From hung parliament to constitutional coup? Clamor grows for radical UK electoral reform

The Houses of Parliament in London. (Reuters/Andrew Winning)
As frustrated voters head to polling stations across Britain, a growing chorus of critics forecast little change in the next parliament. They are calling for an end to unrepresentative “Victorian politics” and for far-reaching electoral reform.

The Electoral Reform Commission, which has long campaigned for a more just and representative strain of British democracy, predicts the 2015 general election will unleash its own “distinctive tale.”

By all accounts, it is likely to be a tale of the absurd.

Britain’s electoral system is awkward, convoluted and barely fit for purpose, according to academics and campaigners across the UK. This arcane beast fails to represent broad swathes of the electorate, yet maintains a status quo that is no longer in the interest of many ordinary Britons, they argue.

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Although Britons had an opportunity to vote in a referendum on electoral reform in 2011, a majority rejected the proposed Alternative Vote (AV) system and cast the issue aside for another generation.

Commonly referred to as First Past the Post (FPTP), the system was designed to cultivate stable, majority governments. While FPTP works relatively well in a two-party system, Britain is now a multi-party democracy.

Critics warn the current status quo yields absurd results that are both unpredictable and indefensible. Below are some of the leading arguments for reform.

A defunct electoral system

1. First Past the Post pushes voters down the path of tactical voting

In a simple two-party election contest, the role of the voter is straightforward: vote for your preferred party. But in a more complex contest where two leading candidates stand the highest chance of victory and others in the race are merely flying their party’s flag, those who support minor parties such as the Greens and UKIP are faced with a conundrum. They must decide whether to vote tactically and attempt to sway the election outcome or to vote for the policies that resonate most closely with their ideals, and have their electoral voice heard.

2. Across local constituencies, First Past The Post yields numerous smaller victories

In 1950s Britain, most MPs secured a seat with a higher than 50 percent backing from their constituency. Decades later, the picture is far more nuanced. A mere 210 out of 650 MPs laid claim to their parliamentary seat with an absolute majority in 2010.

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Remarkably, eight MPs won a seat without having secured even one-third (33 percent) of the vote. Serious questions arise over whether candidates who won such a small share of the vote reflect the interests and ideals of British voters.

3. On a national level, First Past the Post benefits some parties more than others

The Liberal Democrats suggest Britain’s current electoral system treats them in an unjust manner. In 2010, the party won 23 percent of the wider electorate’s vote but emerged with only nine out of 650 possible seats in the House of Commons. Similar concerns regarding a stark disparity between smaller parties’ national influence, and ability to secure seats in the Commons have been raised with respect to the Greens and UKIP.

4. Another hung parliament shows Britain’s electoral system up for the shambolic absurdity it is

While the hung parliament that emerged after the polls closed in 2010 was interpreted by some as a quirk of a complex system, another hung parliament in 2015 will stoke fears that Britain’s electoral system is shambolic and requires an urgent overhaul.

The case for reform

In the immediate aftermath of the general election, Westminster’s political terrain will likely remain muddied as politicians grapple with a gridlocked parliament. Irrespective of Friday’s outcome, a decisive result is virtually impossible, further undercutting the supposed legitimacy of the UK’s electoral system.

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The Electoral Reform Society are calling for an electoral system that puts voters first. The group maintains each vote and voice holds value and should be heard. It also says Britons should be able to enjoy proportional representation (PR) so that their vote holds the power to shape the policies that impact upon their lives.

The campaign stresses state institutions must reflect the electorate they serve, ordinary citizens should be in a position to hold power to account, and politics should provide real alternatives rather than staid policies that reinforce the status quo.

What lies ahead?

If the opposition Labour Party manages to put together a majority, its legitimacy in the early phase of the next parliament will be under assault from Britain’s right-wing, pro-establishment press. However, analysts maintain the overall result is virtually impossible to predict.

Despite the ambiguity, one thing remains certain. This general election race appears less like a straightforward battle between two simple alternatives than any of its post-war precursors.

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Both Labour and the Conservatives face a challenge if they are to achieve their preferred outcome of winning an overall majority. But if one party does cobble together a majority, in Labour’s case this could occur with a smaller proportion of the electorate’s vote than that achieved by any previous government in British history.

If, as some polls suggest, the Conservatives come out marginally on top in terms of seats and votes, Prime Minister David Cameron may try to salvage a government with the backing of the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and UKIP.

If, on the other hand, Cameron fails in this objective, Miliband will strive to build a new government.

Should the Labour leader’s proposed administration earn the support of a majority of MPs, the Conservatives could attempt to stage a constitutional coup, claiming that Labour’s proposed administration lacks legitimacy.

Should Cameron ultimately fail to cling to power, the Westminster establishment will be dealt a serious blow. But whether the incoming government would offer a mandate to tackle Britain’s democratic deficit is a matter of conjecture.