Unfair UK Electoral System Turns Voters’ Choice Upside Down

The results from the United Kingdom House of Commons elections May 6 are a beautiful demonstration of how absurd an electoral system they and we have. Like the United States, the UK has single-member districts where the winner is whoever gets the largest plurality, regardless of how small that plurality is. It’s called “first past the post” (note: a few places in America, like Georgia, have general-election runoffs). The result is governments that don't come close to representing the views or votes of the electorate.

PartyPopular VoteSeats Won
Liberal Democrats23.0%9%

The Conservative Party won the most votes and the most seats, but the number of seats it won was grossly out of proportion to its vote total. It secured only 36 percent of the popular vote, but now has 47 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. Similarly, the share of the popular vote compared with seats for the Labour Party is completely off. With only 29 percent of the vote, it still managed to get 40 percent of the seats. The current system has inflicted the most hurt on the Liberal Democrats. Despite winning 23 percent of the vote, they gained only nine percent of the seats. A large share of the voters whose political views align with the Liberal Democrats have no representation.

The UK has a hung Parliament because no party has an outright majority of 325. If the Conservatives had done slightly better, or if left-leaning candidates had more evenly split the vote in a few districts, there could be a Conservative party ruling the country with significantly less than 40 percent support.

Liberal Democrats and Labour are the natural coalition for a center-left government because of their overlap in political stances. A clear majority of 52 percent voted for Lib Dems and Labour. An even larger majority voted for left-leaning candidates when you add in a few much smaller parties. But as a result of the UK unrepresentative electoral system, Lib Dems and Labour don't have enough seats to form a coalition government together. The Conservatives will also have to look for a few new friends in order to make a majority.

That new source may be the Liberal Democrats. With a national center-left coalition unlikely Lib Dems are now negotiating with the Conservatives to form a right-of- center coalition, even though that’s not how most people voted. Lib Dems are hoping to get election reform as part of any coalition deal.

The crucial thing is, this didn’t have to happen. You can hold elections where the government actually represents the will of the people. You can have a system of proportional representation where a party’s number of seats is always in line with how many votes it gets. The overwhelming majority of democracies in the world use some form of proportional representation.

I hope the Liberal Democrats succeed with election reform. The UK should adopt new election laws that allow the citizens of the country to get a government that mirrors the will of the voters. Look how different the results would be if the UK had been using instant runoff voting or proportional representation.

If they do change, it will leave the US as one of the few countries still using the illogical “first past the post” system. If you ever wonder why you are forced to choose between only Democrats or Republicans, even when neither seems to represent your views, look at how hard it is for even a strong third party like the Liberal Democrats to win seats in a broken system. We don’t all love one of the two parties; we simply live in a system that reduces choice.

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