Has the election result made electoral reform more likely? In an update to a post published just before the election, Alan Renwick argues that it has not.
On Wednesday I wrote a post suggesting that, while the election result might well strengthen the case for electoral reform, the barriers to such reform would remain very high. The election result turns out not to be quite as we were expecting. So are my earlier thoughts on electoral reform in need of revision?
The answer is yes – at least a bit. The case for reform has not been strengthened as much as I expected. And the barriers to reform are even higher.
How the case for reform has changed
I suggested in the earlier post that the election result was likely to strengthen four arguments for electoral reform.
- First Past the Post forces voters into difficult tactical voting dilemmas. This argument was actually strengthened by the pre-election situation, so the result is irrelevant to it. The large number of constituencies in which three or more candidates appeared to be in contention made it difficult for some voters to know what vote to cast in order to promote the result they wanted. That hasn’t changed over the last forty-eight hours.
- At the constituency level, First Past the Post produces many minority victories. The argument here was that the growth of multi-partism means that more MPs are elected on shares of the vote below 50 per cent – sometimes well below. In 2010, just 210 of 650 MPs secured an absolute majority of the votes in their constituency, and eight secured less than a third. Further erosion of local support for victors would have strengthened the reform case. Full analysis of this point will have to wait for final results to be available. But a quick look through the first hundred constituencies in the alphabet suggests the number of majority victors actually rose: 44 of the hundred secured 50 per cent or more of the vote, implying somewhere around 280–290 of all 650 MPs. In one remarkable result, the winner in Belfast South scraped home on just 24.5 per cent of the vote – lower even than the (previous) record 26.0 per cent share on which Russell Johnston was elected in Inverness, Nairn, and Lochaber in 1992. But that seems to have been an outlier – and what happens in Northern Ireland doesn’t much affect the debate in the rest of the UK. So the early evidence suggests this argument has not been strengthen.
- At the national level, First Past the Post produces huge inequities. The main argument emphasized by those pushing electoral reform before polling day was that the current system produces unacceptable disproportionalities. And it has indeed produced some very marked disproportionalities this time round: UKIP won one seat with almost four million votes, the SNP 56 seats with fewer than one and a half million votes. On the other hand, such imbalances have adversely affected fewer than a quarter of voters directly. Furthermore, the standard measure of electoral disproportionality – Gallagher’s index – was at its lowest (at around 15.0) since 1992. Disproportionalities are a long-standing feature of the British electoral system and should be a cause for concern. But there is little reason to think the problem has just got worse.
- A second hung parliament destroys the case for First Past the Post. The strongest case for First Past the Post has always been that it produces single-party majorities. Failure to do so twice would have seriously undermined the case that this justifies the disproportionalities. But now we know that it has not failed to do so a second time. First Past the Post has done its job: converting a multi-party context into a single-party majority. Of course, some will make the opposite argument: converting a 37 per cent vote share into a 51 per cent seat share is a denial of the democratic rights of the non-Conservative majority. But Cameron’s vote share is higher than the share that maintained Tony Blair in power in 2005, and calls for reform got nowhere back then: most British voters rather like single-part y government. Again, the case for reform has not been strengthened.
None of this is to say that there is no case for reform. But if the voting system is actually going to change, more people than before need to push for it. There is little reason to think that will happen.
Barriers to reform
I said on Wednesday that there are two barriers to electoral reform. First either the Conservatives or Labour would need to acquiesce in the process leading to any reform – even though the current system helps preserve their status as the only parties capable of leading a government. Second, public opinion is unlikely to provide much in the way of bottom-up pressure.
If I am right that the case for reform has not significantly strengthened, that only adds to the expectation that public opinion is unlikely to be ignited by the reform cause. That makes impetus from the political elite all the more essential if reform is to happen. But any reason for expecting such impetus that existed on Wednesday has gone. The Conservatives have no need to cosy up to coalition partners. They have said in terms in their manifesto that they wish to defend First Past the Post. And the two parties that might press the issue – UKIP and the Liberal Democrats – are both about to enter periods of leaderlessness and soul searching.
All in all, then, we can presume that First Past the Post is likely to live to fight another day.