In the wake of the last general election, much commentary has been made by the media, opinion writers, politicians, and the public at large about the perceived unfairness of the United Kingdom’s age-old first-past-the-post (FPTP) system for electing members of the House of Commons - the lower house of the British Parliament.
Such criticism is not new, for even in the days when the two major parties – Labour and the Conservatives – could command almost 90% of the popular vote between them in general elections, neither commanded a majority of the popular vote throughout the UK, though through the votes in each individual parliamentary constituency (or district), the parties often achieved majority status in terms of the number of seats in the Commons. Furthermore – with some exceptions – at least the election results had somewhat of a semblance to the actual number of seats won.
However, first-past-the-post punishes smaller parties whose vote may be substantial but spread out across the country in such a way that it is not reflected in individual constituencies (where they tend not to stand a chance against the main parties), and therefore does not translate into seats in the Commons. From this view, the British Parliament is not representative of the electorate, resulting in a democratic deficit.
Yet in many ways, this is what the system is designed to do: shut out smaller single-issue/regional parties and produce single-party majorities for stable and effective governance throughout the United Kingdom. But as the vote share of Labour and the Conservatives (a.k.a. Tories) has fallen to the rise of such smaller parties, this argument falls on the deaf ears of people who feel as though they are not represented in Parliament and the government of the day.
It certainly seemed like a spurious argument during the 2015 General Election, when the opinion polls were predicting apocalyptic outcomes in which neither party would attain a majority of seats, and with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats – traditionally the third-largest party in Parliament and the coalition partners with the Tories since 2010 – there was talk of rainbow coalitions/post-election agreements with the Scottish National Party (SNP), UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Green Party, and the various parties from Northern Ireland – including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
As it was, the electorate produced a surprise – albeit wafer-thin – majority Tory government with 330 seats (out of 650) with party leader David Cameron as prime minister for a second term. This appeared to vindicate the continuance of FPTP, but the Conservatives achieved only 37% of the national popular vote – meaning that a clear majority of voters did not vote for the party. However, it won 51% of the seats in the Commons, and therefore gained a mandate to govern the entire UK without the Liberal Democrats or anyone else.
Yet, if this appeared somewhat distorted, it was nothing compared to what happened in Scotland in particular, where the insurgent SNP won half of the vote, but took all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats in the Commons, which amounted to 95% of the seats and the party’s best electoral performance for a British general election. This has caused consternation among the half of Scots who did not vote for the SNP, especially those who support Scotland's place within the UK, whose voices are now only represented by three Members of Parliament (MP’s) – one each from Labour, the Tories, and Liberal Democrats.
From a UK-wide perspective, the distortion was even more apparent with regard to UKIP, which received 13% of the vote across the UK, but returned only one MP, in contrast to the SNP, which won 5% of the UK vote but returned 56 MP’s because its vote was heavily concentrated in Scottish constituencies. This amounted to nearly 9% of the seats in the Commons and allowed them to displace the Liberal Democrats as the third largest party. For their part, the Lib Dems won 9% of the vote, but wound up with eight seats – or just over 1% of the Commons.
These distortions – leaving the SNP overrepresented, the Lib Dems and UKIP underrepresented, and the Tories able to govern alone despite not having a majority of the electorate behind them – have fueled calls for FPTP to be replaced with some form of proportional representation in the House of Commons, so that the Commons can be more representative of the British electorate. It would have deprived David Cameron and the Tories of a majority, but also would have more accurately reflected the “sovereign will of the Scottish people” by preventing the SNP from taking more than about 30 seats and leaving respectable numbers for Labour and the Tories.
However, there are people who value the link between MP’s and their constituents, which would be diluted in a pure proportional representation system. Another criticism is that PR would entrench high-ranking politicians since they would be placed at the top of PR voting lists, and would almost certainly be elected with no direct constituents to which they answer, which will make democratic deficits worse, not better. Then there are those who simply believe that FPTP, for all of its problems, has served the UK well, and subscribe to the belief that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The problem is that for many people in the UK, the system is broken, unfair, and unrepresentative. Throughout the referendum campaign in Scotland, one of the main talking points from the “Yes” campaign and its fervent supporters was that though Scotland had representation in the British Parliament at Westminster, it was nothing compared to the 533 English members and the English electorate, who could “out-vote” Scotland and deliver governments and government policies that “Scotland didn’t vote for.”
Of course however, Scottish residents vote alongside their fellow British citizens (in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales) during general elections, and the elected Parliament and the subsequent government that is formed is the result of MP’s voted by the people from throughout Britain, and that government is one voted for by the British people as whole from Shetland to Land’s End. Its responsibility is to the United Kingdom as a whole (which includes Scotland) and not simply one part of it. In addition, MP’s are not organized into an “English bloc” or “Scottish bloc”, and nor do they often vote in such a way. Instead, they vote in accordance to their party and/or their personal values, which transcends the domestic boundaries within the UK.
However, there perhaps is a case to be made that London and the South East do exert an inordinate amount of influence on the policies pursued by the government of the day by virtue of the concentration of people, wealth, and economic power in that area. With this in mind, it is therefore reasonable for parts of the UK outside of London to feel as though the capital and its environs have too much power over the direction of public policy in the UK.
The fear of larger areas with concentrated wealth and power overpowering smaller areas with less wealth and power was a feature of the US Constitutional Convention of 1787, and it produced a deadlock amongst convention delegates, some of whom wanted a legislative body with two chambers based on population (which would have benefited larger states), whilst others wanted a single chamber body with equal representation, as it was in Congress under the Articles of Confederation. This was settled with a compromise in which the lower house of Congress would have membership allocated to the states in proportion to their population and the upper house of the Congress would allow each state to be equally presented by two members regardless of population.
Eventually, the lower house became known as the House of Representatives, and as the chamber chosen by the people according to congressional districts within their state, it is larger than the upper house, the Senate, which is smaller and more exclusive, and functions to represent the interests of the states in a manner that befits a federation such as the United States. It means that the interests of the smaller states cannot be easily ignored as they can be in the House, where the sheer force of numbers from bigger states can drown them out.
It sometimes means that the majority party in the House is not necessarily the majority party in the Senate, and even when both parties are in control, compromises may have to be hashed out in order to get things done, and by bringing the states to an even level with each other, it gives all of them a sense of having a significant role in governing the country. In addition, the Senate is also known for being the "world's greatest deliberative body" because of its tendency to slow legislation down for extensive debate, and to ensure that all voices are heard.
If the United Kingdom is to move toward a federal system and address the legitimate concern of too much political and economic power being concentrated in the South East, then it is time to look toward changing elements of the UK’s parliamentary system, with a particular focus on reforming the upper chamber of Parliament - the House of Lords - so that it can become more representative of the UK’s nations and regions, as well as to more accurately reflect the will of the British electorate.
To this end, I suggest that the House of Lords be composed of 100 members – with 25 allocated to each Home Nation and elected by some form of proportional representation (as is done in the Australian Senate, where twelve senators are elected via proportional means from each state, regardless of population).
There are two main ways that this can be put into effect: proportional vote by Home Nation or proportional vote by region.
Option 1(a): Election of Lords via each Home Nation with simple proportional representation
Under this plan, members would be elected according to the proportional vote for their party within their Home Nation. As with the European Union (EU) parliamentary elections, candidates will be arraigned according to a party list, but for the first part of this example, I will simply allocate candidates in relation to the percentage of the vote received by their party.
Such a result based on simple proportional representation is expressed in the following graphs – beginning with the membership from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
DUP - Democratic Unionist Party; UUP - Ulster Unionist Party;
SDLP - Social Democratic and Labour Party; TUV - True Unionist Voice
When the sums from each Home Nation are added up, here is what the UK House of Lords would look like under simple PR:
Option 1(b): Election of Lords via each Home Nation using the D'Hondt method of proportional representation
The first variation of Option 1 used the percentage of the vote to allocate seats, and while this is very simple, it is not exactly proportional because it produces a fractional number of seats and requires rounding, the results of which some parties would protest. The D'Hondt method attempts to achieve a more perfect (though still imperfect) proportionality based on the actual votes cast, not the percentages, so that seat allocations are whole numbers and hopefully more fair to the parties and the electorate.
This method of PR is named for Victor D'Hondt, a 19th Century Belgian mathematician and lawyer, and his system is used for elections throughout the world, including the election of British Members of the European Parliament (MEP's) from England, Scotland, and Wales. For more information on how D'Hondt's system works, I recommend this article from the BBC.
Using that system, proportional representation in the Lord's is expressed in the following graphs – beginning with the membership from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
When the sums from each Home Nation are added up, here is what the UK House of Lords would look like under D'Hondt:
Comparing the two results, there is little substantial change, but there are winners and losers. Most significantly, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in Northern Ireland would have one seat under simple PR, but none under D'Hondt. Another significant loser under D'Hondt would be the Greens, which would be left with one seat in England, as opposed to one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland as well under simple PR.
With that system, the Conservatives could boast of being the only party to have representation at the British Parliament from all four Home Nations of the UK, but D'Hondt would take away their sole Northern Irish seat, which would be compensated with an additional seat in England - keeping them at 22 seats. Meanwhile, Labour would gain one seat in Wales and increase their tally to 24, whilst the Lib Dems lose one to bring their number of Lords to five.
In Wales, UKIP would have a bigger number of seats there (4) than in England under D'Hondt (3), whilst simple PR would produce the opposite result. In Northern Ireland, UKIP loses a seat, whilst the DUP, Sinn Fein, and the SDLP all make gains with D'Hondt. Indeed, D'Hondt would slash the number of Northern Irish parties in the Lords from nine to five.
The only parties throughout the UK with no changes between the two systems would be the SNP, UUP, Alliance, and Plaid Cymru.
Option 2: Election of Lords via regions within each Home Nation using either simple PR or D'Hondt
For the first option (in either variation), the popular vote in each Home Nation was used to calculate the allocation of seats for each party in an elected House of Lords.
This second option would see members elected via regions within England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The benefit of this option is that it would capture the regional political, social, and economic variances throughout the United Kingdom.
However, if such a regional option were to be adopted, the seats would have to be allocated through the regions as equally as possible. For this purpose, the existing electoral regions used for the Scottish parliamentary and Welsh assembly elections, as well as the regions used for electing MEP's in England could be used. Electoral regions for Northern Ireland would have to be created, as it does not have any.
But true equality would mean that each Home Nation would have to have five regions, but the only one that has five is Wales, and so this raises the question of regions elsewhere. However, having to redraw them to suit this purpose, or using the existing ones and allocating seats to them as equally as possible may prove to be a contentious issue that goes beyond the scope of this article. Therefore, there will be no calculation of what the Lords would look like via regional proportional representation.
In conclusion, creating a House of Lords that is elected by proportional representation can go a long way in equalizing the political balance between the nations and regions of the UK, as well as to more accurately reflect the British electorate. Areas with less wealth, power, and population will have a greater say in the running of the country as they are brought to the same level as the wealthier, more powerful, and more populous areas.
By doing this, it has the potential to create another binding aspect of the Union. For Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, this - as part of a move toward federalism - would amplify their voices in Parliament and move them closer into the heart of the Union, as opposed to the so-called "Celtic Fringe". Indeed, it may also force single-issue parties to step up and actually take part in shaping public policies and provide useful solutions to Britain's problems - putting themselves on official public record, as opposed to just protesting (and complaining).
There are issues which need further discussing. For example, it can be argued that Northern Ireland is small enough to be a region in and of itself (as it is for EU elections), whilst England's size means that regional representation may be better at capturing its own political, social, and economic variances (i.e., Tories in the red Labour north and Labourites in the blue Tory south).
In addition, there is the question of whether the Lords ought to be a body that has a mixed composition of elected and appointed members (or if it should be entirely appointed or elected), as well as to the extent it should be occupied by nonpartisan crossbenchers and Church of England bishops. Another issue is that of what to do with the officers of the Lords - some of whom are hereditary and occupy some of the oldest offices of state in the land.
Then there is the question of what role the Lords would play - whether they would be able to (absolutely) block legislation from the Commons again, or remain as a revising chamber that provides useful scrutiny and amendments to government legislation and directives.
As for how long members can serve, it may be advisable for them to be elected to lengthier terms (ten years perhaps) that are staggered compared to members of the Commons, and that such members may be limited to one term and subject to a minimum age requirement. Such measures can help to ensure that the Lords doesn't simply become a glorified version of the Commons and focuses on keeping the government of the day in check.
But this and other issues noted here will be explored in future blog posts, which will focus on ideas to renew, refine, and reform Britain's constitutional system. For now, this article has discussed ways of using proportional representation to provide a proper outlet for the nations of regions of the UK in a similar way that the Senate does for US states, and as upper chambers tend to do in many countries (and typically with less members than the lower house).
Almost everyone agrees that something has to be done about the Lords. Hopefully, the suggestions I have outlined can provide some guidance on the way forward for this honorable house, while also keeping its useful features intact and providing better and pluralistic governance for the United Kingdom.