Electoral reform and the minor parties

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electoral reform and the minor parties

Since 1997 there has been substantial electoral reform in Britain - although the system for electing Members of Parliament to Westminster (the First Past The Post system) remains firmly in place with little prospect of change before the next General Election. FPTP is still the system in operation for elections to County Councils and Unitary Authorities at local government level.

However in the last few years we have seen

(a) the introduction of the Additional Member System (AMS) for elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly

(b) the use of Alternative Vote to elect the London Mayor

(c) the introduction of a regional closed party list system for direct elections to the European Parliament

(d) the use of Single Transferable Vote (STV) for electing representatives to the new Northern Ireland Assembly

How have these new systems affected Britain's minority parties?

The most enthusiastic supporters of electoral reform are normally those parties who claim to be disadvantaged by the current system. The Liberal Democrats (and formerly the SDP and Liberals) have been consistent in wanting to ditch First Past The Post and replace it with a new electoral system. They argue that the simple majority system leads to under-representation of smaller parties whose vote is fairly evenly spread across the country but insufficient to win many seats against the leading two parties, Labour and the Conservatives.

Case Study 1: Scottish Parliament Elections and Welsh Assembly Elections in 1999

The elections to the newly established Scottish parliament were held in May 1999 using the Additional Member System. Under AMS, the existing 73 Scottish "Westminster" constituencies were fought using FPTP. A further 54 seats were allocated using a top-up procedure.

Each region of Scotland was allocated a number of top-up seats, distributed among parties by use of the "highest-average" calculation. Voters had cast a second vote for a political party. These second votes were counted and then allocated to parties on the basis of the highest average vote. But parties that had won seats under the FPTP elections started off with a higher divider - so that parties with no or few seats under FPTP were more likely to win the top-up seats.

The final result in Scotland demonstrated how electoral reform benefits parties with little hope of significant representation under FPTP. Labour secured fifty-three seats under FPTP and would have earned a decisive majority in the…

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