What a dreadful electoral system this is!

If you’re looking for illuminating election commentary in the British papers this morning, you could almost ignore anything actual British pundits are writing and just look at the views of three correspondents from continental Europe, as gathered by the Guardian.

One is Philippe Bernard, from France’s Le Monde, who focuses on the curious absence of the European issue from the campaign. “Is Britain’s position in the world an issue of such secondary importance that it does not deserve to be debated?”, he asks rhetorically.

It’s a good question, to which I hope to return later in the week. And it’s not unrelated to the topic addressed by the other two correspondents – Pablo Guimón from Spain’s El País and Christian Zaschke from Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung – namely the extreme oddness of the British electoral system.

As Guimón puts it:

Face it, my beloved Britons: you’ve got a weird electoral system. You might think it’s normal that the Greens could get 10% of the vote and just one seat, while the SNP might end up with 4% and 50 seats. But it’s not.

Everyone’s used to the idea that single-member districts benefit larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. But it takes an election like this one to show just how arbitrary the system’s effects can be.

In the past, it’s been the Liberal Democrats who have suffered most. Recall 1992, for example, when they won 17.8% of the vote but collected only 3.1% of the seats. This time, however, the collapse in their overall vote together with the relatively strong position of many of their sitting members means the discrepancy will be less, although still significant. Polls suggest they will finish with something like 9% of the vote and at most about 4% of the seats.

Instead the real victims this time will be the UK Independence Party and the Greens. UKIP is tracking a clear third in the polls, with maybe 14% of the vote, but no-one expects it to win more than five or six seats – less than 1%. The Greens look like getting about 5%, several times their 2010 vote, but still only winning a single seat.

And where there are losers, there are also winners. This time the big one will be the Scottish National Party, which with around 4% of the vote looks like carrying off a bloc of about 50 seats, or almost 8% of the total. In other words, not all small parties suffer: a highly concentrated vote can bring a disproportionate number of seats, as of course it regularly does in Australia for the National Party.

Which in turn brings home an important point. Although both critics and defenders of the system refer to it as “first-past-the-post”, that aspect of it is relatively minor. The problem is single-member districts with no mechanism for proportionality. Adding preferential voting, as we have done in Australia and as was proposed for the UK in the 2011 referendum, is really just tinkering at the edges; it doesn’t address the fundamental injustice.

But having rejected even modest reform four years ago, the British electorate is now being confronted with an election that exposes the absurdity of the unreformed system. If, as seems likely, the SNP wins the balance of power while the much more widely-supported Lib Dems and UKIP have too few seats to matter, it will be hard to argue that everything is just fine. Already the Independent reports polling that shows 61% saying “the voting system should be changed to better represent smaller parties in Parliament.”

So the anti-Scottish themes of the Conservative Party, which I talked about last week, are not just resting on national chauvinism; there is a real sense that the SNP is headed for a position of influence that its actual support does not justify. And there’s a concomitant fear that the Tories, although they were happy to accept the system’s idiosyncrasies when it favored them, would dispute the legitimacy of a government that relied on SNP votes. As Owen Jones puts it today in New Statesman:

The plotters will attempt to administer a fatal blow to the Union, whether they see it as such or not: they will tell the Scottish people that the MPs they have elected are political pariahs who have no rightful say over the governing of the country. And then they will wage the mother of all campaigns against the legitimacy of a Labour-led government.

As the Europeans point out, most of the rest of the democratic world manages to deal with these situations sensibly. Here’s Zaschke:

As things stand it is conceivable that Ed Miliband could become prime minister even if he is not the leader of the strongest party. In Germany, this would be nothing unusual. In Britain it would be a fundamental change of the political system and, moreover, of political culture.

The perennial problem with electoral reform is that almost by definition the parties with most to gain from it are unlikely to have power to implement it, whereas those who have the power are the ones who are doing OK out of the existing arrangements. But it’s just possible that the reversal of fortunes since 2010 will bring it home to both major parties that something really has to be done.

Or, more likely, the optimists and the doomsayers will both be proved wrong and the British will continue to just muddle through as usual. Stay tuned.

(Also on the theme of non-native commentators, don’t miss Antony Green’s weekend post on the mechanics of forming government in a hung parliament – it dispels a lot of silly myths.)

2 thoughts on “What a dreadful electoral system this is!

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