In the News

The German elections and the system for electing MPs

Mike McCartney

29th September 2021

Do events in Germany this week strengthen or weaken the case for electoral reform in the UK?

It is perhaps not well known that the only country in Europe other than the UK that employs the simple plurality system, often referred to as first past the post (fptp), for elections to its national parliament is Belarus. (France, by the way, also uses a winner takes all system, but uses a two round system.)

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the debate over reforming the system for choosing our MPs is as old as the hills. I remember writing essays on this, for instance, when I studied Politics at school in the 1980s.

As a recap...

The arguments for scrapping the simple plurality system for the House of Commons go something like this

  • PR would produce fairer results since it could convert a share of the vote equally into a share of the seats. Currently fptp does not do this.
  • According to campaigners, the introduction of PR for Westminster would bring to an end the system of ‘disproportionate representation’ we have at present under fptp.
  • Opponents of the fptp system would argue that the inherent faults within the system depress turnout and because PR would mean all votes count then people would be more inclined to vote.
  • Supporters of proportional electoral systems argue that fewer votes are wasted than under the current system. Under fptp many of the votes cast do not matter since they go towards a candidate other than the winner, or they are surplus to the number needed to elect the winner.
  • On a related point, what pro-PR campaigners call ‘safe seat syndrome’ means that turnout is likely to be lowest in the safest seats, and highest where the votes is likely to be close.
  • Only a tiny percentage of the electorate have the power to influence the outcome of the General Election.
  • The current system for Westminster elections is said to lead to the under-representation of women.
  • In conclusion it is clear that, as the ERS argue, “in a modern democracy fairness, accountability and a real choice for voters should not be compromised.”

However, defenders of the system argue that

  • It is a tried and tested system with a certain amount of public acceptance. It is also simple and easy for people to understand.
  • The fptp system has historically been simple, familiar, quick to count, and most of the time produces a clear and decisive result.
  • The close relationship between MPs and constituencies is a vital feature of the current system.
  • First past the post has the effect of keeping out small, extremist parties by discriminating against them - the UK is alone among European democracies in never having elected a fascist to its national legislature, for example
  • First past the post presents a clear choice for voters but this can be seen as a device for maintaining control over who is elected.
  • Lastly, and of particular relevance here: there is usually no need for coalitions since the natural mechanics of the system produces single party governments with (in recent times often large) overall majorities. This avoids the need for wrangling amongst coalition partners over what policies are to be introduced – usually behind closed doors, and in smoke-filled rooms. First past the post, by contrast, tends to delivers strong, single party government with a clear electoral mandate.

There is a bit more detail on both sides of the argument here.

This is from the tutor2u site:

https://www.tutor2u.net/politics/reference/fptp-advantages

This is simple and easy to read from The Week: Should first-past-the-post be scrapped? | The Week UK

And this is from the Electoral Reform Society:

https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/first-past-the-post

So this brings us to events in Germany this week.

If you didn't already know, the election on Sunday was something of a nail biter.

The left leaning SPD took a narrow victory in the race to control the Bundestag in Berlin, but with only just over a quarter of the votes. This has led to all sorts of speculation over what shape any future coalition will take. These have been given names like the 'Kenya' coalition, and my personal favourite, the 'Jamaica' coalition. See here: German election 2021: full results and analysis | World news | The Guardian

I am writing this on Wednesday, several days after German voters took to the polls, and we are still waiting for announcement on the formation of a government. Is this the kind of outcome that British voters would be happy with?

This article gives a brief overview, of what might happen, by the way: Germany election: what happens next as parties vie to form government | Germany | The Guardian

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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