Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.

Since then, things have changed somewhat.

The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.

Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.

In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.

Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.

However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.

labourtory

(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)

This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.

At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.

8 thoughts on “Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

  1. Farage’s old party got taken over by the far right. Farage is on the right but not a fascist. To reduce the chances of entryism, his new party has a single policy, to pull the UK out of the EU, and no other policies. However, this would make it obviously impossible for them to govern the UK if they took a majority of seats in the House of Commons. They would have to go in coalition with another party and adopt that party’s program. So its logical for them to promote PR.

  2. A study of attitudes towards MMP among Scottish and Welsh Conservatives back in the mid 2000s found out that while the latter accepted the system implemented for elections to the devolved assemblies in both countries, the former remained staunchly opposed to it, even when it allowed their party to attain representation in proportion to their voting strength – which would have been highly unlikely had the Scottish Parliament been elected under the FPTP system preferred by the Tories.

    The reason behind these differing attitudes was that the Welsh Conservatives accepted they were a minority party, and as such one that stood to gain from MMP. On the other hand, the Scottish Conservatives insisted on viewing themselves as a majority party that had suffered a temporary setback. but which would in due course recover and therefore have no need for MMP. However, even though the Scottish Conservatives did stage a comeback just over a decade later in Scottish (and Westminster) parliamentary elections, they were still nowhere near becoming a majority party in Scotland, and any such prospects would appear even less likely in the here and now, given the sharp decline of the Conservatives’ share of the vote in recent U.K. polls.

    With that in mind, I’d expect English Conservatives to be opposed to electoral reform largely along the same lines as their Scottish counterparts with respect to MMP over a decade earlier, even if the current Westminster electoral system failed them badly. As for Labour, I’d think they’d also be reluctant to abandon the existing system, although the party might be persuaded otherwise by two back-to-back general elections failing to deliver anything close to an overall parliamentary majority. However, even under that scenario Labour’s leadership would quite likely be of a “one more heave” mentality until the second election outcome dashed any hopes of finally attaining a seat majority under FPTP.

    • I’ve seen some projections like that. While I agree that the Tories could win a majority on just 35% of the vote, it still seems a stretch to me. They will lose their Scottish seats, they presumably will lose the most Remain seats they managed to hold in 2017. Can they really make enough inroads to compensate for these losses–and more, given they already had less than a majority in 2017? Maybe. But I am skeptical, at least at this point, especially if they are even close to correct that the Brexit Party could get 12%.

      And, while I know Labour is in deep trouble… 21%??

      • Yes, I thought it was of more interest for being discussed, rather than the projected results based on unknown assumptions. You’d need decent survey participant numbers at district level to deal with all the abnormal factors.

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