There are two main types of electoral system in the UK:First Past the Post (FPTP) Proportional Representation (PR)
There are two main types of electoral system in the UK:
- First Past the Post (FPTP)
- Proportional Representation (PR)
First Past the Post (FPTP)
FPTP is the voting system used for the election of MPs to 'seats' in the UK Parliament. It is a system in which the 'winner takes all' and usually gives a clear majority both at constituency and national level. This means that a candidate in a constituency only needs one more vote than the nearest rival to win the seat. Similarly, political parties only need to win one more seat in the House of Commons to have a majority.
Advantages of FPTP
There is very little chance of extremist parties being elected to Parliament under FPTP because they are unlikely to gain enough votes in any one constituency.
Generally the results of elections using FPTP can be calculated quickly. When necessary, this makes the transfer of power from one party to another much easier. The 1997 and 2001 elections were clear evidence of this.
Disadvantages of FPTP
The main criticism of FPTP is that the number of votes cast for a party in general elections is not accurately reflected in the number of seats won. An example of this was the 1997 election when the Conservatives gained 18% of the vote in Scotland but not one seat. This is mirrored at constituency level, where the winning candidate may have received only one third of the votes cast. Indeed, a government may be elected on a minority vote, as happened in February 1974 when Labour won the general election on the number of seats gained but the Conservatives had a larger share of the vote across the country.
Smaller parties are not fairly treated under FPTP. Although they may have a sizeable national support across the country, they do not get a proportional number of MPs because there are not enough votes concentrated in constituencies to let them win seats. This was shown in the 1983 general election when the Liberal/SDP Alliance won 25.4% of the vote and gained 23 seats while the Labour Party won 27.7% of the vote and gained 209 seats.
FPTP also encourages tactical voting. This means voting for a party, other than your preferred party, to prevent another party from being elected. An example of this would be when a Labour supporter in a marginal Liberal/ Conservative seat votes Liberal Democrat in order to keep the Conservatives from winning.
Another disadvantage of FPTP can occur in marginal constituencies, where voters tend to change their party loyalty from election to election, and among 'floating' or 'swing' voters, who have no firm party loyalty. The outcome of an election can be decided on the voting patterns in these situations, even although the constituents may number only a tiny proportion of the electorate.
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Proportional Representation (PR)
There are a number of systems that use PR such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) ( the Regional and National Lists) and the Alternative Vote. There is a third system that combines these two, known as the Additional Member System (AMS) or the hybrid or top-up system. The AMS system is presently used in elections for the Scottish Parliament, where voters can vote for single candidates in their constituencies but also for candidates from regional 'lists' put forward by each party. If there is a discrepancy between the percentage of seats the party has won and the percentage of votes cast, the seats are 'topped up' from the regional list.
Advantages of PR
In PR systems there are no wasted votes in elections. Every vote is counted and so there is no need for tactical voting. As a result, there is a far greater degree of proportionality; the number of seats more accurately reflects the number of votes cast for each party.
The number of constituency seats won under the First Past the Post election and the number won under the Additional Member System in Scotland in 1999 were:
In the 2003 Scottish Parliament results Labour still did better than the other parties, with 50 of the 129 seats and just over 33% of the constituency vote and 29.3% of the regional list vote. However other parties gained, too: the Conservatives got 18 seats with just over 15% of the vote, the Greens won 7 seats and the Scottish Socialists won 6 seats. The Liberal Democrats again came fourth with 17 seats but remained part of the Executive in coalition with Labour.
PR encourages coalition governments, where different parties can work together as part of the Executive. This encourages a less confrontational form of politics because of the need for coalition parties to co-operate. This also means that there are fewer dramatic changes in policies as the two parties tend to keep a balanced 'middle way'.
Under PR in Scotland, constituencies are multi-party. This means that several different parties can be represented which gives voters a choice of MSPs to consult. List systems can also increase the numbers of women, ethnic minority and disabled representatives in a parliament, if the party leaders choose to put them near the top of the List.
Disadvantages of PR
A criticism of PR is that, in elections, voters do not vote for coalition governments. The compromises that are made between politicians from different parties in coalition can sometimes be without public backing. Small parties in coalition without a majority vote from the electorate can become 'king-makers'. This means that small parties can have unfair power over the larger parties by threatening to withdraw from coalitions.
In the regional or national list systems, party leaders may draw up lists of only like-minded candidates which may disadvantage minority groups within a party. Although there is a larger than average number of women in the Scottish Parliament, there are few representatives from other groups such as ethnic minorities or the disabled. This is not desirable for effective democracy.