Electoral Systems

The last General Election in the UK took place in May 2015 under the first past the post electoral system – Results of the 2010 UK General Election. The result was a Hung Parliament, which is rare in British Politics.  All parties entered into talks with a view to forming a coalition.  In the meantime Brown remained as PM.  On the 10th May he offered his resignation.  In 2015 despite widespread predictions of a hung parliament the Conservatives obtained their first majority in 23 years. This video which predated the 2015 General Election and predicted (wrongly as it turned out) another hung parliament is still useful in explaining how the electoral system works, the outcome of the 2010 election and the range of scenarios possible in the run up to the 2015 election.

First-Past-The-Post: The current system for electing MPs to the House of Commons is called First-Past-The-Post. There are 650 separate constituencies across the UK each electing one single Member of Parliament. In order to vote you simply put an ‘X’ next to the name of the candidate you support. The candidate who gets the most votes wins, regardless of whether he or she has more than 50% support. Once members have been individually elected, the party with the most seats in Parliament, regardless of whether or not it has a majority, normally becomes the next government. The system is used: for elections to the House of Commons and local elections in the UK and in USA, Canada and India.

Arguments used in favour:

  • It is simple to understand.
  • The voter can express a view on which party should form the next government.
  • It tends to lead to a two-party system. The system tends to produce single party governments, which are strong enough to create legislation and tackle the country’s problems, without relying on the support of any other party.
  • It provides a close link between the MP and their constituency.
  • The system represents the views of the people, as the candidate with the greatest support wins through a fair process.
  • The UK’s democracy is one of the strongest in the world, it works and since no system is perfect, why should we go through the massive overhaul of changing?


  • Only one MP is elected in each constituency, so all the voters who did not vote for him or her are not represented. Their votes do not help elect anybody and so are wasted, they could have stayed at home and the result would not have been altered.
  • In 1997, in Great Britain, 14.7 million voters cast ineffective votes – that is 48.2% of those who voted. A high proportion of these voters are the same people every time, e.g. Conservative voters in County Durham or Labour voters in much of Surrey.
  • There is a lack of choice given to the voters. The candidates are selected by a small number of party members, and voters can only choose between parties. If the candidate selected for your party has views with which you disagree, you are left with no alternative choice within that party.
  • Voters are represented unequally. In 1997, the average number of votes per MP elected was: 32,376 for Labour, but 113,826 for Liberal Democrats
  • Concentrated support for a party produces results. In 1997, Conservative support was spread thinly over most of Scotland. They got 18% of the vote in Scotland, but no seats. The Liberal Democrats got 13% of the Scottish vote and a similar share of the seats because they had strong support in a few constituencies and minimal support in most of the others.
  • The system leads to many people casting negative votes i.e. voting against the candidate they dislike most rather than for the candidate they like best.
  • The way the boundaries of constituencies are drawn can affect the results. Governments are often accused of gerrymandering, adjusting the boundaries of constituencies to influence the results.
  • In 1997, Labour won 43.3% of the total vote, but got 65.2% of the seats in Parliament, giving them power to form a government. Although 11 out of 20 British electors voted against the Government, it obtained a landslide majority of 179. A similar outcome was observed in the 2001 General Election.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 12.13.03 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-01-27 at 12.13.20 PM.png

Click on the image below for a detailed explanation of the outcome of the 2015 General Election.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 6.46.52 AM.png

Single Transferable Vote

How the System Works:

Each constituency would elect between 3 and 5 MPs depending on its size. Voters rank the candidates, putting a ‘1’ for their favourite, a ‘2’ for the next, and so on. If the voter’s first choice candidate does not need their vote, either because he or she is elected without it, or because he or she has too few votes to be elected, then the vote is transferred to the voter’s second choice candidate, and so on.

In this way, most of the votes help to elect a candidate and far fewer votes are wasted. An important feature of STV is that voters can choose between candidates both of their own and of other parties, and can even select candidates for reasons other than party affiliation. Thus, a voter, wishing for more women MPs could vote for a woman from their own party and then all other women candidates, whatever party they stand for.

The system is used:

in the Australian Senate, the Republic of Ireland, Tasmania, Malta and Northern Ireland for local elections and elections to the European Parliament.

Arguments used in favour:

STV does more than other systems to guarantee that everyone gets their views represented in parliament and that they have a say in what is done by their elected representatives. STV is the best option for:

  • Putting the power in the hands of the voters.
  • Keeping MPs linked to the people who voted for them. Most voters can identify a representative that they personally helped to elect and can feel affinity with. Such a personal link also increases accountability.
  • Making parliament reflect the views of the voters.
  • Only a party or coalition of parties, who could attract more than 50% of the electorate could form a government. Any changes would have to be backed by a majority since public opinion is reflected fairly in elections under STV. This is far more important than that a government should be formed by only one political party.
  • It enables the voters to express opinions effectively. Voters can choose between candidates within parties, demonstrating support for different wings of the party. Voters can also express preferences between the abilities or other attributes, of individual candidates.
  • It is simple for voters to use.
  • There is no need for tactical voting . Voters can cast a positive vote and know that their vote will not be wasted whatever their choice is.
  • It produces governments that are strong and stable because they are founded on the majority support of the electorate.


  • The system does not produce such accuracy in proportional representation of parties as the party list or additional member systems.
  • It breaks the link between an individual MP and his or her constituency.
  • Constituencies would be 3-5 times larger than they are now but with 3-5 MPs.
  • MPs may have to spend an excessive amount of time dealing with constituency problems and neglect the broader issues.
  • There are critics who say that this system could lead to permanent coalition governments, but this would only happen if the voters as a whole want it.
  • It is disliked by politicians, since it would remove power from them and give it to the electors, and many MPs with safe seats would lose the security they feel now.

Answering the Common Arguments Against STV

It could destroy the link between MPs and the constituents

Under STV, the constituency link is retained, albeit between several MPs and an enlarged constituency. The accountability of MPs to their constituencies is actually increased in that, unlike the current single-member constituencies, no individual MP has a safe seat. Due to the reduction in security of tenure brought about by STV, all MPs will need to win their seats on merit. Voters also tend to feel a natural link with the whole of Leeds, for example, rather than an allegiance to Leeds North or Leeds Central. They may prefer to have real influence with the MPs representing the whole of the city, rather than hold one MP responsible for their sector. The idea of working together, as a team with other representatives in the area is the norm for local government, where working together for a local ward, is often seen as advantageous.

STV could cause internal party rifts

In most cases, party solidarity and loyalty will inhibit individualistic campaigning, and even if this were to happen, a party could exclude a future ticket to a recalcitrant candidate. There is intra-party competition in every election system. With First-Past-The-Post, it is internalised within the selection and re-selection process; with Party Lists, it becomes a permanent internal competition for a high place on the list. In order to maximise its total support in a multi-member constituency; a party is likely to put up a balanced team of candidates. Under STV all existing MPs can stand for election, and may have an advantage in being better known than their new colleagues.

MPs could become bogged down in casework.

There is no evidence in Britain that local casework-based candidates poll better than national names, often voters like to be represented by national names who may have little day to day contact with the constituency.

The ballot papers would be too complicated for the public too understand.

Electors are perfectly able to cope with STV ballot papers. The first Northern Ireland Assembly election under STV in 1973, which produced a 70% turnout, is a good example. The voters elected representatives from both sides of the community in every constituency.

The Alternative Vote

How the System Works:

The same constituency boundaries are used and voters would elect one person to represent them in parliament, just as we do now. However, rather than marking an ‘X’ against their preferred candidate, each voter would rank their candidates in an order of preference, putting ‘1’ next to their favourite, a ‘2’ by their second choice and so on. If a candidate receives a majority of first place votes, he or she would be elected just as under the present system. However if no single candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the second choices for the candidate at the bottom are redistributed. The process is repeated until one candidate gets an absolute majority. The alternative vote is not actually a proportional system, but a majoritarian system. It looks most similar to the current electoral system.

The system is used: in the Australian House of Representatives

Arguments used in favour:

  • The alternative vote retains the same constituencies and so the bond between members and their constituents is not lost.
  • Extreme parties would be unlikely to gain support by AV and coalition governments would be no more likely to arise than they are under First-Past-The-Post.
  • All MPs would have the support of a majority of their constituents.
  • It prevents MPs being elected on a minority of the vote. In 1997 47.1% of British MPs were elected by less then 50% of the votes in their constituencies. In 1992, 40.1% of MPs were not supported by as many as 50% of their constituents.
  • It removes the need for negative voting. Electors can vote for their first choice of candidate without the fear of wasting their vote.


  • Whilst it does ensure than the successful candidate is supported by a majority of his or her constituents, it does not give proportionality to parties or other bodies of opinion, in parliament. Research by Democratic Audit in 1997 showed that the results could actually be even more distorting than under First-Past-The-Post.
  • It also does very little to give a voice to those who have been traditionally under-represented in parliament.
  • There is no transfer of powers from party authority to the voters, and it does not produce a proportional parliament.

Party List Systems

How the System Works:

There are many variations of party list voting, but the most basic form is the closed party list system. The system is quite simple; rather than voting in a single-member constituency for a specific candidate, electors vote for a party in a multi-member constituency, or sometimes a whole country.

Each party’s list of candidates, ranked according to the party’s preference, is published on the ballot paper. All the votes are counted and each party receives seats in the constituency in the same proportion as the votes it won in that constituency.

A quota is calculated for the constituency – the number of votes required to win one seat. Those who become the party’s MPs, will be those placed highest in the party’s list of candidates. Voters simply vote for the party, they have no say as to which candidates are elected.

An open party list system is one that allows the voter to vote either for the list as published or to vote for an individual candidate, wherever that candidate appears on the party’s list. The possible effect of this is to alter the order in which candidates have been placed on the list, and therefore the list of successful candidates, while still registering support for the voter’s preferred party. Seats are allocated according to the number of quotas won.

The system is used:

in most countries in continental Europe, South Africa, Israel and Russia, and was used in Britain for the 1999 European Election (Northern Ireland will retain STV).

Arguments used in favour:

  • The strength of such systems are that they guarantee a high degree of party proportionality.  If a party receives 32% of the vote, then it will get 32% of the seats in parliament. Every vote has the same value.
  • The system is also very simple for voters, who have only to make one choice for a party out of a small selection.


  • With closed party lists, voters have little or no effective choice over candidates, they only get control over which party is in government, but with no control over the members of that government.
  • Party lists do nothing to ensure fair representation for traditionally under-represented groups in society, and in fact could do the opposite, since party leaders are most likely to choose people from a similar background to represent the party.
  • Parties can stifle independent and minority opinion within their ranks. Because of the very large constituencies, there is little chance for accountability to voters and no local connection between members and voters. The system keeps power out of the hands of voters and firmly in the hands of party leadership.

The Supplementary Vote (SV)

How the System works:

With the supplementary vote, there are two columns on the ballot paper – one for the first choice and one for the second choice.  Voters are not required to make a second choice if they do not wish to.  Voters mark an ‘X’ in the first column for their first choice and a second ‘X’ in the second column for their other choice.

Voters’ first preferences are counted and if one candidate gets 50% of the vote, then he or she is elected.   If no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, the two highest scoring candidates are retained and the rest of the candidates are eliminated.

The second preferences on the ballot papers of the eliminated candidates are examined and any that have been cast for the two remaining candidates are given to them.  Whoever has the most votes at the end of the process wins. The system is used to elect the Mayor of London.


  • SV suffers from all the disadvantages of AV.
  • Unlike AV, SV does not ensure that the winning candidate has the support of at least 50% of the electorate.
  • SV does not eliminate the likelihood of tactical voting.

Additional Member System (AMS)

How the System Works:

Several variants of Additional Member Systems have been proposed, but basically they are a combination of the First-Past-The-Post system and party list voting. The purpose is to retain the best features of First-Past-The-Post while introducing proportionality between parties through party list voting.

Each voter has two votes, one vote for a single MP via First-Past-The-Post, and one for a regional or national party list. Half the seats or more are allocated to the single-member constituencies and the rest to the party list. The percentage of votes obtained by the parties in the party list vote determines their overall number of representatives; the party lists are used to top up the First-Past-The-Post seats gained by the party to the required number. So if a party has won two seats in the constituencies but in proportion to its votes should have five, the first three candidates on its list are elected in addition.

The system is used:

in Germany and it was also chosen by New Zealand in a referendum in 1993, (although in New Zealand it is called Mixed Member Proportional Representation or MMP). The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were both elected by AMS in May 1999 as well as the London Assembly in May 2000 and in subsequent elections

Arguments used in favour:

  • It results in broadly proportional representation along party lines while ensuring that there is a directly accountable MP for each constituency.
  • It retains a number of single-member constituencies.
  • It has produced strong and stable governments in Germany (but not single party governments)
  • Each elector has at least one effective vote. Even of they see no chance of winning in the single member constituency, people can use their second vote for a party they support and still have a limited say through an additional member.
  • The separation of the vote, allows the voter to make an expression of popular approval or disapproval which is not possible under First-Past-The-Post.  Because the first vote does not affect a party’s total representation, a voter can use it to express personal support for a candidate without necessarily helping that candidate’s party.
  • AMS would give people the government they wanted, keeping the link between MPs and voters as well as giving some value to all votes, via the additional members.


  • It combines many of the faults of First-Past-The-Post with many of the defects of the list systems of PR.
  • Half of all MPs are not directly accountable to any voters, just to their party leadership, and have no constituency.
  • It creates two types of MP, one with a constituency role and duties and one without such a base.
  • To retain some constituency MPs, constituencies would have to increase in size.
  • The parties would retain power over selecting candidates for constituency seats and would have complete control over choosing their Additional Members.
  • Those who are under-represented today may not fare any better under AMS.
  • In Germany a party can win more constituency seats than its total entitlement, and is allowed to retain its extra seat(s) and the total membership of the Bundestaag is increased by that number over the standard 656.

The Alternative Vote Plus (AV+)

How the System Works:

Like AMS, AV+ is a mixed system composed of two elements, a constituency element and a top-up.  Voters would have two votes – one for a constituency MP and the other from a regional list.

The constituency MPs are elected by the Alternative Vote (AV).   The so-called ‘top-up’ MPs are elected on a corrective basis from open party lists.

The system is not currently used anywhere in the world.  It is the system proposed by the Independent Commission on the Voting System (chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead) to be put to the electorate in a referendum as an alternative to First Past the Post for UK General Elections.

Arguments used in favour:

  • In the constituencies, the winning candidate has the support of at least 50% of the voters.
  • People can vote for the candidates of their choice without fear of wasting their votes.  A voter can vote for, say, the Green Party, knowing that if the Green Party candidate is not successful then their vote will transfer to their second preference.  Tactical voting is no longer needed.
  • It is a broadly proportional system.
  • Everyone will have an incentive to vote, because their vote will count.
  • In the top-up section, voters will be able to choose the best candidate to represent their party.


  • Constituencies will be slightly larger than at present.
  • As with AMS, there will be two categories of MPs.

Past Paper Questions

Q1 AO1 5 MARKS – 5 MINUTES, but try to get it down in 3/4 MINUTES

This brief question should only take you 5 minutes and is marked according to Assessment Objective One [AO1]. This means that to gain full marks you need to “demonstrate accurate and relevant factual knowledge [defining terms / concepts; providing examples; describing institutions / processes; identifying arguments / theories etc”. In order to achieve 5/5 the examiners would expect “detailed and / or developed knowledge”. You can access 5/5 by making 5 different points ( For example 5 features of liberal democracy in response to the question define liberal democracy) or by providing 2 features in detail where questions specify two features and then by developing them further. Obviously questions that ask for an example must include one. A very good way of achieving 5/5 is to answer the question in the first sentence and then develop it with further explanation and examples:

For example “A pressure group is an organisation that represents either a cause or a section of society and seeks to put pressure on those in authority/government to adopt the policies that they support” would be a good opening sentence which you could then take further by distinguishing, with examples, between cause and sectional pressure groups and then showing how they seek to influence the public in favour of their point of view and do not aim to establish a government.

Whenever you make a point in the exam you must immediately support it with detail; if you do not you will not be given marks for it. For example, if you stated that the 1983 General Election provided an example of adversarial politics you would then have to provide evidence to explain why this was the case. Leave nothing to chance, therefore, in your explanations!

a) Outline the workings of the Additional Member System. (5 Marks)

It is a hybrid system, i.e. a combination of two systems running side by side. A proportion of the total seats in the Parliament or assembly operate on the basis of first past the post. In Scotland and Wales this is about two thirds of the total seats. The other third of the seats are elected on the basis of a regional list system (see above). There is a variation in Scotland and Wales. The regional list seats are not awarded proportionally. There is a ‘differential top‐up’. This means that parties which do less well in the constituency elections, are awarded more than their proportional share in the regional list seats. This counteracts the distorting effects of the first past the post section. The result is a broadly proportional outcome overall. The method for deciding which parties win regional top‐up seats in the regional legislatures is known as the d’Hondt system. Firstly, party list votes are added together from each of the constituencies making up the region. These totals are then divided by the number of seats each party has won ‐ plus one. The party with the highest resulting total elects one Additional Member, and this process continues until all the regional seats have been filled.

a) What is the doctrine of the mandate? (5 Marks)

The doctrine of the mandate is the most influential theory of representation in modern politics. It is based on the idea that, in winning an election, a party gains a ‘popular’ mandate that authorizes it to carry out the policies on which it fought the election. These are the policies that are contained in election manifestos. This implies that it is the party, rather than individual politicians, that carries out representation. Politicians serve their constituents not by thinking for themselves (as in the trusteeship model) or being delegates (doing what their constituents wish), but by remaining loyal to their party and its policies.

a) Define proportional representation. (5 Marks)

This is a principle (not a particular system) which emphasises that seats won by a party in a parliament should be in direct proportion to votes cast for that party. For instance, if the Labour Party wins 35% of the vote it should win 35% of the available seats in a parliament. Some electoral systems come much closer to satisfying this principle. Closed Party List and Single Transferable Vote for instance are often considered to be proportional systems because of the relatively proportional outcomes they tend to produce.

a) How do elections promote democracy? (5 Marks)

Democracy is about choice and elections provide that choice. Democracy is about all citizens having an equal input and say in choosing representatives – in elections we all have one vote. Elections are the best mechanism for democracy, given the impracticality of direct democracy. Elections are free for all to contest and stand in… All that is required is a deposit (£500 in general elections). Election campaigns enhance democracy by educating and informing the public. A significant number of elections are on offer in the UK, providing choice and an opportunity to influence the agenda.

a) Distinguish between a mandate and a manifesto. (5 Marks)

A mandate involves being given the right to govern – that is an ‘instruction’ from the electorate that gives an authority (a political party for instance) the right to act in a particular way. A manifesto is a set of promises made by a political party to the electorate. This gives the electorate a guide when it comes to voting. A mandate is often claimed by a political party if their party wins a majority of seats. They will argue that the electorate appear to have supported their manifesto and thus they have been given the right to govern. Of course the question of the mandate is complicated in situations where no party wins an overall majority.

a) Outline the workings of the Party List electoral system. (5 Marks)

a) Describe three different elections regularly held in the UK. (5 Marks)

a) What is meant by the term party system? (5 Marks)

A ‘party system’ is the description of a political system indicating approximately how many political parties gain significant representation and influence. The nature of party systems varies from single-dominant-party systems, two-party systems, through to multi-party systems. It could be argued that there are a number of party systems operating in the UK. For general elections to Westminster there -may now be a multi-party system, given the likelihood that Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and the SNP all compete for power. After 2010 Westminster operated with a ‘two-and-a-half party system’, and prior to that it was a two party system. This demonstrates the degree to which the system is currently in flux.

a) Outline the workings of the single transferable vote electoral system. (5 Marks)

See the B Question Below…

a) Outline two functions of elections.(5 Marks) (2014)

Ensure representation – first, they create a link between government and the people. This helps ensure that constituent’s concerns and grievances are properly articulated and addressed. Second, the establish a more general link between the government of the day and public opinion – elections give the people final control over the government.  Upholding legitimacy – elections play a crucial role in maintaining legitimacy. Legitimacy is important because it provides the key to maintaining political stability. It ensures that citizens recognise that they have an obligation to obey the law and respect their system of government. Elections uphold legitimacy by providing a ritualised means through which citizens ‘consent’ to being governed: the act of voting.

a) Outline the workings of the Regional Party List system. (5 Marks) (2015)

See the B Question Below…

a) Outline two differences between elections and referendums (5 Marks) (2016)


This question is more challenging and 7 of the 10 marks will be awarded for AO1 and 3 will be awarded for AO2.

This means you will have two marks on this question. AO1, examines “accurate and relevant factual knowledge”, but AO2 takes this further and requires that candidates show the “ability to explain, not just describe [giving reasons for, or causes of, something; showing how something works]”.

This means that candidates do not simply explain an issue, but they also provide some ANALYSIS as well.

b) How has the use of AMS affected party representation in the UK? (10 Marks)

The Additional Member System is employed for elections to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh Assembly. AMS is a hybrid system – a mixture of FPTP and Closed Party (regional) List.

It has meant that a wider and more diverse range of political parties have been elected than under FPTP.  This has meant that more political parties have enjoyed administrative power, such as the Liberal Democrats who formerly shared power in the Scottish parliament with Labour.  It has reduced the dominance of the Labour Party in both Wales and Scotland. It has not become the automatic or ‘natural’ party of government.  It has revived and enhanced the fortunes of the nationalist parties Plaid Cymru and the SNP to the point where the SNP have formed a majority government since 2011.

Even though the general message here is that AMS has allowed the smaller parties to flourish the system does still have a significant element of majoritarianism (most MSPs selected under the FPTP element) which allows a party such as the SNP with strong concentrated support to do well. The SNP cannot really be considered a smaller party in the Scottish context.  So, overall it tends toward coalition and to allowing for some representation for smaller parties such as the Lib Dems, Greens, and the Conservatives (we are in Scotland and Wales remember). However, AMS is not fully proportional and thus does allow for the possibility of majority government.

b) Explain the workings of three electoral systems used in the UK. (10 Marks)

Basic description of first past the post (fptp) – Also known as simple plurality.In constituencies voters choose between different candidates and can only vote for one of those candidates. Voters cannot show any preference between candidates from the same party but must accept the chosen candidate from each party. The candidate who receives the most votes (known as a plurality) is elected. It is not necessary for a candidate to achieve an absolute majority (50% plus) to be elected. For instance 434 of the 650 MPs were returned in 2010 with less than half of the constituency vote. In general elections the party that receives an absolute majority or, failing that, more seats than any other party, is expected to form a government.

Basic operation of the regional list system (Party List) The country is divided into several regions. In each region parties are invited to submit a list of candidates with up to the number seats available in the region on that list. Voters choose between the list of parties and can only vote once. Within each region seats are awarded to each party in general proportion to the votes cast for the party.A closed list system means that the candidates are elected in the order in which they are placed on the list by the party leaders (the UK system for European elections). The outcome is highly proportional, e.g. at the 2009 Euros UKIP took 16% of the vote and were awarded 13 of the 72 available seats.

Basic operation of Single Transferable Vote (STV) Constituencies return more than one member, normally between 4 and 6 (6 in the Northern Ireland Assembly). Each party may put up candidates up to the number of seats available in the constituency. Voters may vote for any or all of the candidates in their own order of preference. They may use as many or as few votes as they wish. Voters may place candidates from the same party in any order, whatever the parties may recommend. They can also vote for candidates from different parties. For a candidate to be elected s/he must achieve a quota of votes. The quota is calculated as the total votes cast divided by the number of seats plus one. Finally one is added to the total. That is the electoral quota. Any candidates who achieve the quota on first preference votes are elected immediately. Thereafter the spare subsequent preference votes of elected candidates are distributed to the other candidates until the required number of candidates have achieved the quota. If after surplus votes are redistributed the desired number of candidates is not achieved, the bottom placed candidates are eliminated and their preference votes are re‐allocated.

b) Why have systems of PR been introduced in the UK since 1997? (10 Marks)

In 1997 a Labour government was elected that in opposition had developed a policy commitment to democratic renewal – indeed this pledge was included in their manifesto of that year. Under Neil Kinnock and John Smith extensive reviews were taken of ways to update Britain’s constitutional arrangements. In 1990 the Labour Party set up the Plant Commission to review the election system, and it reported back with the recommendation that first past the post be scrapped, though the panel stopped short of proposing a move to a proportional system. Tony Blair, who was not a man given over to deep thinking about the workings of the constitution, inherited a party that, with a push from groups such as Charter88, was committed to reforming the architecture of British government. Electoral reform therefore formed part of a more general commitment.

According to Vernon Bogdanor the Additional Member System was introduced as a means of containing the threat of the Scottish National Party. The Scots Nats have long been considered as a major electoral threat by the Labour leadership, and many within the party were mindful of the fact that the SNP’s high levels of concentrated support sees them to do quite well out of first past the post. People such as Smith and Gordon Brown feared that Labour would endure long spells of SNP government and a proportional system therefore would not allow the SNP a large majority. And so it has proved. Since 2007 the SNP have governed, but as a minority administration only. Others have stated that the commitment to PR for the Scottish Parliament can be traced back to the convention on the proposed new assembly in 1987, a time when Labour were worried they could never win another election under FPTP. Therefore, a proposal for a new assembly written today, might come up with a recommendation for retaining FPTP.

The Single Transferable Vote has been used in Northern Ireland since it guards against the threat that politics in the province would be dominated by one side of the community. In this way it is intended to provide a peaceful solution to the problems caused by Nationalist and Unionist divides. STV allows a great deal of choice not only between camps but also within them, allowing voters to be represented fairly.

STV has been in place in Scottish local elections since 2007, largely due to the fact that it was the bargaining chip used by the Liberal Democrats when negotiating the conditions of the 2003‐07 governing coalition with Labour. The Lib Dems had been long term advocates of STV. The Party List has been introduced for the election of MEPs from the British mainland in order to bring the country into line with the rest of Europe. Since the Treaty of Rome, it has been an objective that the European Parliament contains members who were elected under similar conditions and Britain since 1973 has been party to the Rome Treaty. Internal Labour Party politics are said to have played a part in the choice of the closed party list system. Matt Cole writes that one Labour MP thought Jack Straw, a long term supporter of FPTP, settled on the closed party list in a cynical attempt to discredit PR. Others have said that it was a deal brokered, back of the envelope style, between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown in the late 1990s.

Therefore there are a number of disparate reasons for PR’s introduction. Britain’s use of a record number of different electoral systems can charitably be explained as pragmatic responses to particular problems, while cynics would view this outcome as a natural consequence of the muddled and haphazard thinking that has characterised recent reforms to the British constitution.

b) Distinguish between majoritarian representation and proportional representation. (10 Marks)

Majoritarian representation occurs in a system such as FPTP in which larger parties typically win a higher proportion of seats than the proportion of votes they gain in the election. This increases the chances of a single party gaining a parliamentary majority.

(it is important to note that majoritarian systems are defined by the impact on the allocation of seats. A ‘majority system’ on the other hand is one where candidates must win a majority of votes in their constituency ie AV and SV. Please don’t confuse them).

Proportional representation is a principle in which the proportion of seats won in a parliament corresponds closely to the proportion of votes cast. In a perfectly proportional system a party would win 50% of seats on 50% of the vote. Some electoral systems ie STV come closer to achieving perfect proportionality than others ie FPTP

b) Explain three advantages of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. (10 Marks)

b) Explain the workings of three electoral systems used in the UK. (10 Marks)

b) Explain three criticisms of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. (10 Marks)

Lack of proportionality (and thus unfairness); wasted votes; tactical voting; in UK general elections no longer produces what it promises – strong, stable, single party government; safe seats (all kinds of implications re participation and electoral deserts where parties don’t campaign); governments only supported by a minority of the population – thus single party government not desirable; better decisions made in coalitions where form of consensus politics emerges etc.

b) Explain three strengths of “first-past-the-post‟ electoral system. (10 Marks)

b) Explain how and why party representation may be affected by any three different electoral systems. (10 Marks)

FPTP; exaggerates support for the largest parties and penalises smaller parties. Most parties which contest the election do not end up with representation. In the House of Commons, historically it has tended to support a two-party system. However, during the last 25 years a more complex picture has emerged, particularly with increased representation for nationalist parties at the expense of Labour and Conservative.  It can lead to parties having no or few representatives in large areas of the country, for example Conservatives in Scotland and Labour in the southeast.

Closed Party List/Regional List; used in European Parliament elections. It produces highly proportional outcomes.This tends to produce a multi-party system. In the UK this has offered representation to smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens which have tended to fare badly under FPTP in general elections. UKIP actually won the largest share of the vote, and number of seats (27% of the vote and 24 MEPs out of 73 in total).

b) Using examples, distinguish between a two-party system and a multi-party system. (10 Marks)

A two party system is a system that is dominated by two ‘major’ parties that have a roughly equal prospect of winning government power. Although a number of ‘minor’ parties may exist, only two parties enjoy sufficient electoral and parliamentary strength to have a realistic chance of winning government power. The larger of the two parties is able to rule alone, the other party provides the opposition. It could be argued that there was a classic two party in the UK system between 1945 and 1970.

A multiparty system is a party system in which more than two parties compete for power. No single party enjoys sufficient electoral or parliamentary strength to have a realistic prospect of winning government power alone. Governments tend to be either coalitions or minority administrations. Plenty of examples – European Parliament system for example

b) Explain the workings of Three electoral systems in the UK.(10 Marks) (2014)

b) Explain Three disadvantages of proportional representation. (10 Marks) (2015)

b) Explain Three ways in which elections promote democracy. (10 Marks) (2016)



The essay question examines 3 Assessment Objectives for both the 25 and 40 mark questions.

AO1: Understanding and examples 8 MARKS / 20 MARKS

A02: Evaluation / Structure 9 MARKS / 12 MARKS

AO3: Clarity of writing and apt use of political vocabulary 8 MARKS / 8 MARKS

A good essay will have to show IMPRESSIVE FACTUAL UNDERSTANDING, combined with a great deal of INTERESTING DEBATE and an impressive OVERALL SENSE OF STRUCTURE. This means that the essay has a very clear introduction which sets out what the issues you are going to debate are and hints at which are the most significant:

Then there needs to be lots of evaluation and analysis and, at the end an intelligent and interesting conclusion. Throughout the essay you will need to be self consciously deploying appropriate words – thus in an essay on to what extent the UK is democratic it would be vital that you explain the significance of KEY TERMS such as LEGITIMACY.

If all of these criteria are fulfilled you will achieve highly on all the assessment objectives.


The Chief Examiner also points out that whatever essay you do you will be EXPECTED TO EVALUATE BOTH SIDES OF AN ARGUMENT AND IN YOUR CONCLUSION EXPLAIN CONVINCINGLY how you have arrived at that conclusion.

c) Should proportional representation be introduced for elections to the House of Commons? (25 Marks)

c) Assess the advantages of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. (25 Marks)

c) Assess the criticisms of the various electoral systems used in the UK. (25 Marks)

c) Make out a case in favour of the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster elections. (25 Marks)

c) How far does the Westminster electoral system ensure strong and stable government? (25 Marks)

c) Should the Westminster electoral system be reformed? (25 Marks)

 c) Make out a case in favour of retaining the ‘first past the post’ electoral system for the House of Commons. (25 Marks)

c) To what extent do different electoral systems produce different outcomes? (25 Marks)

c) Assess the advantages of using proportional representation electoral systems. (25 Marks)

Maybe note for a start – PR (not a system in itself, like STV or Regional List, but rather a classification of type of system) should be employed because it is fairer. The relationship between votes cast and seats won is closer than under majoritarian systems such as FPTP. That is, a perfectly proportional system would be one where if Labour won 20% of the vote it would win 20% of the seats, Conservatives with 30% of the vote would win 30% of the seats etc.

Essay itself:

Multimember constituencies are good because the electorate are likely to have at least some representation. Individuals have an increased choice, including those representatives more closely aligned to their political viewpoint. For example, Labour voters may be disinclined from contacting a Conservative MP.

However, the intimate link between constituent and MP is likely to be lost. Constituencies will tend to be larger than under FPTP making it more difficult to see a representative face to face. With multiple representatives it may be more difficult for individuals who may not be particularly politically aware to know which one to contact. This could lead to confusion.

PR tends to produce coalition government. This is good because more parties are represented in parliament and the two largest parties do not tend to dominate. This makes it unlikely that a single party will win a majority of seats and be able to govern alone. It is preferable because it leads to a more consensual type of politics. Consensual politics is better because there are fewer radical policy swings following elections. It tends toward greater cooperation and thus better policy, rather than the type of adversarial points scoring that takes place following elections under FPTP.

However, it could be argued that coalition governments tend to be weak and unstable. Coalitions are vulnerable to ideological differences between parties and although individual parties do have internal divisions they also possess a significant sense of loyalty. Smaller parties in particular are likely to exploit their status in order to extract as many concessions as possible. We haven’t seen this from the Lib Dems since 2010 but if a party such as UKIP or, particularly, the SNP, are part of a governing coalition with little interest in maintaining stability then significant tensions can be envisaged. If more than 2 parties are in government, and possibly quite radically different ideological differences accommodated, this could be difficult also.

It could be argued that coalition government often means that more people have voted for the government in power. This results in greater legitimacy. For example, if we add the Conservative and Lib Dem vote in the 2010 general election this constitutes 36% (Conservative share of vote) plus 23% (Lib Dem share). So 59% of people voted for one of the parties of government.

However, it is not clear that those people voting for their respective parties have actually voted for a coalition. They will probably have expected some form of representation based on the doctrine of the mandate – this is based on the idea that parties produce manifestos and promise to implement them if they get into power. People thus know what to expect. Nobody voted for a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. The Coalition Agreement was produced after the election. Thus, coalition government is less legitimate. This problem can be illustrated using the example of the Lib Dems and tuition fees. Many people (particularly younger people) voted for the Lib Dems on the basis of their pledge to scrap university tuition fees (apparently). After forming a coalition they were forced to engage in a complete u-turn and vote for a big hike in fees. Arguably the Lib Dems are still suffering the effects of this break with the idea of mandate democracy, to which the UK public are wedded. Also, related to the point above, it could be argued that the ability of PR systems to offer greater choice(to the voter) by offering smaller parties some representation is an illusion. Once groups of parties come together in coalition their distinctive policies are diluted. We end up with a rather insipid consensual centrism. More radical parties ie the Greens have to compromise and the voter is left just as disappointed as if they had failed to gain any representation at all (as under FPTP).

PR electoral systems tend to encourage greater participation. Individuals are more likely to vote if they feel that their vote ‘counts’ and PR systems tend to remove the problem of ‘safe seats’. For example, there is little incentive for me to vote if I support a party other than the Conservatives in a safe Conservative seat. There is actually little incentive even if I am a Conservative, as I can assume that they will win the seat comfortably without my engagement. PR systems also tend to remove the tendency toward ‘tactical voting’ experienced in a system such as FPTP. Voters do not have to vote for the party/candidate they least dislike, because their own party/candidate preference is likely to achieve some measure of representation.

However, it is unclear that PR systems actually have increased participation. For example, elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have produced turnouts of only (approx) 50% and 43% respectively. This is significantly lower than the turnout in general elections employing the FPTP electoral system (although it has to be said that we are comparing ‘first order’ elections with ‘second order’ elections of slightly less significance).

Related to some of the points above, PR systems offer greater choice to the electorate. As a result a broader range of political opinion can be expressed and achieve representation. If we use the example of the European Parliament elections, six parties (UKIP, Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru) achieved representation (I haven’t included the N Irish parties in this).

However, a number of points can be made as a rejoinder. Multiple parties have also achieved some representation at least under FPTP in general elections (Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, UKIP, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru). Also, it could be argued that it is a good thing to exclude more extreme parties. That is, it is a good idea that the British National Party are denied representation. Under PR systems they are more likely to win seats (as they did in the European Parliament in the 2009 elections, and in the London Assembly (AMS system) in 2008).

c) Should ‘first past the post’ continue to be used for elections to the House of Commons? 

c) Assess the advantages of the various electoral systems used in the UK (25 Marks) (2014)

Intro: some mention of the introduction of a number of electoral systems in the UK in recent years – since 1999 the Regional List (Party List) system for European elections; since 1999 AMS for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; STV used for the NI Assembly and for Scottish local elections also; Supplementary Vote (SV) for London Mayoral elections. This has made such a question more topical and interesting in recent years, particularly with the concern about electoral reform for Westminster elections.

FPTP (General elections) –

It results in strong and stable government. This is because it tends toward a two party system and single party government. This avoids the problems of coalition government. Coalitions are often problematic because of ideological disputes, and for the problem of minor parties attempting to extract concessions and achieve ‘policy wins’ through the threat of exit and thus government collapse. This not only produces instability but it is also undemocratic because smaller parties in the coalition can exert far more influence than their support in the society as a whole warrants.

However, it looks increasingly likely that FPTP will struggle to deliver single party government. This is caused by a number of factors, notably the declining popularity of the two main parties. In the 1950s over 90% of the electorate voted Labour or Conservative compared to 65% in 2010. This percentage is likely to fall still further. Even though FPTP favours the two main parties by allowing them to win more seats than their percentage of the vote warrants, they are still losing seats to third, fourth and fifth parties (the Lib Dems; the nationalist parties, particularly in Scotland; UKIP, and even the Greens). This all makes it much more difficult to achieve a majority in the House of Commons.

It produces a strong bond between constituent and representative. This is one of the main reasons for its popularity with the public. People tend to know who their MP is, and an increasing number contact them for a whole range of issues/problems. This is important for democracy because it provides a link between individual and parliament (see questions by backbenchers at PMQs relating to constituent issues for example). Larger constituencies and multiple representatives loosen this bond. People are more likely to be unclear who their representatives are and are thus less likely to contact them.

However, voters have also noted that they are happy to be able to contact a representative whose political views more closely resemble their own. In a single member constituency it is (increasingly) likely that a majority of the constituency have not voted for their representative. If we include those who did not vote also, a representative may have been elected by a very small percentage of the electorate.

FPTP has been endorsed in a referendum in 2011. There is no popular appetite for change.

However, the only choice available was a system that may have benefited the larger parties to a similar degree. AV is certainly not a proportional system. Also, the referendum became more of a judgement of the popularity (or lack of) of Nick Clegg. It is not clear that the public fully understood the effects of FPTP, or the possible benefits of AV (or any other system for that matter). There was very little attempt to explain and inform the public. Most of the campaign was party political mud slinging.

STV (Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections; Scottish local elections) –

it offers more choice to the voter through a ranking system. This is important because it reduces the control of parties over candidates and thus over the ideological nature of the party as a whole. For example, Labour may field a range of candidates with quite different views on a number of issues ie EU membership, privatisation, deficit reduction strategy, gay marriage etc. The voter can choose which candidate most closely resembles their particular political preferences rather than having a single candidate imposed on them by the party hierarchy.

However, STV could be seen to be too complicated. The average voter does not follow politics closely and will be confused by the plethora of choice available. This could lead to ‘donkey voting’, whereby voters just blindly choose candidates from the top downward.

Regional Party List (European Parliament) –

More proportional results which allow for representation of smaller parties. This could result in a more accurate gauge of true political opinion, compared to general elections under FPTP which encourage tactical voting. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP won 27% of the vote and a third of the seats (24 seats out of 73) and the Green Party won almost 8% of the vote and just over 4% of the seats (3/73).

However,  this may allow small extremist parties to gain representation. The British National Party (BNP) won seats in previous European Parliament Elections. They would definitely be considered extremist. It is possible to argue that both UKIP and the Greens, from different ends of the political spectrum are also relatively extreme (depending on your viewpoint obviously).

A closed list system can allow parties to select candidates from minorities and relatively under-represented groups (ie women). Only just over one fifth of MPs in the House of Commons are women for example.

However, the closed list gives huge power to parties. The voter gets no choice over which candidate they elect. Compare this to STV, which offers great choice, or even FPTP in which voters know which candidates they are choosing.

AMS (Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly) –

Additional Member System attempts to combine the advantages of two different systems – FPTP and Party List. Thus it maintains the close bond between electorate and representative offered under FPTP while introducing a degree of proportionality, and thus fairer representation for smaller parties.

However, it has been suggested that this produces two different classes of MPs. The MPs elected under FPTP are often considered to be more legitimate than those under party list (selected by parties rather than the electorate). The party list MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) are often thought to be just making up the numbers – they have little connection to their electorate given the large constituencies and the already existing MSPs elected under FPTP.

c) Make out a case in favour of electoral reform for Westminster elections. (25 Marks) (2015)

Explain what PR is. There are a number of electoral systems in use within the UK now. Some are more proportional than others. Proportional representation refers to the existence of a close link between proportion/percentage of votes cast and proportion/percentage of seats won. Some electoral systems, such as Regional List and STV tend to retain this close link. The alternative, a majoritarian system such as FPTP, is one where for a number of reasons larger parties tend to win a disproportionate share of seats in relation to their share of votes.

Case for:

  • Electoral fairness – it is questionable how democratic a system such as FPTP is. Because constituencies only select a single member and because only a plurality of votes is required to win, candidates can be elected on a minority of votes, leaving the political views of a majority of voters unrepresented (stats).
  • A system such as FPTP tends to favour the larger parties because it is easier for them to achieve the plurality of votes needed to win in each constituency area. This leaves smaller parties under-represented in Parliament. A PR type system would rectify this and provide representation for a broader range of opinion.
  • A system such as FPTP tends to produce a significant number of ‘safe seats’ where one of the parties (notably Labour or the Conservatives) win easily. This is problematic because it tends to discourage participation by those who would vote for other parties. In Tottenham for instance Labour incumbent David Lammy has a majority of over 23, 000. There is little incentive to vote if I want to support the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens etc as I know that they have no chance of being elected. Even if I was a Labour supporter, there is little incentive to vote, as I can assume that the Labour candidate will win anyway.
  • Political parties do not tend to campaign in these safe seats. They have no incentive because the result is almost a foregone conclusion. The Labour Party does not need to campaign in Tottenham because they are certain of victory. The other parties do not campaign because they are certain of defeat. This is a problem because parties should have to try to disseminate their message (a manifesto and, more broadly, their political ideology) to a wider public. They should be engaged in persuasion and education, which in turn tends to encourage participation.
  • In PR systems voters are more able to express their real political views rather than being forced to vote tactically as is the case under systems such as FPTP. Under FPTP voters are forced to choose parties that they ‘least dislike’ but which have some chance of winning the seat, rather than the parties that most accurately reflect their political views. Again, this tends to favour the largest parties and discriminates against those parties with support that is limited and/or geographically dispersed (traditionally the Lib Dems). Thus PR would favour parties which currently have limited support. The true support for parties such as the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens is thus unknown. It is likely that a PR type system would increase their representation and make people more likely to vote for them. They may also be more likely to join these parties. See the success of UKIP in the European elections, which employs a proportional ‘Closed Party Regional List’ system, as evidence.
  • PR tends to produce coalition government. More parties are represented in parliament and the two largest parties do not tend to dominate. This makes it more unlikely that a single party will win a majority of seats and be able to govern alone. This is preferable because it leads to a more consensual type of politics. Consensual politics is better because there are fewer radical policy swings following elections. It tends toward greater cooperation and thus better policy, rather than the type of adversarial points scoring that takes place following elections under FPTP.
  • Advantages of coalition government continued. There is a wider range of political opinion represented under an FPTP system. Thus, more people are represented, not only in parliament, but in government also. This tends to produce a more legitimate system. Under FPTP, governments could easily be formed on a minority of the vote.
  • FPTP is increasingly unlikely to do the job it was supposed to do – produce single party majority government (and thus, allegedly, strong and stable government).

c) Assess the merits of different electoral systems operating in the UK. (25 Marks) (2016)

Related articles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.