The effect of different voting systems

Coalition governments and new voting systems

An important consequence of the adoption of proportional (or partly proportional) electoral systems is that coalition or minority governments have become much more common in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is in contrast with Westminster, which continues to experience single party rule as the norm (with the sole but important exception in modern times of the 2010-15 coalition). However, the worst predictions made by critics of proportional representation have not been fulfilled. Coalition governments in different parts of the UK have not proved to be inherently unstable and, unlike in some other countries that use PR, there have not been frequent changes of government. The devolved administrations have mostly served for sustained periods.

The politics of compromise

One result of the use of proportional voting systems in parts of the UK is a change to the way in which governments are formed and policy is made. Negotiations between political parties, which remain rare at Westminster, are the normal way in which business is conducted in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Majority government has been the exception to the rule in Scotland. When it was in a minority, the SNP government had to win the support of other parties in order to pass legislation. In February 2011, in order to win support for its budget, the administration had to make concessions to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In response to claims that its budget did not do enough to promote economic recovery, the SNP agreed to measures to increase youth employment and training. Claims that new voting systems would produce a more consensual style of politics have not entirely been fulfilled. There has been conflict on the central issue of Scottish independence, since the SNP is outnumbered by parties that support the Union.

In Wales Labour has consistently been the strongest party but, the proportional element of AMS has frequently denied it the opportunity to govern alone. Like the SNP in Scotland, Welsh Labour has so far formed only one majority administration.

In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement requires that representatives of the main unionist and nationalist parties are included in the executive. The choice of STV for Assembly elections guarantees that members of the two rival communities are elected, rather than Northern Ireland submitting to single-party domination, a scenario that could risk a return to sectarian violence.

The first minister and deputy first minister — nominated by the two largest parties — are equal in status and share governmental responsibilities. The system of government is designed to ensure joint participation by unionists and nationalists or republicans.

Northern Ireland

By contrast, at Westminster, the main parties remain in an adversarial relationship, with one major opposition party clearly playing the role of an alternative government and smaller parties having much less influence. From the 1995 to the 2010 general election, the electoral system for Westminster tended to favour the Labour Party - a trend now beginning to reverse. This was because with FPTP the distribution of votes is important. In the Blair-Brown era, safe Labour seats tended to have lower populations, as the revision of constituency boundaries had not kept pace with the movement of people away from inner cities to more affluent suburban and rural areas. In short, it took fewer votes to return a Labour MP than a Conservative. This, together with a slightly lower average turnout in the seats it held, gave Labour an advantage. The Conservatives' vote

was less efficiently distributed across the constituencies. This unevenness does not occur under proportional systems.

Policy-making in devolved governments

Sub-national governments have used their devolved powers to differentiate themselves in terms of policy from what happens at Westminster. Under the Scottish Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition

it was decided that university students in Scotland would not pay tuition fees, and elderly people would receive free nursing care. In both Scotland and Wales, prescription charges were abolished. None of these benefits were extended to people living in England. This means that there is no longer a uniform welfare state across the UK. This can be directly attributed to the selection of AMS as the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament. It ensured that, by obliging it to enter coalition with the centre-left Liberal Democrats, Scottish Labour did not follow the rightward drift of the party at Westminster in the New Labour era.

Effects on party representation

The adoption of fully or partly proportional systems has assisted smaller parties to varying extents. The systems used in 'second order' elections are not affected to the same degree as FPTP by the geographical distribution of votes. So in the 2015 General Election, the only third parties that did well were those, like the SNP or DUP, that campaigned in particular regions of the UK where their support is concentrated. Smaller parties have a vested interest in reforming the electoral system but little realistic chance of achieving it. The experience of coalition government at Westminster has not encouraged a public demand for reform. This is despite the fact that in 2015 almost a quarter of the electorate voted for a party other than the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

AMS in Scotland

Ever since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 – with the Additional Member System (AMS) chosen as the mechanism by which MSPs would be elected – parties have been accused of trying to “game the system”.  AMS involves two ballots: one for constituency MSPs who are elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP), like their Westminster counterparts; the other for MSPs on regional lists. In general, the more constituencies a party wins in any region, the fewer list seats it will secure.

The dominant party – once Labour, now the SNP – will win the bulk of the constituencies and so, some insist, putting your cross beside those parties on the list is a “wasted” vote. Smaller parties often use this argument to piggy-back on larger ones. The pro-independence Scottish Green Party has consistently appealed to left-leaning independence supporters to lend it their second vote. In 2003 the party’s Second Vote Green campaign won them seven list MSPs, up six from 1999.

Like the Greens, Alba has been urging SNP supporters to vote for its list candidates on 6 May by dangling the prospect of a pro-independence “supermajority”.  

For the first three parliaments, AMS produced predictable results – two Labour-Lib Dem coalitions followed by an SNP minority government. But then, in 2011, the SNP gained a majority – something that was supposed to be impossible for any party.

Jack McConnell, who was general secretary of Scottish Labour when AMS was adopted and served as first minister from 2001-07, claimed the voting system has not always performed as anticipated. “The threshold of who gets seats from the lists is erratic,” he said. “And they were meant to compensate parties for losing out under FPTP, not operate like a separate election.”

And yet, Willie Sullivan, the director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland, insisted that AMS is far superior to FPTP. He points out the 2011 result was, in fact, the one in which the number of seats secured by the parties most closely mirrored their share of the vote.

Case Study STV in Scottish Local Elections 

Effects on voter choice

AMS allows people two votes, for a constituency and a list candidate. Even more choice is offered by STV, where a preferential voting system allows voters to differentiate not only between political parties but also between candidates from the same party. STV involves fewer 'wasted' votes than FPTP, and offers greater potential to choose the winning candidate because of its proportional character. SV allows voters a first and a second preference vote.

All of these systems provide more choice than FPTP, under which voters can choose only one candidate. If they live in a safe seat, even this has little chance of affecting the expected outcome.

Devolution in Scotland 

AMS in Wales

All Assembly elections to date have seen Labour emerge as easily the largest party, but without a working majority. This has led to Labour minority or Labour-led coalition governments throughout. Astonishingly, Labour has never gone below 26 seats (in 2007) nor past 30 seats (in 2003 and 2011), despite its overall share of the vote varying dramatically (in 2016, losing nearly eight points in terms of its constituency support- down to 34.7 % from 42.3% in the previous election). The bottom line is that the scope for a change of government altogether, that is without Labour in it is incredibly narrow. 

Devolution in Wales 

Two thirds of the Assembly seats are elected via FPTP and only one third via PR, which critics argue is nowhere near enough to compensate the majoritarian element in the system. By comparison, the Scottish Parliament’s version of AMS to elect the 129 members uses a 57:43% split between the FPTP and PR seats. With voter turnout in Assembly elections hovering at around 45-46% at best, and at 38.2% at worst, critics argue that Labour dominance is undermining Welsh democracy.

In May 2022 the First Minister of Wales and the leader of Plaid Cymru (who have a co-operation deal with the Labour government) issued a joint statement setting out plans for electoral reform.

The key reforms proposed are to increase the size of the Senedd from 60 to 96 and to replace AMS with a closed regional list system with 16 multi-member constituencies. Each of these constituencies will be formed of two of the 32 new Westminster constituencies due to be introduced in 2023 as set out in the boundary review.

Under this system, the party will decide the hierarchy of candidates on the list – voters will not be able to express a preference for a particular candidate. Labour and Plaid Cymru also propose to introduce mandatory gender quotas by ‘zipping’ the list with men and women candidates included in alternate positions on the list.

It is expected that these reforms will be in place for the next Senedd election in 2026.

No proposals for electoral reform are currently being considered in Scotland or Northern Ireland.