What is proportional representation?

Lizzie Lawless, Membership and Digital Officer

Posted on the 6th December 2019

Parties from across the political spectrum are lining up against our voting system and calling for proportional representation, but what does that term mean?

There are lots of different ways to decide who gets to sit in parliament, some are more ‘proportional’ and some are less. A more proportional way would mean that a party that received one-third of the vote could expect one-third of the MPs in parliament. The number of MPs in parliament are ‘in proportion’ to the votes cast.

Other methods, such as Westminster’s First Past the Post system used for British General Elections, the Alternative Vote and Supplementary Vote can be reasonably proportional in the right circumstances, but will usually not be. These are known as ‘majoritarian’ and it means that a party who get one-third of the vote might get one-third of the MPs, or they might get half or none at all.

This makes it complicated for voters to decide who to vote for. In the UK, in 1951 and 1974 General Elections, the party with the most votes didn’t get the most MPs and didn’t get to form the government.

More proportional ways of electing MPs like Party List Proportional Representation, the Single Transferable Vote and the Additional Member System, have been designed with the aim of making the number of MPs in parliament match the share of the vote their party received.

Within the more proportional systems, there are different ways of electing MPs. With some, you only vote for a party, with others, you vote directly for candidates.

Rather than the all-or-nothing approach of Westminster’s First Past the Post system, with a proportional system each area elects more than one MP. The size of this area can vary according to the system, ranging from the size of the whole country to a county or town. This means that you have a team of MPs that reflect the strength of the different political opinions in your area.

What happens when you introduce proportional voting systems?

Until 2007, Scotland used First Past the Post and was very familiar with the problems of this Westminster-style voting in their local councils – one party councils, uncontested seats and thousands of voters seeing their voices ignored.

But in 2007 they introduced the proportional Single Transferable Vote system to Scottish local government. Overnight every council and ward in Scotland became competitive, forcing a renewal of local democracy. Whereas before, voters were told they had to vote a certain way to stop a party they disliked more, now everyone could vote as they pleased.

The rest of the UK can do better – it’s time for us to ensure that all our voices are heard. Voters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are experiencing fair votes, and it’s time for Westminster to catch up.

 Sign our petition for fair votes in Westminster

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