In the United Kingdom, the single-member district plurality (SMDP) electoral system is used to elect candidates into the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the UK’s legislature, as members of parliament (MPs). The SMDP electoral system is classified as a majoritarian although in order to be elected candidates only require more votes than their closest rivals or in other words a simple plurality. SMDP is majoritarian in that it frequently produces an outcome where large parties are able to win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons even if they don’t win a majority of the votes (Clark, Golder, Golder).
There are certainly still some benefits of SMPD over other systems but the UK would nevertheless be better off with an alternative electoral system, therefore, the statement in the title can’t be applied to the British electoral system.
Representation and Legitimacy
General elections in the UK do not only elect MPs they also indirectly elect the government and therefore also act as a tool to legitimise the actions taken by the government in power. However, in the UK no government has had over 45% of the total vote since 1974 (UK Political Info) therefore it can be suggested that the systematic setup of the electoral system does not give a clear mandate to allow the winning party to wield the amount of power available to it as the largest party in the House of Commons. For example, in the 2015 general election the Conservative party was able to form a government with a twelve seat majority (50.9% of the seats) although it only won 36.9% of the votes (BBC News) this meant that in theory, the government should have been able to pass its legislative agenda through parliament without much resistance. Due to the nature of the UK’s parliamentary model of government it is very important that the electoral system used does not hand undue power to a party as once it has a large enough majority in the House of Commons it will face very little resistance in the legislative process and will be able to act in a way commonly described as an ‘elective dictatorship’. SMDP allows this to happen as it does not lead to a proportional allocation of seats according to vote share due to mechanical and psychological factors of the system (Duverger 1954). SMDP can also be unrepresentative at constituency level for example in Bath constituency (2015) 62.2% of the voters did not vote for the winning candidate (Clark, Golder, Golder 2017) but because candidates only need a simple plurality of votes rather than a majority to win the seat the bulk of the constituency members ended up not being represented in the House of Commons. These issues of representation illustrate how the SMDP electoral system is broken as it hinders the democratic process by restricting how well parliament can represent the citizenry.
Although the SMDP electoral system can lead to overrepresentation of larger parties in regards to the proportion of seats they receive it does, however, lead to a stronger link between elected representatives and their constituents than other systems with a larger district magnitude would allow. Under the SMDP electoral system, a single MP serves a single constituency allowing a relationship to be established and greater clarity of responsibility on the constituency level (Fairclough, Lynch 2013). Constituents will know they have one MP representing their geographical region this means they know who to go to when they need to redress a grievance which should allow for greater representation of the constituency of the whole in parliament although sometimes the size of constituencies may hinder this, for example, the Isle of Wight is the largest constituency in the UK with an electorate size of 110,924 as of 2010 (Independent 2015). The SMDP electoral system allows constituents to holds MPs to account effectively due to ease of identifying who is responsible for the policies implemented (Clark, Golder, Golder 2017). The party elected into government under SMDP usually has a healthy majority which allows for effective governance as the party who won the most seats under the agreed electoral rules is able to implement the promises it was elected on in its party manifesto. However, this is not always the case as shown by the Conservatives losing their majority in the 2017 election and currently ruling as a minority government which has already been defeated on several key bills. Also, the SMDP electoral system is also highly responsive in that a small number in the change of votes can lead to less than proportional change in the number of seats for a party which can lead to volatility in policy implementation if the government keeps changing each election.
The electoral system certainly has some benefits in ensuring democracy and effective government but its major flaw is that it leads to weak representation in parliament and due to the parliamentary system of government many times this renders government illegitimate and this is extremely dangerous to the health of the UK’s democracy.
Party-system and Strategic Voting
In the UK a huge number of votes are wasted, votes cast on non-elected candidates or surplus votes for elected candidates, as a consequence of the SMDP electoral system at the last general election in 2017 across all 650 constituencies 44.12 percent of votes went on non-elected candidates (Electoral-reform.org.uk, 2018). There are two major reasons for the large number of wasted votes in British elections; firstly there are a large number of safe seats in which the winning party rarely ever changes this means that candidates in these seats who don’t want to vote for that party are bound to have their vote wasted, in the 2017 general election the number of very safe seats, those won by a margin of over 50 percent, increased by 21 from the 2015 election to 37 (Cowburn, 2018). Secondly, the geographical concentration of votes in an SMDP electoral system makes a party’s support more ‘effective as they are likely to gain pluralities and thereby win seats. In the UK SMDP rewards parties such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) for having a dense concentration of supporters in Scotland and this is best illustrated by the 2015 general election results where the SNP won 50% of the vote share and 95% of the seats, not only is this an example of gross over-representation but also 50% of Scotland did not vote for the SNP yet they were only represented by 5% of the seats illustrating a large number of wasted votes (BBC News, 2018). Supporters of parties such as UKIP were punished in the same election by the less dense concentration of voters across the UK, UKIP won 3.8 million votes across the UK and only won a single seat compared to the SNP’s 1.5 million votes, all of which were in Scotland, which gained them 56 seats also all in Scotland (BBC News, 2018). An electoral system which allows so many voters to have their votes wasted and consistently receive no representation only does harm for democracy as voters become disillusioned by a system that doesn’t work in their favour and this can have adverse effect on voter turnout and lead to tactical voting where people no longer feel they are able to vote for their top preference of party these are signs that the system is indeed broken.
Duverger’s law suggests that one of the reasons that majoritarian electoral systems such as SMDP lead to a two-party system is a psychological propensity for voters to strategically defect from their favoured candidate in order to maximize the chances of their vote having an impact on policy outcomes (Abramson 2009). If voters know that really only two parties have a chance of winning enough seats to be able to form government such as in the UK then voters may feel forced to vote for the ‘least worst’ party rather than their ideal party which is the closest to their ultimate preference. In the UK there has been a growth of tactical voting websites such as SwapMyVote website which allows voters in different constituencies swap their votes and it was estimated that 20% of voters planned to vote strategically at the 2017 general election (Electoral-reform.org.uk, 2018). Parties also act strategically; the Green party confirmed that at least 22 candidates, in the 2017 general election, had stood aside ‘to increase the chance of a progressive candidate beating the Conservatives’ (Electoral-reform.org.uk, 2018). However, Duverger’s argument about the psychological influence of majoritarian electoral systems leading to a two-party system does not necessarily hold in the UK at a national level as it is not the same two parties that are at the top in every constituency for example in 2015 UKIP came second in 120 seats (Blogs.lse.ac.uk, 2018). Gary Cox (1997) argued that in geographically varied societies, such as the UK, a single-member system will yield a multi-party system which moves to explain why the UK has shown signs of moving away from a two party system especially due to the growing division between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Voters only have a single vote under SMDP this opens the door for strategic voting as voters want to maximise the impact of that vote which perpetuates the two-party system which ensures a lack of choice for voters hindering the democratic process. The SMDP electoral system wastes votes and forces parties and voters to make tactical decisions against their preferred choice and is not a system that supports democracy.
The existing electoral system, SMDP, is flawed and although there are benefits the negatives outweigh the positives in the ability of the system to uphold democracy. A suitable alternative electoral system would fix the negatives but maintain the benefits. Firstly, an issue that needs to be solved is that of proportionality and the simplest way to achieve this would be to implement a proportional representation (PR) electoral system that means that vote share and seat share are more closely aligned. This would serve towards increasing the ability of smaller parties to gain seats and therefore better the representation of minority views in the legislature also the likelihood of a coalition government based on power-sharing agreements would increase but because of the UK’s parliamentary system of government, this would help to check the power of the executive. However, the system would also have to maintain the current level of linkage between MPs and constituents under SMDP and this could be achieved by employing a low magnitude PR system as this would actually give constituents more options as to which MP they can take their issues to but would not be too big that there is a disconnect between MPs and citizens. Carey and Hix (2011) suggest the ideal district magnitude is between four and eight seats as this increases representation but means the coalition structure of government does not lead to gridlock. Under SMDP wasted votes and tactical voting are also a big problem and a solution to this would be to use a PR system combined with preferential voting, in PR systems voters are more likely to turnout because they know their votes are less likely to be wasted (Blais & Carty 1990) but also giving voters the ability to express more than one preference would reduce the need for tactical voting. One of the key benefits of SMDP is the effectiveness at which MPs can be held accountability and although multimember districts reduce clarity of responsibility if it is within a candidate centred system this could improve the individual accountability of MPs rather than just the party. A suggestion of a suitable system would be the Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would solve many of the issues currently associated with SMDP but retain its key benefits however STV does have one major drawback as it is candidate centred it tends to weaken party unity as it can lead to factionalism and tension within the party.
Reform of the electoral system is necessary as the current system focusses too heavily on creating a stable single-party government although as evidenced by the 2010-2015 coalition it is not every coalition government that is unstable. Switching to a PR system would be the best way to fix the electoral system and a system that is able to maintain the key benefits of using SMDP but also able to fix many of its major issues is STV. This system has a less obvious trade-off between accountability and representation than most other systems as long as there is a low district magnitude.