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Proportional Representation and Changing the UK Elections

The United States – a federal, presidential constitutional republic – is gearing up for the 2024 general election, during which the Republicans will challenge the Democrats for control of the White House. By contrast, the United Kingdom (UK), which is a parliamentary, constitutional monarchy, uses a much different system for electing its leaders. It’s been the same for generations, but calls for proportional representation are getting louder.

UK Elections Rely on the ‘First Past the Post’ System

The UK currently uses a “First Past the Post” system in its general elections, which encompass 650 voting constituencies.

In basic terms, people in each of those 650 constituencies vote for their preferred candidate. The candidate that wins each jurisdiction is then rewarded with a seat in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament (MP).

For example, after the last UK general election that took place on Dec. 12, 2019, the constituency of the city of Lincoln returned a win for Karl McCartney (Conservative) with 47.9% of the vote over Karen Lee’s (Labour) 44.7%. Subsequently, McCartney became the MP for Lincoln in the House of Commons.

Once all of the vote counting is completed, the political party with the most seats in the House of Commons takes or retains control of Parliament, and the party with the second largest seat count is referred to as the opposition.

Now, there are three major political parties in the UK. There is the Conservative Party (currently in power), the Labour Party (the opposition) and the Liberal Democrats.

This general election system in the UK has been in place for generations. However, some are questioning if this election system still works in the 21st century.

Many have been calling for reform of this outdated election system and have proposed the introduction of proportional representation. Under this system, the seats allocated to each political party would be proportional to the total amount of votes the party received.

Instead of voting for one person per one constituency, a proportional representation system would elect a group of MPs that align with how the overall area voted, according to the Electoral Reform Society. So instead of 650 constituencies each electing one MP, the UK might have 65 constituencies, with each electing 10 MPs.

[Related article: Why UK Prime Minister Liz Truss Was Doomed from the Start]

The Call for Proportional Representation

A major issue with the current general election system is a lack of representation of the actual political makeup of the country. In the previous general election using the current “First Past the Post” system, the Conservative Party received 43.6% of the nationwide vote. The Labour Party received 32.1%, the Liberal Democrats took 11.6% and other parties took the remaining 12.7%.

Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed many times throughout his premiership that he had a mandate from the British people, according to The Conversation. But when you look at the numbers from the previous election, the Conservative Party actually took home a minority of the vote. In other words, 57.4% of the UK voted for a candidate who was nota member of the Conservative Party.

This type of election outcome often happens in the United States. The presidential election of 1992 is a great example. According to the Miller Center, 57% of U.S. citizens voted for someone other than the eventual winner, Bill Clinton.

In the UK, many people – particularly the younger generation who overwhelmingly do not vote Conservative – have felt disillusioned by the current election system. Many people feel their votes are wasted.

Despite the Conservative Party receiving less than half of the overall nationwide vote, they now have a majority within Parliament. As a result, the Conservatives have free rein to pass laws with little to no chance of pushback by the opposition party.

In a constituency with a safe Conservative seat, people voting for another party have little to no effect on the final result and consequently the final makeup of Parliament. Many people feel that their votes are merely symbolic and have little effect on the elected government.

This interactive chart from Flourish shows how different the House of Commons would have looked in 2019 had proportional representation been in place for that year’s general election.  Click anywhere on the chart to see more information.

Under the proposed election format using proportional representation, the Conservative Party would still have the largest presence within Parliament. However, the millions of UK citizens who voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats will also have a comparative presence in the government, rather than being left with only a token opposition. Also, people will feel that their vote actually made a difference in the election.

The ‘Unelected’ Prime Ministers

One common sound bite heard throughout the 2016 Brexit campaign was disgust that the UK was at the whim of “unelected bureaucrats” in Brussels, says The Economist. Leaving aside the veracity of this claim, a highly simplified and incorrect summation of how the European Union (EU) works, there is a certain hypocrisy from the current UK government decrying anyone for being “unelected.”

If one uses the government’s own definition of “unelected” politicians as they relate to the EU, then the UK currently has an unelected Prime Minister in Rishi Sunak. According to the BBC, Sunak replaced the unelected Liz Truss after Truss was forced to resign.

Truss was installed as Prime Minister (PM) after Boris Johnson was forced to resign in July 2022, according to CNBC. A leadership contest within members of the Conservative Party put Truss into 10 Downing Street after she earned 81,326 of the members’ votes. In essence, a small minority of 81,326 people from the UK’s total population of 67.33 million  produced arguably the worst Prime Minister in the history of the UK and certainly the PM with the shortest-ever term in office.

Put another way, Truss was “elected” by approximately 0.12% of the British population, with the other 99.88% of the UK’s citizenry having had no say in who led their country. Johnson’s predecessors over the decades were also effectively unelected, i.e., no majority of the voting population put them in power.

Surprisingly, it’s necessary to go all the way back to 1935 and the election of Stanley Baldwin to find a Prime Minister who won with more than 50% of the vote, according to Parliament’s House of Commons Library. One might argue that these unelected results stem from the UK having three major political parties, but in reality, they have two that count under the current “First Past the Post” system – the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

In 2022, the UK had three different Prime Ministers within a short period of time. In a functioning democracy, the sudden changing of the head of government should lead to another general election.

However, the Conservatives retained control of Parliament and it is up to them to make the decision to call an election before the five-year mandatory term limit expires. With the current and extremely negative polling of the Conservatives by research company Ipsos MORI implying that the party could be wiped out if an election is called, they are in no rush to call a snap election.

As a result, the UK public is left with no say in who governs them – again. This hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed, and many have been demanding an election be called, seemingly to no avail.

A system of proportional representation would help the UK to avoid this situation by allowing the leadership party to be chosen specifically by the people, and the layout of the government could properly represent the political makeup of the country.

Each member of Parliament would correspond to the number of votes cast overall. Now, this may require further voting to choose specifically which MP would hold each seat, but it would ultimately result in a more fair and equal distribution of power, with no votes being wasted like they are under the current system.

Young versus Old in UK Elections

Young voters often feel disillusioned under the current system. In 2019, less than 30% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Boris Johnson, says British Election Study. In 2016, the Brexit referendum to leave the European Union (EU) was overwhelmingly voted against by 73% of that same 18- to 24-year-old age group voting to remain in the E.U., according to Statista.

The younger generation feels that their voices are going unheard. They will be dealing with the consequences of these votes far longer than the older generation. But changing to a system incorporating the broader demographic within the UK and resulting in a tangible effect on the final government in power would be a powerful step in solving current problems in the UK’s election system.

Arran Appleton is a resident of the United Kingdom. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Hertfordshire and holds a master's degree in English Literature and Culture – also from the University of Hertfordshire.

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