Ian Swanson: We’re still searching for perfect electoral system

Every voting system has its drawbacks
Every voting system has its drawbacks
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THE SNP has more MPs than it deserves, two out of three votes were “wasted” and Theresa May could have won a majority if she had got an extra 533 votes in nine seats.

These are among the conclusions of a study of the 2017 election by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).

It has long campaigned for a new voting system and says the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system is more like a lottery. But what to put in its place?

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which is used for council elections in Scotland is the reformers’ first choice.

It uses multi-member constituencies and asks voters to rank candidates 1, 2, 3, etc in order of preference.

But it has a fundamental flaw - that everything depends on how many candidates a party decides to put up in any seat. Field too many candidates and the party can lose out on a seat because its votes are split; or field too few and it could miss out on a seat.

There’s also the problem of candidates whose names come early in the alphabet outpolling party colleagues - which has seen some senior councillors unceremoniously kicked out.

And Edinburgh’s experience at the council elections in May highlights other issues, which would apply to any proportional system.

Although the SNP emerged as the biggest party, its 19 seats out of 63 was nowhere near a majority and some sort of coalition was inevitable.

There was a long delay in forming the administration, but the eventual SNP-Labour deal was always the most likely outcome. There is a good case for that partnership: despite their differences over independence for Scotland, the two parties have many policies in common and they had already been in coalition for five years.

But equally the other parties could argue the election result had been a vote for change - Labour, which had been the biggest party, lost nine of its seats, the Tories gained seven and the Greens and the Lib Dems also increased their numbers.

And it is worth pondering that throughout the weeks of deadlock, it was Labour’s position which was crucial in deciding what shape a new administration would take - despite the party arguably being the biggest losers in the election. The Tories can now point to the fact that although they won only one fewer seat than the victorious SNP they are excluded from power, while Labour - which slumped from first to third place - is still in joint charge of the city.

Other options to replace FPTP include the Alternative Vote, which uses 1, 2, 3 voting in single-member constituencies, requiring a candidate to get 50 per cent of the vote to be elected. But it is not really a proportional system and was rejected by 68 per cent to 32 in the referendum held by the Conservative-Lib Dem UK coalition in 2011.

Holyrood’s Additional Member System (AMS) is perhaps the most satisfactory, combining as it does MPs representing constituencies on a FPTP basis with list seats allocated to make the overall make-up of the parliament proportional. But here, too, there are drawbacks - some regard those elected from the list as somehow second-class MSPs. And there are complaints that candidates rejected in constituencies still end up in parliament because of the list system.

There are all sorts of anomalies with FPTP, but each of the alternatives also throw up problems. It has to be acknowledged: there is no perfect system.