Was there a referendum on proportional representation?

Sadie Livingston, Communications Placement Student

Posted on the 28th October 2021

We have long argued for the need to replace the failing First Past the Post (FPTP) Westminster system with a fairer proportional system. 

There is a common misconception (or a more cynical misrepresentation) that the UK has already held a referendum to implement proportional representation (PR). Advocates of the First Past the Post argue that there is little desire to change the current voting system to proportional representation due to the failed referendum in 2011. However, the 2011 referendum was to change the voting system to the Alternative Vote (AV), not proportional representation. 

David Cameron Memoir
To paraphrase David Cameron “AV… wasn’t proportional”

What happened with the AV vote?

As one of the terms of the 2010 coalition agreement with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats demanded they hold a referendum on changing the First Past the Post voting system. The current winner takes all voting system has seen Labour and the Conservatives take turns in government, consistently cutting smaller parties out by reducing the number of seats they get compared to their share of the vote.

Therefore, when the Liberal Democrats were in a position to join the government in a coalition, they argued for proportional representation as a key demand. The Conservatives, however, as strong opponents of electoral reform, offered a referendum on the Alternative Vote instead as part of a final offer during the coalition negotiations. 

The AV referendum was held in May 2011, with the cross-party Yes to AV campaign in the lead at the start. Ultimately the No to AV campaign was victorious, after a contentious campaign, with 67.9% voting to keep the current system. The referendum had failed to capture the interest of the public and saw a low turnout of just 42.2%. 

How does AV work and what are its benefits?

In the right circumstances, AV can be more proportional than the Westminster system, but this is not always the case. For instance, The Jenkins Commission estimated that AV would have increased the size of the “already swollen Labour majority” in 1997. ERS research in 2015 shows the Conservative Party’s majority under AV would have doubled from 12 to 24.  Therefore, the Alterantive Vote is not a proportional system and is still, in fact, a majoritarian system – like First Past the Post.

With AV, the public cast their vote by putting a number one by their first choice, two by their second and so on. They can put numbers on as many or as few candidates as they wish. A candidate is elected if they receive over half of the votes – if nobody receives over half the vote, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and everyone who voted for them has their vote moved to their second choice. This process is repeated until one candidate receives over 50% of the votes and is elected. 

Unlike the all-or-nothing approach of the First Past the Post system, AV ensures voters can vote for their favourite candidate without worrying about wasting their vote. This avoids the need for tactical voting, where voters don’t vote for their favourite candidate, but vote for someone else in order to stop a disliked candidate from winning. Moreover, as extremist candidates are on the political fringes, they are most likely to be excluded in the first round, allowing for candidates who are more broadly liked and less polarising to get into parliament. 

AV is not PR

But AV is not proportional representation. Proportional representation is where the seats in the elected body reflect the overall distribution of public support for each political party. This creates a more representative chamber, allowing for the differing views of the electorate to be properly reflected in the makeup of the legislature. This differs from AV, which can often provide an even more disproportional result than the Westminster system.  The most common proportional electoral systems used in the UK are Additional Member System (AMS) as used in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and London Assembly, Single Transferable Vote (STV) as used in Scottish local elections and the Irish Dáil Éireann. 

Proportional systems are more democratic as they put the power directly into the hands of the people. If a party wins more votes it wins more seats, something not guaranteed with first past the post. Voters can often choose between candidates from the same or different parties, which allows voters to elect MPs based on their individual abilities and merit. Independent candidates are also more likely to get elected, which has happened in Ireland as well as some Scottish Councils which both use STV, as voters do not have to worry about wasting their vote. This all allows for voters and their interests to be better represented in parliament. 

It is time for the outdated Westminster to be scrapped and place the power back with the people. Unlike the AV system, an actual proportional voting system will create a more democratic Britain.

Sign our petition for a fair, proportional, voting system in the UK

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