Saturday, 8 May 2010

What If Proportional Representation Had Been Used in the May 2010 UK General Election?

Back in March 2008 I produced a posting about the differences in the British political scene if a form of proportional representation had been introduced in 1918 when it had been considered by the government of the day:
This showed that the UK would have had a three-party system for much of its history and that certain extreme and regional parties would have gained seats and that for most of the time there would have been coalitions.  Of course, the very fact that proportional representation was in place most likely would have led to different parties appearing or the greater fragmentation of the three main parties.  Now with a coalition government or a minority government the only two options for government at least for the next few months and possibly, the introduction of proportional representation as the price of Liberal Democrat support either for the Conservatives or Labour it is interesting to discuss how different things might have been if back in 1997, in line with what Tony Blair promised, proportional representation had been introduced and this 2010 election had been under that format.

The approach I adopt is quite crude, it equates the percentage of the vote to the percentage of seats in parliament that the party would win.  This is basically the goal of proportional representation systems, but there are different types that have slightly different outcomes in any given case and there remain factors such as the size of constituency; currently in the UK system Scotland has more seats at Westminster than it would be entitled to if the constituencies were allocated strictly on a population basis and a proportional representation system would not be immune to such distortiones either.  Anyway, it remains an interesting exercise and allow us to compare with the same analysis that I have applied to earlier elections.

In the following list the first number is what the party would have got under a proportional representation sustem and the number in brackets is the number of seats that the party actually achieved.  Voting in the Ryedale constituency in Yorkshire has been delayed until 27th May as the UKIP candidate, John Boakes died during the election, so this seat will retain its current MP until then.

2010: 649 seats [Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition]
  • Conservatives: (36.1%); 235 seats  [306]
  • Labour (29.0%); 189 seats  [258]
  • Liberal Democrats (23.0%); 150 seats [57]
  • UKIP (3.1%); 20 seats [0]
  • BNP (1.7%); 12 seats [0]
  • SNP (1.7%); 11 seats [6]
  • Green (1%); 7 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
  • English Democrats (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 5 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [5]
  • SDLP (0.4%); 4 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.1%); 1 seat [1]
  • Ulster Conservatives & Unionists - New Force (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
In Northern Ireland a form of proportional representation is used anyway, which is why the figures are not massively different.  The big gainers would be the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (who must win the prize for the longest party name), probably at the expense of the DUP.

With proportional representation across the UK, the situation would not be massively different to what we have now, i.e. the Conservatives would be the largest party but lack an outright majority, there being 409 seats in the hands of other parties.  The key difference would be that the Liberal Democrats would have almost three times as many seats as they won in reality and together with Labour or with the Conservatives would make a strong coalition.  In fact, being only 39 seats behind Labour they would almost be equals in a coalition rather than a junior partner.  As would have been the case at all elections since the 1970s, the nationalist parties of SNP and Plaid Cymru would clearly benefit from proportional representation and the Green Party would now be of the size the Liberals were in UK politics in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Of course, if proportional representation had been in force since the late 1990s, let alone since 1918 they could have become an established party in the 1980s when they had an upswing of support and by now at least as important as the SNP or Plaid Cymru.  The far right in British politics represented by UKIP and the fascist BNP would have been returned with a sizeable bloc.  I doubt the Conservatives would have worked with BNP, but, given how Eurosceptic David Cameron was, he certainly could have come to an agreement with UKIP.  This result would have more accurately reflected UKIP support in the country in line with their European election result of 17 MEPs.  No wonder UKIP wanted a hung parliament and the chance of proportional representation.

If you look back at the analysis I did of previous elections, what is interesting is that for these smaller parties we see a maintenance or improvement in their number of seats.  For example with proportional representation in 2005 we would have seen 17 UKIP seats, 7 Green seats and 5 BNP.  The BNP getting 7 additional seats in 2010 under this system over what they would have won in 2005, shows us not to be complacent about their support.  The Greens might have been frustrated to remain on 7 seats.  However, given that they have managed to get 1 seat even on our current system, I think they would have been as credible for longer and, especially at this election, tactical voters may have turned to them rather than one of the larger parties.

What is interesting is the lack of any left-wing parties.  Both Socialist Labour and Socialist Alliance would have got 1 seat if proportional representation had been in place in 2005 but still would have received none in 2010.  I suppose this represents the meltdown of the Socialist Labour Party before the election was called and even the weakness of support for the Scottish Socialist Party who polled only 0.1% of the vote and would have got no seats in contrast to 2005 when under proportional representation they would have achieved 2 seats.  The Respect-Unity Party, led by radical Labourite George Galloway who returned 1 MP in 2005, himself, also fell away probably as charismatic George was not standing and in East London support for the mainstream Labour Party strengthened throughout.  It seems that for the moment Socialism is dormant as a party political creed in British politics. 

Despite the bankers portrayal of Brown as risking old-fashioned Labour principles, since the era of the Thatcher Consensus, in fact, at best his policies are old fashioned Beveridge-Keynes Liberalism rather than anything even approaching Socialism.  There is a quotation from the mid-20th century that Britian is a Conservative country that occasionally votes Labour, but now that does not seem to be the case as Labour of today is really just the Liberals of yesterday rebranded.  Of course, I would love to see some radical policies in this financial crisis to really seize back power from the bankers who exploit us and get us to foot the bill for their profitable (only for them) playing with the economy, but no-one dare off such policies these days.

So, proportional representation would not have delivered us a majority government and we would be having the same kind of negotiations now that we would be seeing at the moment, the major change being that the Liberal Democrats would be so much more powerful than they are with about a third of the seats they would expect under another system.  Certainly UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens would be sensible to campaign for proportional representation as, once they had a foothold, the way the Liberals were able just to maintain for many years, from that standing they could grow to be real players in the political system.  Of course, BNP would benefit too, even if they found it difficult to tolerate such a 'foreign' system as proportional representation.  I would only hope that the left-wing parties could cobble together a sufficiently strong party to get such a foothold but that now seems more remote than it has been even in recent elections. 

The presence of parties especially on the fringes, does influence policy-making by the major parties as has been seen with anti-immigration approaches to try to recapture votes from the BNP.  What I would also hope to see would be other specific parties, hopefully a Socialist Party, no doubt a Countryside Alliance party, a Cornish Party, a Grey (i.e. elderly) Party, a Stop The War or Anti-Nuclear Weapons Party, perhaps a Women's Party (given that they are the majority in the population but a tiny minority of the MPs), perhaps an Islamic Party.  In recent years we have seen independents often focused on local or other single issues becoming MPs and proportional representation, most likely, would benefit them, though with larger constituencies would remove that local link necessary for some.  Countries with proportional representation allow a range of voices to be heard and despite the mainstream parties saying they represent the broad population, this is in fact not the case, despite the token MPs from ethnic minorities or women.  This would promote engagement with politics more regularly not just when a crisis seems to be imminent, and for true democracy, such continued engagement is necessary.

P.P. 23/04/2011: What If AV Had Been Used In The May 2010 UK General Election?
With the referendum on the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV) system to replace the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system, I have been reading material on what impact having had AV for the May 2010 general election would have had.  AV is a very mild form of proportional representation so its impact would not have led to a vastly different outcome to the one achieved by FPTP, but there would have been some differences.  Research by the University of Essex suggests that 43 constituencies out of 649 would have returned a different MP to the one they did.  The greatest impact would have come in London, Scotland, Yorkshire, South Wales and South-West England.  Interestingly the two constituencies covering Oxford would have both returned Liberal Democrat MPs rather than one Labour and one Conservative.  Of course, with AV in place people may have voted differently to how they did using FPTP and it is likely that smaller parties not featured in this analysis would have received more support. 

Anyway, taking the broad brush approach of this posting, the following would have been how the results, most likely would have turned out for the three main parties, had AV been used.  Note that Northern Ireland already uses the more proportionally representative STV system anyway.  In addition, the university analysis does not reflect the changes for smaller parties such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.  Thus, for this table, I have left all the parties, bar the three largest, unaltered.  However, the fact that changes would have impacted in Scotland and Wales in particular, there is a good chance that the votes for the SNP and Plaid Cymru would have been affected too. As before, the actual figures are shown in [ ]; I also bring down the figures if a greater proportional system was used, these are shown in { }.  The percentages are how much of the vote that the party actually received under FPTP:

2010: 649 seats [Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition]
Conservatives: (36.1%);  283 seats [306] {235}
Labour (29.0%); 249 seats [258] {189}
Liberal Democrats (23.0%); 88 seats [57] {150}
UKIP (3.1%); [0] {20}
BNP (1.7%); [0] {12}
SNP (1.7%); [6] {11}
Green (1%); [1] {7}
Plaid Cymru (0.6%); [3] {4}
English Democrats (0.2%); [0] {1}

Northern Irish Parties:
DUP (0.6%); [8] {5}
Sinn Fein (0.6%); [5] {5}
SDLP (0.4%); [3] {4}
Alliance (0.1%); [1] {1}
Ulster Conservatives & Unionists - New Force (0.3%); [0] {2}

Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats would have benefited, gaining a total of 19 seats from the Conservatives and 12 from Labour.  Labour would have gained 11 seats from the Conservatives and lost 1 seat to them, but its gains would have been outweighed by the Liberal Democrat gains.  Ultimately, even with AV, the political situation in May 2010 would have been the same as we experienced with FPTP.  Neither the Conservatives nor Labour could have commanded a majority unless they worked with the Liberal Democrats.  Consequently, we most likely would still have ended up with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that we saw for real in 2010, only with the Liberal Democrats slightly more numerous, but still with less than a third of the seats held by the Conservatives.
The main difference that a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition would have had a clear majority without involving other parties, a situation which was not the case in our 2010.  Interestingly, UKIP perhaps is another party which would benefit from AV, especially given its good showing at the 2011 Barnsley by-election.  This may split the Conservative vote, or have potentially offered a different coalition partner for the Conservatives.  You can see why the Conservatives and even many Labour supporters are ambivalent towards AV as it will certainly shift seats from them to the Liberal Democrats.  Thus, looking simply at party interests it would be foolish approach.  However, for all of those people who have voted for the Liberal Democrats only to see their vote not even attempted to be represented in parliament, moving to a fairer system is a necessary step.  

In addition, it is clear from the relative popularity of the Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru that there are other broader interests receiving minimal or no representation despite the votes for them.  As I have noted before, FPTP discourages the appearance of political parties which actually speak to sizeable sections of the constituency.  Sitting to the left of the Labour Party, I certainly feel that no party even comes close to addressing the kind of concerns I have.  Having no chance of representation means parties focused on such voters do not appear, and, in turn, the other parties are not even prompted to address concerns of chunks of the electorate.

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