A Beginners’ Guide To The Election: Part 1 – The Voting System

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.)

This entry was posted in politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A Beginners’ Guide To The Election: Part 1 – The Voting System

  1. burkesworks says:

    The system the Liberal Democrats (and smaller parties like the Greens) want is called Single Transferable Vote (STV), and I talked a little bit about it here.

    AFAIK, the Greens favour the dog’s breakfast that is AMS rather than multi-member STV.

    This is the system that is used in[…]the Welsh and London assemblies>/i>

    No, both of those use AMS; using D’Hondt in the case of the Welsh Assembly.

    as well as the London Mayoral elections

    Sadly it isn’t STV here either – and nor could it be given its nature whereby there’s only one vacancy. London Mayoral elections are decided using Supplementary Voting; a bastardised, cut-down form of AV that really penalises compromise choices.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oops. Will fix.

    • MatGB says:

      “basterdised, cut down form of AV”

      That’s one way of describing it. Bloody Stupid Voting System is my preferred acronym. To be fair to Hennesy, his terms of reference were crap, but it truly is a bloody awful electoral system, no one understands it, it confuses voters, and makes tactical choices even harder.

      And it’s used in mayoral elections across the country if areas are stupid enough to go for an elected mayor. Awful.

  2. Thanks, this was very useful! I had an idea of how it worked, but this cleared up some things for me. I never knew the House of Lords wasn’t chosen by the constituency though (but I figure I am allowed, since I am not British and all that).

    For all the faults of the American system, the way the chambers are set up is pretty fair (well, when you don’t factor in gerrymandering) . The Senate gets two members per state and the House gets representatives based on population (for example California has like 54 reps, while Alaska only gets two).

    Not taking into account population when breaking up the constituencies seems incredibly retrograde, and it does not surprise me that the parties that are favored by it are reticent to change it.

    • MatGB says:

      Not taking into account population when breaking up the constituencies seems incredibly retrograde

      We do; not sure if you’re misunderstanding Andrew’s point or getting mixed up, but most constituencies represent about 80,000 voters from the last census. They’re designed to follow natural boundaries wherever possible, but to create seats in contention instead of safe, in theory.

      In practice it doesn’t quite work properly, the census data is already out of date when the new boundaries are set (this is the first election using the new boundaries based on the 2001 census), and there are a few seats that, for historic reasons, are bigger or smaller (the Isle of Wight got one seat for ages, but has now finally been split into two).

      The problem is that the big two UK parties haven’t absorded smaller parties in the way the US parties have; there are a bunch of parties that aren’t GOP or Dem, but they caucus with, or endorse, or run a candidate in the primaries, etc.

      And, there are areas of the country where one or other big two simply isn’t welcome, at all (like Republicans weren’t welcome in the South for decades). Where I grew up, Labour has no presence at all, anyone vaguley left of centre votes Lib Dem or Green. Where Andrew lives, the Conservatives are almost wiped out. Weirdly, the only truly national party now is the Lib Dems, the smallest of the national parliamentary parties.

      Meh, as Andrew knows, I can bore for England on this topic (about 1/3rd of my degree was pretty much on it), but it’s 2am, hope it’s clear, I’m too tired to proofread but not at all sleepy.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Can’t believe I made such stupid, obvious errors. I knew that as well, honestly.. Should have written this on a day when I was less tired…

  3. Maybe you should stress that the Lib Dems want multi-member STV. When I was a student at Reading the elections for Union officers used a kind of STV that was very different and not very good. Of course it was really a kind of FPP because only one person could do each job, but there were some superficial aspects of STV tacked onto it. This confused me for a long time: I couldn’t understand why the Lib Dems claimed to support PR and wanted STV, because in my experience STV didn’t seem to be proportional. The multi-member part is a very crucial difference which makes it all make sense.

    • MatGB says:

      Gavin, problem is that most universities say they’re using STV, but are actually using AV. STV is, formally, a multi-member system. That some people erroneously call AV STV means that it’s sometimes referred to as MM-STV, but this is strictly unnecessary.

      Why universities use the wrong names is beyond me; they ususally do use it for electing conference reps, but…

      • That makes sense. After some checking on Wikipedia I can see that what I experienced definitely was AV and not STV. It’s just unfortunate that many people who think they know what STV is will have been given a completely wrong impression because university is probably the place where English people are most likely to vote in elections that don’t use FPP.

  4. Malio says:

    Andrew, as an advocate of First Past the Post ,can I ask if you really think it would be fairest, in your example, for Party B to have MPs in both constituency 1 and constituency 2? This would seem to be unfair since there would be more support for a different party in each of the constituencies.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, I don’t think that would be fair either. However, you must remember that constituency boundaries are fairly arbitrary things.

      What I want is a system where we have larger constituencies, MPs elected by STV. So instead of constituencies 1 and 2 in my example, with 60,000 voters each, imagine one large constituency of 240,000 voters, which had four MPs and about the same distribution of voters as 1 and 2 combined. That giant constituency could then have one MP for party A, two for party B and one for party C. That would be fairer to *everybody*.

      • Malio says:

        Thanks. I am open minded about these things but still feel a bit sceptical about having much larger constituencies.

        I’m keen that people are represented at a local level and I live in a geographically large constituency (Argyll & Bute). I think that constituents are best represented by a single MP who is tied to and has knowledge of the specific issues that pertain to the constituency.

        I am a natural Labour Party supporter (stay with me…) and have a Liberal Democrat MP. I’m satisfied with this because I accept that he was able to attract more support than any of his rivals and thus can claim to best represent the will of the local people.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Well, STV retains a constituency link, which is one reason it’s better than many other forms of PR.

          To give you a counterexample of sorts, I live in Manchester Gorton, where we have a Labour MP and a Lib Dem in second place. Less than a mile away is Manchester Withington, with a Lib Dem MP who only got something like 500 votes more than the Labour challenger. Were those two to be merged into one larger two-MP constituency, it would undoubtedly still have one Lib Dem and one Labour MP, and both would still have local knowledge (the combined constituency would only cover a few square miles).

          It would mean that if I needed help from my MP, I could call on the help of John Leech, who would be more likely to be sympathetic to the kinds of problems I’d like to have, while a Labour supporter in Withington could get help from Gerald Kaufmann. At the moment, in both constituencies only about 40% of the people (give or take) have a representative doing what they want, this way 80% would have one.

  5. Gavin Burrows says:

    I read this and then watch the TV News where David Cameron attacked PR because politicians would get to decide who the Prime Minister was, rather than you, the voters.

    In other words this popular ignorance of our political system would seem to extend to one of the candidates! If anyone here has his e-mail, could they forward him a link to this?

  6. Crookes says:

    I think its an interesting one.

    The problem is that we can never know which system works best comparitatively, because we can’t put them side by side to compare, gotta do one or the other.

    Unless we just test it on Wales first…

    Check my blog article on the Election at http://allaboutchris.co.uk/blog/2010/my-election-vote/

Comments are closed.