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?

Alastair Grant/AP
British Election 2010: Effigies of the leaders of the main British political parties, Gordon Brown, Labour, left, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats, center and David Cameron, Conservatives, are displayed on the balcony of a pub, as the country goes to the polls to elect a new Parliament and leader in London, Thursday.

British voters taking part in a photo-finish election went to the polls today in what could be the last-ever poll held under a centuries old system if the British election 2010 results are as close as current polls indicate.

With Britain's "first past the post" electoral system under close scrutiny, some here are worried that the ruling Labour party could win the most parliamentary seats even if it comes third in the national popular vote.

“It would be odd, but it can occur,” says Professor Cees van der Eijk of the University of Nottingham, who studies political behavior. “When it happened a number of times in a row New Zealand, it generated enough distress and disquiet that the system was changed.”

Britain, too, could be on the brink of change.

While most parliamentary systems select MPs based on proportional representation – with each party given a number of seats roughly equal to its proportion of the national vote – British electoral districts operate similarly to those in the United States, in which winners take all.

While that's led to strong parliamentary majorities for winning parties for most of modern UK history – avoiding the often chaotic coalition-building that sometimes hampers efficient governance in countries that use proportional systems such as Israel, Iraq, and Italy – it has limited the influence of smaller parties in national politics.

To the system's admirers, that's one of its strengths. But the Liberal Democrats, currently expected to come in third when results are released tonight, have long pressed for a shift to a proportional system.

Their calls for reform have typically fallen on deaf ears. Now though, there's a very real prospect that the centrist LibDems could emerge as king-makers when the results are in, courted by both Labour and the Conservative Party to join a coalition to form the next government.

The price they are expected to ask for their support and provide enough votes in parliament to seat either Labour's Gordon Brown or the Tories David Cameron as the next prime minister is proportional representation in future elections.

Does Britain want a change?

In one part of central London this morning though, some voters appeared indifferent to the idea of moving away from the current system.

“It’s simple, isn't it?” said Gene Murphy after emerging from a wooden cabin acting as a polling booth in the constituency of Hackney South and Shoreditch. “It’s playground rules – whoever gets the most votes wins.”

Like many others around the country, the result in Mr. Murphy's constituency is almost a foregone conclusion.

Bookmakers have given the incumbent Labour MP, Meg Hillier, an 83 percent chance of retaining the seat, which she won in 2005 with 16,178 votes, more than half of those cast. Her nearest rival was a Liberal Democrat who received 6,549 votes.

The result illustrates, to an extent, one of the supposed faults of "first past the post" system. In constituencies where one candidate enjoys a large, seemingly insurmountable level of support, many feel that a vote for an alternative is simply wasted.

Votes that don't count

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

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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