8 May 2015

Don’t be so quick to trash Britain’s voting system


NEW YORK – A night can be a long time in politics. Even after the 10 o’clock exit poll suggested a good night for Cameron and the SNP, and a bad one for Labour and UKIP, few in the U.K. or watching the election from afar could have expected to wake up to Friday’s news that the Tories had won an outright majority.

The one sure thing in the run up to the U.K. elections was that Parliament would be hung, and coalition politics would be Britain’s new normal. Pundits boned up on 1885 and Charles Parnell. Labour leader Ed Miliband was already practicing bullying the SNP. Even well into the small hours Thursday night, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon could be heard on the BBC, predicting an anyone-but-Cameron coalition would lock the PM out of No. 10.

That didn’t happen, although that didn’t stop Ms. Sturgeon from having perhaps the best night of all. With 56 out of 58 Scottish seats in the hands of the nationalists—Labour and the Lib Dems clung to one apiece north of the border—the SNP could hardly have done better.

Ms. Sturgeon does not hold the balance of power in the United Kingdom, as most expected, but her party’s 56 seats does raise some difficult questions nonetheless. UKIP supporters will note that their candidates received 12.6% of the vote across the country at last count, compared to the SNP’s 4.7%. But UKIP came away with just a single seat—Douglas Carswell’s in Clacton. UKIP even handily outperformed the Lib Dems in total votes. But as little as the Lib Dems have to show for their 7.8% support (eight seats), UKIP has less.

Is it all very unfair then, this first-past-the-post business? The Lib Dems will tell you so, and who knows? UKIP could soon join them. But don’t believe those who say that first-past-the-post is undemocratic, or that these results are perverse or inequitable or unjust. This week’s election is not the reductio ad absurdum of single-seat, single-vote constituencies, but their vindication.

Is it “fair” that one nationalist party (UKIP), with nearly 3x the votes of another, ends up with a single seat against the smaller party’s 56? There is a hidden premise in that question that the supporters of proportional representation never mention. They assume that the relevant unit of account in politics is not the person, but the party.

Parties matter a great deal in today’s Britain of course. But first-past-the-post allows voters to choose between people. Thus, Douglas Alexander can lose to 20-year-old Mhairi Black in Paisley and Renfrewshire South. You had better believe that in a PR system, the opposition party’s campaign chief would be high enough on a list somewhere to ensure his job security. Because proportional representation gives more power to party bosses at the expense of individual voters and individual candidates. So too with Mr. Carswell, the ex-Tory incumbent in Clacton, re-elected largely on his personal popularity and political skill. This is an intensely local sort of politics that party lists tend to scour away.

Consider again the case of Scotland. The SNP’s support north of the border is clearly intense, as well as being more demographically concentrated than UKIP’s more diffused backing. If we diluted the SNP’s support throughout the U.K. electorate, the nationalists would have ended up with about 30 seats instead of 56. UKIP’s share of the vote meanwhile would have netted the party 82 seats in Westminster. Under this straightforward translation of votes, the Tories would be on 240 this morning and Labour on 198. Would this be “better”? Would it more truly reflect the elusive will of the people? Only, once more, if you believe that what voters are choosing are parties, not people. There is a whiff of dehumanizing collectivism in that premise—just a whiff mind you, but I suspect that’s why conservatives tend to be more wary than the left of PR-type reforms.

The British electoral system is far from perfect. Constituencies vary in size to a scandalous degree, and in a way that systematically favors Labour. The Lib Dems, to their shame, blocked reform of this gerrymander in the last Parliament, and the Tories would do well to revisit the matter.

But when those candidates stand on stage at each count, waiting for the returning officer to deliver the judgment of the voters, we get to see a raw, personal sort of democracy that no party list system can recreate. Results that seem perverse in the collective are each the perfectly natural product of the choices of thousands in hundreds of constituencies. And there’s a virtue in that too—in the conviction that in any given constituency, a candidate can buck the swing, win over his neighbors, and receive from them a ticket to Westminster.

Mr. Carney is former editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.