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.
STV vs FPTP
STV provides proportional representation (PR) where by the percentage of votes is roughly translated into the percentage of seats. This is fairer than first past the post. For example in the general election 2010 in the constituency of Ayr, 47% voted labour but collectively 43% didn’t vote labour. This means that more voters wishes will be represented and less wasted votes
In addition it promotes voting within parties with the ranking system of voting. Instead of the traditional marking of an ‘X’ instead voters rank candidates in order of priority. On the one ballot paper there could be two Labour candidates and you rank them in order of your preference. For example in the ward of East Kilbride South in the upcoming council elections you would rank Archie Buchanan (SNP) 1st but then rank Douglas Edwards (SNP) 3rd due to his lack of presence within the constituency. [the only reason I have used this example is due to the fact I live in East kilbride, go find an example for your area as this will impress markers]
It also allows smaller/third parties to gain seats in the government due to the PR system of voting. For example the Green party saw an increase of 2.3% between 2003 and 2007 (introduction of STV). this is because more voters will vote for these parties where as probably wouldn't in the 'X' ranking of one party (they also saw an increase last week in the 2012 local elections too: went from 0 to 8 seats between 2003 and 2007 and then 6 more between 2007 and 2012)
However it has its disadvantages. One such disadvantage is that the ranking of candidates confuses voters and as a result in 2007 there were 100,000 wasted votes.
Another disadvantage is that, in theory, with AMS being a form of PR it should increase the representation of women. However this was not the case in 2007 as representation actually fell from 23% to 22% (2003 to 2007).