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Greens Dream of Proportional Representation in the UK

UK Green Party Politicians Campaign for Electoral Reform in the Wake of Disappointing Election Results

Following the May 7th British general election, the leader of the UK Green Party – Natalie Bennett – is getting vocal about condemning the first-past-the-post electoral system which delivered the Green Party only one seat to represent the 1,157,613 voters who cast ballots in their favour. In reaction to the election results, the Greens have launched a campaign calling for reform of the voting system in favour of proportional representation.

Single-member plurality, or “first-past-the-post” voting is a system in which the single candidate within a district who gains the most votes is elected to represent that region. It can be described as a “winner-take-all” situation, wherein the votes cast for any losing candidates are wholly disregarded and the elected official often wins with less than 50% of their electorate’s support. Due to the fact that only a single candidate is elected in each riding, lesser parties which are geographically concentrated fare much better than those with supporters spread throughout the country.

For smaller parties such as the Green Party, this creates an issue on election day. While they may have widespread support, the votes in their favour tend not to be concentrated in geographical districts and as such, they do not translate to seats in Parliament. For the Green Party, this meant that their 3.8% of the national vote resulted in the attainment of just one of the 650 seats. In a proportional voting system, this number would have been 24.

For Ms. Bennett, this represents an injustice. As she told the BBC, “What we need, and what I expect we’ll see, is a huge public campaign.” Yet she also acknowledges that garnering support from the largest parties, who tend to benefit from the system’s inequalities, will be difficult. As she put it, attaining their backing for electoral reform would be like “getting the turkeys to vote for Christmas”.

That said, the Greens were not the only party to suffer in Westminster as a result of the first-past-the-post system, nor were they even the most unfairly represented. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which at 12.6% garnered the third highest percentage of the vote nationwide, likewise came out of the election with only a single seat. In practical terms, this means that the roughly 3.86 million voters who cast their ballots in favour of the party will be represented by just a single member of parliament. In contrast, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which came out of the election with 4.7% of the vote, will be represented in Westminster by 56 members of parliament.

Non-politicians have taken up the call for action as well. For Katie Ghose, chief executive of the British Electoral Reform Society, this election represented the “nail in the coffin” for first-past-the-post voting in Britain. In her view, the system “was designed for a time when nearly everyone voted for one of the two biggest parties. But people have changed and [the] system cannot cope.”

According to the Electoral Reform Society’s website, voting systems have “a direct effect on whether politicians truly represent us and whether we can hold them to account if they let us down”. Given that first-past-the-post voting is a system in place throughout much of the world – notably both here in Canada and across the United States – this point gets to the root of the issue. Maintaining a healthy, representative electoral system is integral to preserving the core values of citizenship and democracy in countries the world over. So, with the digital age empowering the voices in favour of making every vote count, perhaps the time has come in Britain for a more proportional system. The Greens sure hope so, at least.

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