I’ve spoken to a lot of people recently – British people who can vote, and indeed who have voted in the past – who don’t understand some very basic things about our political system. They think, for example, that the party that gets the most votes always has to form the government, or that we vote for a Prime Minister directly. Neither of these things is true.
In the UK we are governed by Parliament, which is split into two ‘Houses’. The House Of Lords is a sort of advisory body, made up of retired politicians, business leaders, bishops, and a few people who have inherited their place in the Lords from their parents. We can’t vote for anyone in the Lords.
The other House, the House of Commons, is the part of the government we can vote for. There are 650 members of the House of Commons, known as Members of Parliament, or MPs.
To select these, the country is split into 650 areas known as constituencies. In each of these constituencies, people vote for the person they want to represent them, from a choice of candidates who are mostly members of political parties, and the person with the highest number of votes wins and becomes their MP.
Note that we don’t vote for a *party*, or for a *government* – we vote for a single person. It would be entirely possible for someone to want, say, a Conservative government, but to dislike their local Conservative candidate and like their local Labour candidate. In that case, they would vote for the Labour candidate.
After the election, most of the time one party has more than 325 MPs – so more than half the MPs in Parliament, and that party gets to become the government. The leader of the government party is the Prime Minister – we don’t get to vote directly for the Prime Minister, and if the current Prime Minister resigns, or gets kicked out by their party, the party in government chooses the new one. This happens a lot – roughly half the Prime Ministers we’ve had since the Second World War weren’t the leader of their party at the election before they became Prime Minister.
However, some times no party gets more than 325 MPs, and then we have what is usually known as a ‘hung parliament’ (though some people prefer to call it a ‘balanced Parliament’). When this happens, the different parties have to discuss between themselves what to do about forming a government. Sometimes this ends in a ‘coalition’ (two or more parties working together in government, with the leader of the bigger party being Prime Minister but members of the other party being Cabinet Ministers). At other times it leads to a ‘minority government’ where the largest individual party gets to form the government but has to try to persuade members of the other parties to vote for any new laws it wants to bring in.
Now this is a simple system, but it’s not particularly fair. To see why, imagine we have three parties, A, B and C, and two constituencies.
Now, in constituency 1, party A gets thirty thousand votes, party B gets twenty-nine thousand votes, and party C gets one thousand votes, so party A gets an MP. In constituency 2, party C gets thirty thousand votes, party B gets twenty-nine thousand votes, and party A gets one thousand votes, so party C gets an MP.
When this happens, party B has got twenty-eight thousand votes more than the other two parties, but it has no MPs while the others have one each. As you can see, this is not fair.
Most people, most of the time, either don’t know about this unfairness or don’t think it matters, because the system we have *sort of* works – at the last election Labour got most votes and most MPs, the Conservatives got second-most votes and second-most MPs, and the Liberal Democrats third most votes and third most MPs, so it sort of looks more-or-less fair until you look at the shares properly.
But this upcoming election might be different. Because of the way the different parties have different levels of support in different parts of the country, and the way the polls are at the moment, it is entirely possible (not likely, but very possible, say a one in four chance) that the Liberal Democrats will get the most votes, the Conservatives second and Labour third, but that Labour will get the most MPs, with the Conservatives second and the Liberal Democrats third.
Many political parties (most of the smaller ones, and the Liberal Democrats) want to change the system to make it fairer. People have suggested many different ways of making the voting system fairer, and these are all collectively known as ‘proportional representation’ systems. However, there are big differences between them. The system we use for European elections, the d’Hondt system, is horrible, as I explained here, and is why the Bastard Nazi Party got seats in the European Parliament.
The system the Liberal Democrats want is called Single Transferable Vote (STV), and I talked a little bit about it here. It is both simple and fair. (Fixed – Tez Burke corrected my stupid error here).
When politicians talk about ‘proportional representation’ leading to corruption or to Nazis getting in, they are usually talking about systems like d’Hondt, not systems like STV, and lots of them are deliberately confusing the two – or outright lying – because they benefit from the current system. STV is fair to everyone. You may prefer the current system after they’ve both been described, but please do so for the right reasons, not because of lies people have told about ‘proportional representation’ as a whole.
I hope this helps – any questions?
(ETA, have corrected a misstatement of fact after Tez Burke and Andrew Ducker called me on it in the comments.)