Proportional Representation – tell me more…
1. What is Proportional Representation?
Proportional Representation (‘PR’) is a form of voting that provides a fairer allocation of seats and power. The seats won are roughly proportional to the number of votes that candidates receive in an election.
Currently, the House of Commons uses a First-Past the-Post (‘FPTP’) voting system that provides for a ‘winner takes all’ approach. This outdated system means that it does not matter if you win by five thousand votes or by a single vote. There is no representation for parties that don’t win outright, and those voices become disenfranchised and silenced. Multiply this 650 times – because there are 650 constituencies in a general election – and you get a sense of the democratic deficit that FPTP represents.
2. Why is Proportional Representation a better system?
Under FPTP, the political choices of large swathes of the electorate are poorly represented. However, it is far worse than simple under-representation: FPTP can often result in an all-powerful majority government being elected on an overall minority vote.
Minority rule is what we have today in the UK. In 2019, the Conservatives received an overall majority of 80 MPs on a vote share of only 43.6% and the number of seats they won went up by 48 seats over the previous general election. Their vote share, however, increased by a mere 1.2%. This outcome is far from being an anomaly under FPTP. In 2005 the Labour Party won a parliamentary majority with only 35.2% of the overall vote; in 1951 Labour had the highest vote share (48.8%) but won the second largest number of seats and lost the election. Voters lost out too.
Under PR, by contrast, the outcome in 2019 would likely have been a ‘hung parliament’, meaning no one party had won more than 50% of the seats. The make-up of whatever coalition formed the government would have been reflective of more voters’ choices.
Whilst all votes are counted under FPTP, voting can, in reality, mean nothing depending on your constituency. In many constituencies, you may well believe there is no incentive for you to even vote because your MP is in a ‘safe seat’. This can reduce voter turnout and overall engagement with the political process.
Some parties may have relatively strong public support but little to no representation in Parliament where the ‘biggest decisions’ about the country are actually being made. PR advocates have a simple ask: let the views of the people of this country be accurately represented in Parliament. Put an end to parliamentary majorities ‘winning’ on electoral minorities.”
3. Do you want some stunning facts?
a. In the 2019 UK General Election the number of Conservative votes cast works out at 38,264* per MP, while the Greens won 864,743* votes but have only one MP.
b. In 2019 the Liberal Democrats increased their vote share by 4%, but lost a seat in Parliament.
c. About 45% of voters in the 2019 general election ended up with a representative they did not vote for. That is roughly 14.5 million disenfranchised voters.
d. Proportional Representation is far from a ‘new’ or ‘radical’ idea. According to the ACE Project (aceproject.org, Oct. 2020), 75 countries that have directly elected parliaments use some form of proportional voting system; 22 others use a semi-PR system.
It’s the UK’s time.
* Source: Electoral Reform Society.
4. Who supports PR?
a. A poll conducted by YouGov at the time of the 2019 general election found that 76% of Labour Party members wanted Labour to back a policy of supporting PR. Only 12% were against PR with a further 12% saying ‘don’t know’.
b. The Greens, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party already back a change to Proportional Representation.
c. The Scottish National Party, despite benefitting from the FPTP system, also favours PR for Westminster elections. It has said about PR: “if you believe in something in principle you should believe in that regardless of whether your party benefits from the current system”.
So the majority of parties in the UK already support a change to PR.
5. Can we ever achieve PR?
Yes we can!
The public overwhelmingly supports a change to PR. Surveys conducted over the last five years have shown public opinion ranges between 56% and 74% in favour of a move to PR. Only a small percentage are opposed to a change in the voting system.
The result of the 2019 general election will almost certainly see this support increase further. Many voters indicated they voted for the ‘least bad option’ or to ‘keep the other party out of power’ as opposed to voting for a party which actually represented their views.
We need to keep making the argument for change. One of the primary reasons why people voted for Brexit was to ‘take back control’. There is no better way to take back control in a post-Brexit UK than giving people a real voice in deciding who governs them.
We see the biggest obstacles to changing our voting system to PR as being the Conservative Party, some in the higher ranks of the Labour Party, and MPs in ‘safe’ seats.
In the case of those responsible for implementing Labour Party policy, we will continue our campaign to challenge them to listen to the voices of their own party members and the voices of the country as a whole.
We will also be campaigning to gain support from a number of Conservatives MPs and party members as well as the support from the Brexit Party which is already in favour of PR.
We believe, however, that the most effective way to achieve PR will be for Labour to adopt the motion of their own ‘Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform’. This calls for Labour to make a commitment in its next manifesto to introduce a more proportional voting system, as called for by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) and the Labour for a New Democracy campaign group. Opposition parties in favour of PR could then present a united front on this most important issue and finally, yes, GET PR DONE!
6. What about losing constituency level representation with PR?
Under FPTP, a local MP is elected by winning the largest number of votes. In the 2019 general election, 45% of voters did not vote for the MP who was elected in their constituency.
For millions of people, therefore, their elected representative may be someone they profoundly disagree with or someone to whom they feel no connection.
Some PR voting systems already used around the world either retain or strengthen their constituency links. It does not need to be the case that PR weakens people’s connection with their local representative.
With the ‘Additional Member System’ – already being used for Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections, the London Assembly, German and New Zealand general elections, for example – everyone has a single local representative, just as they do now, but additional members are also elected from regional ‘topup lists’ so the total number of seats for each party can match the total votes cast.
The ‘Single Transferable Vote’ system – adopted in the Republic of Ireland (all elections), Northern Ireland (NI Assembly and local elections), and Scotland (local elections) – has multi-member constituencies where a slate of MPs represent the balance of opinion in the area.
GET PR DONE! does not advocate for any particular form of Proportional Representation. Our goal of changing to PR is to empower people on both a local and national level and to address the country’s clear democratic deficit so that every vote counts.
7. Won’t PR lead to coalition governments and increased representation for ‘extremist’ parties?
Many countries across the world govern successfully with coalition governments and our current system does not stop parties needing to form coalitions as recent elections have proven. However, any coalitions which are formed under a Proportional Representation system would be more reflective of the actual political views and desires of the country. That is what happened as a result of the 2017 election in New Zealand. Germany has had numerous coalition governments.
As for the perceived threat of ‘extremist parties’, if there is wide support for a view many disagree with, we believe it is better to tackle such views with speech and debate rather than letting those views slowly fester below the surface. If a party is allowed on the ballot, its votes should count.
8. Didn’t we already have a referendum on PR?
No. The UK did hold a referendum in May 2011 on whether we should adopt the ‘Alternative Vote’ (‘AV’)’ – a majoritarian system. This was definitely not a vote for or against PR as that option was not on the ballot.
AV was a weak trade-off. Prior to his party joining the Conservatives in a coalition, Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, described AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ towards a move to Proportional Representation.
If AV had become law, it would have suffered from the same issues as our current FPTP system: those parties not receiving an overall majority would still not have had a proportional number of Parliamentary seats and millions of voters would still have been unrepresented.
9. Won’t it be too difficult to change to PR?
No. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already use PR systems in their devolved legislature and/or local elections. We also have UK-wide experience of PR in electing members to the European Parliament.
We know how PR works. We know how to implement it because this has already been done for some UK elections and voters have experience of voting with PR… except in the most important election of all – to the UK parliament!
GET PR DONE! is a cross party/no party campaigning group that is working to bring in a proportional representation voting system in the UK. We distributed 4000 copies of our GPRD flyer on PR at 12 Labour Party leadership hustings in February and March 2020. That flyer called on Labour to make a manifesto commitment to PR.
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