A north-west MEP believes now is the time for a change in the way we elect our representatives.
Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies was elected in 1999 to represent the north-west in the European Parliament and benefited from proportional representation (PR) to win his seat after being ousted as MP for Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1997.
He supports, perhaps predictably, the introduction of PR for Westminster elections. Electoral reform is after all a cornerstone of Liberal Democrat policy.
“I don’t think it makes any difference if you’re a Liberal or not,” says Davies. “Anyone who supports democracy and the principle of democracy should support a fair voting system. I think we all believe in one person, one vote and I would hope that we all agree those votes should have an equal value.”
One of the criticisms of first past the post balloting is that only votes cast for the winner count. Theoretically, this means a government can poll less than a rival party nationally but still win a Parliamentary majority.
It can also win a disproportionate amount of seats compared to its share of the national vote, as happened in 2001 when Labour’s 40.7% share won 412 of the 659 seats on offer. In contrast the Liberal Democrats took 18.3% of the popular vote and took just 52 seats.
“The fact is, the first past the post system operated in this country does not produce a result that reflects the equal value of votes,” argues Davies.
As a comparison, had the 1997 UK election used the same system as Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliamentary ballots (the additional member vote) Labour would have been 35seats short of a majority, the Conservatives would have gained an extra 15 seats and the Liberal Democrats’ total would have more than doubled to around 110 seats.
This leads to the counter argument that PR can produce hung parliaments, therefore creating weak and unstable coalitions.
Chris Davies refutes that viewpoint: “If that’s the case one has to ask why the vast majority of governments in the world are chosen on the basis of proportional representation and why the majority of electoral systems are run on that basis. And it’s why, almost without exception, every government in Europe elects on that basis.”
The UK is one of only a handful of democratic nations to favour first past the post, along with Canada, India, Russia and the USA.
Even Northern Irish MPs earn a place in Westminster via a system called single transferable voting, in which voters select preferences and surplus votes are passed on until all vacancies are filled.
In theory this means no vote is wasted and was introduced to make sure all sections of the community were given a voice. But which system is best? Davies claims there are around 400 variations of PR in existence.
Click here for a comprehensive explanation of some of the most popular systems in use globally.
Yet change could come to the UK soon, according to one of his party colleagues Mark Jewell, Preston’s Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate.
“The other two parties probably realise they would lose out under it [PR],” he claims. “Certainly it would be very interesting if the Conservatives didn’t win the next election. I know there is a strong thought that they will, but if they didn’t it would be very interesting to see whether they would start to consult on proportional representation.”
“The Liberal Democrats have beaten that drum for so long now and it’s so part of our mantra, that it’s certainly something we would argue for.”
He feels that small steps would be more successful in winning the argument. For instance, using PR in local elections first and then extending it out to other types of ballot.
It is already used to select MEPs, albeit on a closed list system, where you pick your party not your candidate, and Welsh and Scottish governments have been using the additional member voting version since 1999.
In that system constituency representatives are picked in a first past the post vote and a second choice for a party picks top up candidates, based on that party’s share of the popular regional vote. It has led to minority and coalition administrations but no party has been able to dominate in quite the way they seem to in Westminster.
With reform of the House of Lords due, Liberal peer Roy Jenkins’ report on electoral reform, handed to New Labour in October 1998 and subsequently shelved, may soon be dusted off and revisited.