Proportional Representation is no Saviour

There is a long standing debate in UK politics around reforming the UK’s ancient First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system. The alternative of Proportional Representation itself risks wilder swings and the rise of a far-right society.

For those that are not familiar with the UK political process, like the US electoral college system, the UK is a representative democracy which, for general elections, works by electing Members of Parliament who sit in the green benches of the House of Commons. Like the USA with Congress and the House of Representatives, the UK has two houses. The other being the House of Lords. With its red benches, and peers (both unelected and elected).

The benches of the houses of commons and lords.

The way votes are cast is by electoral wards, which represent Super Output Areas (SOA) and Lower Super Output Areas (LSOA) which themselves are represented by, and battlegrounds for, local councillors who will help in national elections but themselves will stand in local elections.

The weakness of FPTP is that size of aggregation can hide a number of effects and there is an ongoing argument that when the individual votes have been cast for the MP, they are in essence, wasted for the national result. This is true.

Yet, as with all such analyses it seems, as soon as it touches a regular human, it has been spun on its head and it’s left their mouths claiming that this disadvantages minor parties or those attempting to break into the political sphere. However, this is as incorrect as stating that a “vote for a minor party is the same as a vote for the Conservatives” which is often claimed by Labour party supporters. Yet, this is an insult to the intelligence of the British people... Ah, Brexit.

The point of the problem with FPTP is that the surplus swing can actually go both ways. You can get a suppression of a majority vote, or it can suppress a minority vote. This is just an effect of the maths, but crucially, it has saved the United Kingdom from falling into a fascist dictatorship on several occasions.

FPTP has saved the UK from right-wing UKIP from being the second opposition.

One of a number of solutions to that is to use Proportional Representation, PR. Here the representation of parliament would then be made up of the MPs, but they are not necessarily voted on the same way. They are voted on as parties for an area. A voter simply walks into a booth and votes for a party, not a candidate at larger than SOA level. The elected government of that larger area is then divided up proportional to the number of votes for each party. The ultimate of those would be UK parliament. The down side is they won’t necessarily adequately represent local concerns at such a high level. For example, Greater Manchester includes almost all spectrum of demography. Yet the vast majority live urban areas. So minor, local concerns are never addressed. As soon as you aggregate, you lose the granularity necessary to adequately cater for local people’s needs.

This is a systemic problem that exists whether it is a company division, national charity or something else. It’s precisely why federated charities, like the Citizens Advice Bureau, and indeed, the EU itself exist the way they do. They are not super-governments. But I digress.

Example

To illustrate the false statements made by those justifying PR, which paradoxically include both the Liberal Democrats (aka LibDems — a centre-left wing party) and UKIP (a right wing party) pairing up to justify, let’s simplify a bit.

Suppose you have a UK-lite that has just 4 constituencies.

Landon Wingway (LW): 100
South Munkchester (SM): 12
Finningley (F): 5
Teeds (T): 4

Scenario 1
With Lab, Tories, LibDem, UKIP & Green Parties fighting it out. Respectively, they come out:

LW: 21,18,16,10, 1
SW: 1,5,2,0,1
F: 1,1,2,0,1
T: 0,2,1,0,0

Note, this accounts for he fact not everyone will turn out to vote.

This means Labour win the GE, Tories and LibDem are both equal opposition, with 1 seat each and the total number of votes were:

Tory: 23
Labour: 26
LibDems: 21
UKIP: 10
Green: 3

This is aligned with what you’d expect for the winner, but it’s given LibDems equal status with the Conservative party when according to PR, they should not have been.

Scenario 2
Let’s play the scenario again and change some outcomes:

LW: 31,18,9, 7, 1
SW: 1,5,2,0,1
F: 1,1,2,0,1
T: 0,2,1,0,0

This means Labour win the general election, Conservatives and LibDem are both equal in opposition and the total number of votes were:

Conservatives: 33
Labour: 26
LibDems: 14
UKIP: 7
Green: 3

Here again, LibDem are given equal weight with the Conservatives in a FPTP system, but crucially, the wrong party won the vote if it ran PR. FPTP surplus had the effect of suppressing the majority vote AND promoting the LibDem minority to equal status with the Tories.

Model it again:

LW: 21,8,16,10, 11
SW: 1,5,2,0,1
F: 1,1,2,0,1
T: 0,2,1,0,0

This means Labour win the GE, Tories and LibDem are both equal opposition and the total number of votes were:

Conservative: 23
Labour: 16
LibDems: 21
UKIP: 10
Green: 13

This time, Labour still win, despite actually coming 3rd.

There are several more scenarios that can be modelled like that.

Conclusion

In my experience, I’ve never met anyone who properly articulated the problems with FPTP correctly or adequately. The rhetoric of it disadvantaging minority parties in all cases is demonstrably false.

The only problem people need to consider is that First Past The Post Voting potentially doesn’t accurately reflect the wishes of the people. That is also true of the US Electoral College system. That is the major problem with both such systems. Yet, the trade off is that it means MPs are very close to local area concerns. Instead of having them diluted by national issues, albeit that national issues are completely relevant to local.

Note, there is no objective benchmark. What often happens is we compare each party against every other party in each election. You can only compare against the actual runs across all constituencies, and also across general elections (aka across time). They are all relative measures, not absolute ones.

Because. Statistics. Y’know.

Written by

EA, Stats, Math & Code into a fizz of a biz or two. Founder: Automedi & Axelisys. Proud Manc. Citizen of the World. I’ve been busy

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