past the post electoral system will make for interesting times. Quite possibly leading to a series of hung parliaments and possibly majority parties only getting a quarter or so of the vote. The group in power may end up being a couple of minority parties and a couple of single issue MPs. On of the things that those opposing Proportional Representation dislike..

Dec 13, 2016 at 8:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS