Debate rages over British electoral system after “unfair” Blair re-election
Published May 11th 2005 in Khaleej Times

LONDON - As dust settles on Britain’s general election, debate has shifted to one of its more incongruous elements—how did Prime Minister Tony Blair win more than half the seats on offer with just over a third of the the popular vote? Britain’s so-called “first past the post” electoral system has long been a national peculiarity, but rarely have the voting method’s quirks been more starkly highlighted.

In last Thursday’s poll, Blair’s Labour Party won 35.2 percent of the vote — equating to just 21.6 of all registered electors — and yet managed to win 356 House of Commons seats, 55 percent of the total.

The main opposition Conservatives won only slightly fewer votes, 32.3 percent of those cast, yet ended up with 197 seats, while the smaller Liberal Democrats have precisely 62 MPs -- 9.5 percent of the total — with 22 percent of the popular vote. Such results are “a travesty of democracy”, according to Nina Temple, head of “Make Votes Count”, a group campaigning for a new electoral system.

Under first past the post —t he name is a horse racing analogy — each of the votes for the 646 Commons seats are treated as individual mini-elections. Local electors vote only for candidates standing in their own geographical constituency, and the one with the most ballots becomes the local MP, with the losers receiving nothing.

Thus, in theory, a party could receive 49.9 percent of the vote in every single constituency and yet end up with precisely no representation in parliament. Apart from the system’s simplicity and the way it makes MPs directly accountable to their local area, proponents of first past the post argue that it is the only way to guarantee strong, decisive government.

Under a proportional representation (PR) system, where the number of lawmakers directly reflects voting percentages, no party since World War II would have been able to govern without a coalition partner, bringing a succession of weak regimes, they argue.

However, opponents of the existing system argue that the 2005 election results are simply too markedly different from the people’s stated will. “The case for PR has never looked so strong,” said Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, whose party is the only one of the main political trio to favour reform.

First past the post traditionally favours parties with strong regional powerbases, rather than those—such as the Liberal Democrats—with votes spread around the country. Labour are not the only beneficiaries.

While the anti-EU UK Independence Party won 620,000 votes and no seats last week, the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents hardline Protestant opinion in Northern Ireland, has nine MPs from 240,000 votes.

Even the Conservatives, traditionally supporters of the current system, have noted with dismay that in England they won 50,000 votes more than Labour last week but ended up with 92 fewer seats.

First past the post, critics say, simply means that some votes are far more valuable than others. “The cost for each Labour seat is around 27,000 votes, the cost for each Conservative seat is around 35,000 votes and the cost of each Liberal Democrat seat is just under 100,000 votes,” noted John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University of last week’s election. Near the end of their 18 years in opposition from 1979 to 1997, Labour began to support a change to a PR system and even proposed a referendum on the issue in their 1997 manifesto. This has long been forgotten, but campaigners are seeking to remind Blair about the pledge.

This week, the Independent newspaper covered its front page with two colour-coded charts, one showing how votes were split between parties and the other illustrating the actual make-up of the new Commons.

“What we voted for, what we got, and why it’s time for change,” ran the headline. The Electoral Reform Society, an independent body which advises public bodies and governments on fair voting systems, is also adding to the pressure.

“Never before has Britain had a government with so little popular support, never has the case for electoral reform been so strong,” said chief executive Ken Ritchie.