There are two main types of electoral systems in the UK:
- First Past the Post (FPTP)
- Proportional Representation (PR)
First Past the Post (FPTP)
FPTP is the voting system used for the election of MPs to 'seats' in the UK Parliament. It is a system in which the 'winner takes all' and usually gives a clear majority both at constituency and national level. This means that a candidate in a constituency only needs one more vote than the nearest rival to win the seat. Similarly, political parties only need to win one more seat in the House of Commons to have a majority.
Advantages of FPTP
There is very little chance of extremist parties being elected to Parliament under FPTP because they are unlikely to gain enough votes in any one constituency.
Generally the results of elections using FPTP can be calculated quickly. When necessary, this makes the transfer of power from one party to another much easier.
Disadvantages of FPTP
The main criticism of FPTP is that the number of votes cast for a party in general elections is not accurately reflected in the number of seats won. An example of this was the 1997 election when the Conservatives gained 18% of the vote in Scotland but not one seat. This is mirrored at constituency level, where the winning candidate may have received only one third of the votes cast. Indeed, a government may be elected on a minority vote, as happened in 1974 when Labour won the general election on the number of seats gained but the Conservatives had a larger share of the vote across the country.
Smaller parties are not fairly treated under FPTP. Although they may have a sizeable national support across the country, they do not get a proportional number of MPs because there are not enough votes concentrated in constituencies to let them win seats.
FPTP also encourages tactical voting. This means voting for a party, other than your preferred party, to prevent another party from being elected. An example of this would be when a Labour supporter in a marginal Liberal/ Conservative seat votes Liberal Democrat in order to keep the Conservatives from winning.
Another disadvantage of FPTP can occur in marginal constituencies, where voters tend to change their party loyalty from election to election, and among 'floating' or 'swing' voters, who have no firm party loyalty. The outcome of an election can be decided on the voting patterns in these situations, even although the constituents may number only a tiny proportion of the electorate.
A mark on one bit of paper matters - make your vote count
Proportional Representation (PR)
There are a number of systems that use PR such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the Regional/National Lists. Some hybrid systems combine FPTP and a form of PR such as the Additional Member System (AMS). The AMS system is used in elections for the Scottish Parliament, where voters can vote for single candidates in their constituencies but also for candidates from regional 'lists' put forward by each party. If there is a discrepancy between the percentage of seats the party has won and the percentage of votes cast, the seats are 'topped up' from the regional list.
Advantages of PR
In PR systems there are no wasted votes in elections. As a result, there is a far greater degree of proportionality; the number of seats more accurately reflects the number of votes cast for each party.
In the 2003 Scottish Parliament results Labour did better than the other parties, with 50 of the 129 seats and just over 33% of the constituency vote and 29.3% of the regional list vote. The SNP got 27 seats and over 20% of the vote, the Conservatives got 18 seats with just over 15% of the vote, the Greens won 7 seats and the Scottish Socialists won 6 seats. The Liberal Democrats came fourth with 17 seats but remained part of the government in coalition with Labour.
The number of seats won under the Additional Member System in Scotland in 2007 were:
|Party||Constituency Seats||Regional or 'List' seats||Total|
The SNP had the largest number of seats but were a minority government, meaning they id not have a majority over the other parties combined.
PR encourages coalition or minority governments. This encourages a less confrontational form of politics because of the need for parties to co-operate, also known as consensus politics. This also means that there are fewer dramatic changes in policies as the parties tend to keep a balanced 'middle way'.
Under AMS in Scotland, constituencies are multi-party. This means that several different parties can be represented which gives voters a choice of MSPs to consult. List systems can also increase the numbers of women, ethnic minority and disabled representatives in a parliament, if the party leaders choose to put them near the top of the List.
However, there are no guarantees that the AMS will lead to a minority government - and the 2011 results deonstrate this as the SNP did win enough seats to form a majority government. The number of seats won under AMS in Scotland in 2011 were:
|Party||Constituency Seats||Regional or 'List' seats||Total|
Disadvantages of PR
A criticism of PR is that, in elections, voters do not vote for coalition governments. The compromises that are made between politicians from different parties in coalition can sometimes be without public backing. Small parties in coalition without a majority vote from the electorate can become 'king-makers'. This means that small parties can have unfair power over the larger parties by threatening to withdraw from coalitions.
In the regional or national list systems, party leaders may draw up lists of only like-minded candidates which may disadvantage minority groups within a party. Although there is a larger than average number of women in the Scottish Parliament, there are few representatives from other groups such as ethnic minorities or the disabled. This is not desirable for effective democracy.
Local Council Elections in Scotland
2007 marked the first time the Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system was used to elect Local Councillors in Scotland. This followed criticisms that some councils in Scotland were dominated by a single party. Using a form of PR, not FPTP, it would be fairer and all parties would be better represented. It is hoped that more people will turn out to vote however, it will lead to coalitions running many Scottish councils.
STV uses multi-member constituencies of 3 or 4 councillors per ward. Each party selects a number of candidates to be elected. Voters rank their preferred candidate(s) in order of preference. To be elected a candidate needs to reach a set number of votes also known as a quota. The candidate with the least votes drops out and their votes are reallocated to the voters’ second choices until the required number of candidates (3 or 4) have reached the quota and are elected. Using STV ensures there are far fewer wasted votes.
Only five councils in Scotland are now controlled by one party and 27 councils have no one party in control. Many councils have formed coalitions or partnership agreements. This will no doubt make it difficult to get things passed if there is not agreement among the parties.
Westminster’s voting system usually allows parties to form a government on their own. But, these governments may only have the support of 35 percent (Labour 2015) or 37 percent (Conservative 2015) of the country.
Westminster’s voting system creates two sorts of areas. ‘Safe seats’, with such a low chance of changing hands that there is no point campaigning, and ‘marginal seats’, that could change hands.
As only votes that get an MP elected matter, parties prioritise specific voters to get MPs. Parties design their manifestos to appeal to voters in marginal seats, and spend the majority of their funds campaigning in them.
But, policies designed to appeal to voters in these seats may not help voters in the rest of the country. Voters who live in safe seats can feel ignored by politicians.
Many marginal seats have two candidates where either could get elected. But some have more. The more candidates with a chance of getting elected the less votes the winner needs. In 2015 a candidate won the Belfast South election with only 9,560 votes, or 24.5% of the total, a record low.
It is common for constituencies to elect MPs that more than half the voters didn’t want.
To combat this, voters try to second guess the results. If a voter thinks their favourite candidate can’t win, they may vote for one with the best chance of stopping a candidate they dislike from winning.