Proportional Representation can build a stronger constituency link

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 27th July 2015

It is often said that the constituency link is a vital part of British political life; MPs represent local areas and are directly accountable to those areas for their continued careers. If MPs misbehave their constituents have the power to boot them out, and the fear that this might happen keep MPs on the straight and narrow.

It is sometimes argued that there is something special about this link between an MP and their constituency when the MP is elected under First Past the Post (FPTP).

Yet only 22% of people surveyed in 2013 knew who their MP even was. It gets worse though – in 2015, 331 MPs out of 650 MPs lacked the support of a majority of their constituents. So even if you know who your MP is, there is a high chance that you might disagree with them on some pretty major points. Of course, after the election MPs represent their whole constituency, not just the part that voted for them, but this doesn’t extend to how they vote in parliament.

A weak link, on a minority of the vote

In South Belfast, the SDLP candidate broke the UK record for lowest winning share of the vote, at just 24.5%. No doubt he will be fair when it comes to local casework in his constituency, but in parliament, he will be mostly voting with the rest of his party, sometimes regardless of the opinions of the 75.5% of his constituents who voted against him.  A constituency link established on such a feeble mandate does not look particularly strong from the voters’ point of view.

In most areas of life, competition rather than monopoly is generally thought to give a better service to the consumer. Yet in the House of Commons, we give a monopoly of political power for a constituency to a single MP no matter their support.

Even in seats where the MP has significantly more that 50% of the vote, the lack of competition at election time means that there are few incentives for incumbents to work hard at representing all their constituents. The fact that many do is a tribute to their diligence and integrity – and is arguably in spite of the FPTP electoral system rather than because of it.

Electing one MP to represent all the different interests of a constituency was only fully imposed on the House of Commons in 1950. Before the 1950 General Election  there were constituencies that elected multiple MPs. For instance, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) was used to represent the different opinions within university seats, until the seats were abolished in 1950.

A member of parliament that you voted for

A system, such as STV, where several members represent the different opinions in an area has a number of advantages for the voter. The chance of a voter having a candidate for whom they have voted for get elected is higher, as fewer votes are wasted. In the 2007 Scottish local elections under STV, 74 per cent of voters elected their first-choice candidate. This was an advance on 52 per cent in the last FPTP elections. Uniquely in STV, compared to other systems of proportional representation, every candidate is elected on the same basis and is directly accountable to their local constituents.

Under STV more people get a representative they voted for and it is far easier to hold those MPs to account – there are no taken-for-granted ‘safe seats’ under a fair voting system. As we’ve seen from Scotland’s experience, the fair distribution of local representatives you get under STV strengthens the link between the MP and his constituency rather than weakening it. You pick the representative you want to go to.

A democratic voting system strengthens the link between voters and their representatives. Every vote counts, voting for someone who’s not your first choice becomes a thing of the past, and MPs have to fight for every vote. We want a better constituency link – and it’s achievable.

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