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Assess the strengths and weaknesses of proportional representation compared to First Past the Post.

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Assess the strengths and weaknesses of proportional representation compared

to First Past the Post. (25 marks)

In general elections, the UK uses First Past The Post (FPTP), which is essentially when the country is split up into constituencies, and each constituency sends a representative to parliament. The representative is chosen by each elector choosing one person on the ballot paper, and the MP with the most votes (not necessarily the majority of votes) is sent to parliament. Although proponents of the status quo say FPTP is a simple, quick, and easy system to run; there are several weaknesses to this arguably “winner takes all” approach to general elections. One of the main criticisms is there is a definite two-party bias in the UK, and FPTP is essentially anti-third party. The Liberal Democrats, normally the third party, for years have been calling for a different electoral system which distributes the seats in parliament more fairy akin to the votes cast. Before the coalition agreement (and arguably after), their preferred voting system they wanted to see implemented in the UK was Proportional Representation (PR). This is an umbrella term, but we are generally talking about  a party getting a number of seats in the House of Commons based on the proportion of votes they received. The 'Additional Member System' and the 'Single Transferable Vote' are both examples of a PR electoral system. Supporters of the system claim that that it more clearly represents the wishes of the voters' as expressed in the ballot box. One could concede this to be true, but not necessarily a good thing. If the government reflected the wishes of the voters in the UK in true PR terms, then government could prove a very difficult machine to run. With no party with a majority, and no one party with a true mandate, potentially every single decision to be made would have to be discussed and hammered out during lengthy parliament sessions similar to the debating that goes on in the House of Lords. Perhaps even with deliberate stalling by some parties. Either that or there could be coalition agreements made in smoke-filled rooms. Neither of these options are good for running the country or democracy as a whole, respectively. Although after the 2010 election, as if often cited by those in favour of sticking with FPTP; one can actually not say that coalitions would be more common exclusively under PR systems.  

If we are to engage the elector, and encourage greater participation in the elections, then one way might be to reduce the amount of votes people think are 'wasted'. The supporters of a smaller party who would have stayed at home normally, because they know they probably have no chance of winning may be more likely to come out and vote, because they know their vote would have some effect on the formation of a government. Those who vote say Conservative in the 'safe' Sheffield seat the Liberal Democrats have would not be wasting their vote. Thus, they may be more inclined to take part. But on the same principle supporters of the larger party perceived to be in  the lead may stay at home too, because their vote is technically a 'waste' too. The minority parties would end up with a much fairer representation when PR is used, and perhaps independent candidates my be more common. This will introduce more voices into the political conversation. FPTP is often seen as unrepresentative- that is it gives all of the power to one party, no matter how small the majority may be. For example, two thirds of MPs did not secure a majority vote in their constituency. The Conservatives actually received more votes than Labour did, but actually secured fewer seats.

All of this may encourage the parties to appeal to their core supporters, rather than a few swing voters in marginal sears. Centrist policies might also become more prevalent, because PR rarely results in one party with the absolute majority. This could  potentially encourage more of an atmosphere of compromise, instead of the Punch and Judy politics we are used to. That said, conversely, extremist parties such as the BNP gain a foothold in everyday political life to a certain extent.

In conclusion, there is no easy answer to the electoral reform conversation. Even if one system does have more positives than the other, we are assuming that in a referendum the public actually know what these are, and understand them fully. If a government were to implement change without a referendum, what is to say the public will even understand the change, the implications of the change, and more specifically how to cast a vote. If any change were to be implemented, it should be as gradual as is practically possible, and explained fully along the way.

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