I am avidly following the election campaign currently underway in Britain. My last posts on this blog were at the time of the Scottish referendum last year, and it has been fascinating to watch the consequences of that vote play out over the subsequent months. Now the prospect of a second consecutive coalition government in Britain has me thinking about the structure of parliamentary democracy and whether coalitions are adequate representations of the popular vote.
One major question about the current “first past the post” system is whether it yields a result that is consistent with the popular vote. This is especially important when considering future coalition negotiations. Right now, it appears that the Scottish Nationalist Party will control 8.5% of Parliamentary seats with just 4.5% of the vote. Conversely, the UK Independence Party will control only .03% of Parliamentary seats despite currently polling at 13.6% popular support. Obviously this has implications for the composition and perceived legitimacy of whatever coalition comes into power on May 8th.
Since the SNP is poised to play such a large role in the British Parliament, it is interesting to imagine what it would look like if the British Parliament at Westminster were elected under the same rules as the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Under Holyrood rules, the membership of the Scottish Parliament is split evenly between representatives of constituencies and representatives of party slates elected from Scotland’s regions. The Holyrood rules were set up so that no one party would be able to dominate Scotland, and to facilitate stable parliamentary coalitions.
Let’s do a thought experiment and imagine what the Westminster Parliament would look like under Holyrood rules. For the purposes of this thought experiment, I am using the number from May2015.com, an election coverage website affiliated with Ashcroft Polling. For their own reasons, May2015 does not include Northern Ireland in their predictions, so my thought experiment will incorporate the same limitation. I am also assuming that the proportional representation seats are elected at-large and not from regions.
First, let’s suppose that we take the total number of seats each major party (major defined as each party with ~5% support or more) are expected to win, and divide them in half:
Now, take the remaining half of the seats in Parliament, and arrange them by proportional representation (PR):
Then, add the number of constituency seats to the number of PR seats:
Comparing the new allocations to the old allocations, you can see that using Holyrood rules would deliver a very different Westminster Parliament:
Under this system, the number of MPs for the Labour, Conservative, and Scottish National parties would all drop, while the number of MPs for the Lib Dems, UKIP, and Greens would rise. In the case of UKIP and the Greens, they would go from being non-entitities to being significant blocs of votes.
A six-party parliament assembled under Holyrood rules would legislate in a far different manner than the current Westminster Parliament. Two- or even three-party coalitions would become normal. Under the new distribution, there would be four potential coalition partners for the two largest parties to choose from.
Would Holyrood rules be better or worse than Westminster rules? I don’t really know. It depends what your priorities are. Labour and Conservatives would have to give up the dream of ruling alone ever again – the prospect of an SNP-style swing in popular support across the whole of the UK, thus yielding a single majority, is remote. Scottish nationalists would be disappointed to see their bloc lose votes, but English nationalists (UKIP) would be thrilled, as would Lib Dems. Greens would be happy that their party finally had a small bloc that could potentially play a role at the edge of coalition or confidence & supply negotiations. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.