I did not expect, as I approached 40, to be spending nearly an hour on lunchtime radio discussing electoral systems, but all credit to BBC Talkback presenter William Crawley for keeping a debate (an interesting debate at that) going on the subject on Monday.
Like so many things in England, the electoral system to Parliament is in fact a matter of tradition rather than reason. Not content merely with advice from his closest Barons (the Privy Counsel) or even a wider number of them (the House of Lords), Medieval monarchs also sought advice from people elected from various communes across England and Wales (thus the House of Communes, now Commons). These communes were based on traditional subdivisions – counties and city boroughs as we now know them – and initially could be wildly varying in size and entitlement.
Post-War, each “commune” (officially now a “division” but generally known as a “constituency”) elects one member, and, since 1974, boundaries have been redrawn periodically to make them of roughly the same size population-wise. In each case, formally, what we are doing is electing a Member from our commune (community) to represent us when discussing (Norman French parler, hence parliament).
The big advantage of this is simplicity. We cast one vote for our preferred candidate, and the one with the most votes wins. Easy.
The big disadvantage is that this can appear grossly unfair – in 2010, the Liberal Democrats were the largest party in Oxford but won neither of its parliamentary seats, edged out by the Conservatives in one and Labour in the other. Most obviously, the system is designed to suit two parties who, with a wide breadth of support everywhere, can win every seat between them assuming that other parties’ (smaller) votes are evenly spread (hence in 1983 Labour’s 28% was converted into over 200 seats, but the Liberal/SDP Alliance share of 25% was worth just 23). It also suits regional parties who score highly in a particular area of the country – hence the SNP won 56 seats with less than half UKIP’s vote, while UKIP mustered just one.
Nevertheless, every single election since the War has delivered peculiarities and no one has managed to change it. In 1951, quite simply, the wrong party won – Labour actually received its highest ever vote, more than the Conservatives and their allies, yet lost to a working majority. In 1959, the Unionists (Conservatives) outpolled Labour in Scotland for the last time – yet won fewer seats there. In February 1974 a Liberal surge to nearly 20% of the vote delivered only 14 seats (only eight more than previously). In October 1974 the Nationalists received 30.4% of the vote in Scotland but won only 11 of 71 seats there. Then there was the aforementioned farce of 1983 when the third party was left well back despite pulling almost level with Labour in vote share, and the fact the Conservatives in 2010 received more votes, had a higher vote share, and were further clear of their opposition than Labour in 2005 – yet Labour had a comfortable majority in 2005 and the Conservatives were forced into coalition in 2010. This is to leave aside the SNP now has 95% of the seats in Scotland when half the voters actually chose someone else.
No one has ever come out of a UK election thinking the system worked well! Yet the combination of tradition and the simple fact that a winning party will rarely change the system that elected it means the old system may hang around a while yet.