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If British election 2010 results trump popular vote, what next?

If British election 2010 results yield a majority of parliamentary seats for a party that comes in second or even third in the popular vote, could it lead to a change in Britain's centuries-old 'first past the post' electoral system?

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On a national basis, the system has the potential for startling mismatches between vote share and seats won.

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The second-placed party won the most seats in the 1951 and 1974 elections, for example. The Tories under Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election with just 43.9 percent of the vote.

That she used that mandate to impose draconian economic reforms, cutting government spending and selling off state-owned businesses, was a major source of bitterness towards her, particularly in parts of northern England and Scotland where there was little support for her party.

The Liberal Democrats think they have the answer – proportional representation, or PR.

It’s the dominant system in Europe, where most governments involve coalitions. Smaller parties are able to at least win a toe-hold in parliament, while in Britain they tend to be squeezed out.

According to Prof. van der Eijk, reform of Britain’s voting system is not a “hot” issue, but the average voter, when pressed, would likely agree that the current system is not fair. “On the other hand, there are trade-offs. Do people want a system in which one representative can very clearly be identified with the area in which they have been elected? Or do you want a higher degree of proportionality, in which the links to between citizens and their own representative tends to be weaker?”

One argument for PR centers on encouraging greater participation in the democratic process. Worries have increased in the UK after the past two general elections were particularly notable for their low levels of turnout, with 59 percent of the electorate voting in 2001 and 61 percent in 2005

“If you look at a number of systems and at the degree of proportionality between the election and the outcome, then you do see that turnout is higher when proportionality is higher,” says van der Eijk.

What kind of PR?

If the Liberal Democrats get their way, Britain would have a myriad of PR models to choose from.

One option might be to borrow from Ireland, which operates a variant of PR known as The Single Transferable Vote (STV), in which constituencies have multiple representatives. Its main benefit is to reduce wasted votes for either very popular candidates or those with no chance of winning.

Yet according to Adrian Kavanagh of Ireland’s University of Maynooth, who has closely studied Irish election turnout, Irish voter participation is low relative to the rest of Europe.

“[With PR] you are less likely to get a spike in the turnout because you don’t have ... seats where the result is almost already well known. In Ireland, every constituency is competitive because PR-STV makes for close elections.”

If the final newspaper polls of the campaign in Britain are anything to go by, Britain is heading for its closest election in decades.

All put Conservatives in the lead with support ranging between 35 percent and 37 percent. Labour is running second with 28-29 percent support and the Liberal Democrats are on 26 percent.

Applied evenly around the country, the figures would make the Tories the largest party, with between 268 and 294 seats in the House of Commons, but leave them well short of the 326 MPs needs to form a government.

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