With elections across the UK today using a range of alternative electoral systems to First Past The Post, Dr Kenneth Bunker assesses the opportunity for future electoral reform.
The 2011 referendum proposing to replace the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system with the alternative vote (AV) was the culmination of a long process led by political parties and organised pressure groups pushing for change. While the replacement of the FPTP system had been considered since as early as the turn of the twentieth century, it never garnered enough support in Westminster, until the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office in 2010. Only then did electoral reform activists seize the opportunity of a lifetime and push for the referendum. Their prospects were short-lived, however, since 68% of voters finally voted for status-quo.
Different reasons have been put forward to explain the defeat. The most common one has focused on the lack of information available to voters. Political scientists have argued that the major reason driving the public to vote against the proposal was their unfamiliarity with the new system. Indeed, the plurality FPTP election had been used for over a century at the time of the referendum, and the large bulk of voters were not aware that other electoral systems were even feasible. At any rate, it is safe to say that a large proportion of those who did know about alternatives, preferred to stick to what they knew rather than venture into the unknown.
While some have suggested that the proposal’s defeat in the polls was the last nail in the coffin of electoral reform, others have interpreted it as the first step in a longer journey. Indeed, even though the referendum is long gone, and government has shelved it along with its other victories, a small but bright light shines at the end of the dim tunnel. This new hope hinges on lessons learned from the past, especially one that stems from the referendum defeat: voters tend to be more inclined to vote in favour of something they are already familiar with. This naturally implies that any pushes for electoral reform in the future should consider alternatives that account for this issue.
We do not need to travel far to find these alternatives. Today, in the UK, there are a series of elections that use both FPTP and proportional representation (PR) methods. As such, these elections should be closely monitored by those that favour electoral reform. These voting systems used in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, use FPTP as the main way of electing candidates, but correct the outcome with PR if it is unfair in any way. This is not the space to dwell on what is fair and what is not, since there is a lot of literature on that elsewhere. It is however, a good place to point out the fact that there are alternative electoral systems that are both fairer, and familiar to voters.
If we briefly suppose that Britons are in fact against unfair electoral systems, but are not willing to experiment with new electoral methods, it is a dead give-away that the best manner of reforming the current electoral system is to offer voters something considerably fairer then what they already have, as well as something they are familiar and can somewhat identify with. The electoral systems mentioned above comply thoroughly with these characteristics. Indeed, the second-tier PR component enhances them with more proportionality than pure FPTP systems, and their uninterrupted run since the late 1990s offers voters increasing familiarity with their inner-workings.
If voters become accustomed to this system - which is likely - it will be easier for electoral reform supporters to bid for a new referendum in the future. Indeed, they will have better arguments to support their cause, considering that they will replace an old tradition with a new one. At any rate, support for this particular type of system is bound to be higher than support for the AV. Electoral data from the 2011 referendum suggests that regions exposed to other electoral systems are more favourable to change. Indeed, the highest support in favour of the electoral reform came from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and London (which uses a form of PR in its Assembly elections).
The process that culminated in the 2011 referendum not only saw a significant amount of institutions sprout and bloom as major actors in favour of electoral reform, but also served as a course of education for voters unfamiliar with alternative methods of voting. Just considering this fact, it is likely that many of those first exposed to the prospects of electoral reform in 2011 will be more open to consider alternative methods in the future. Also, as they experience elections under other systems, it will become more likely that they will favour a replacement. The road ahead is not easy for electoral reform activists, but it is worth travelling.
This post represents the views of the author, who writes in a personal capacity, and not those of Democratic Dashboard or the LSE.