The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

alan.jfif (1)

Nominations for election to the European Parliament closed on Thursday. We now know which parties will be contesting the elections (if they happen), and who those parties have selected to stand for them in each region of the UK. The Unit’s Alan Renwick offers a brief guide to how the elections will work and what we can expect to learn from them.

With little sign of progress in the Brexit talks between the government and the Labour Party, UK participation in next month’s European Parliament elections looks increasingly likely. The parties have nominated their candidates and begun to launch their campaigns. Much is being said about how the electoral system will shape the outcome, but not all of it is accurate. This post provides a quick guide to the key points and reaches two main conclusions. First, the system will disadvantage small parties: in particular, the anti-Brexit parties will be punished for their disunity. Second, anyone wanting to read the results as a proxy second Brexit referendum will need to do so with great care.

1. The system is proportional…

The UK uses a system of proportional representation (PR) for European Parliament elections. To be precise, it uses two different systems. England, Scotland, and Wales use a list-based form of PR, which was introduced to replace the old First Past the Post system in 1999. This is based on 11 regions, each electing between three and ten MEPs. Each party puts up a list of candidates and voters choose one party’s list. The seats are allocated to the parties in each region in proportion to the votes that they have won.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, has used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of PR ever since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Each party again puts up a slate of candidates. But voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, and these votes are counted and transferred according to the preferences expressed until the three seats available have been filled.

Proportional systems make it easier than under First Past the Post for small parties to secure seats. Last time around, for example, the Green Party won three seats with 7.87% of the vote, whereas in 1989, under First Past the Post, it famously captured 14.5% of the vote but no seats at all.

2. …but not all that proportional

‘Proportional’ systems vary in just how proportional they are. In fact, neither of the systems used in the UK is especially so, for two reasons. First, the number of seats available in each region constrains how far it is possible to allocate seats proportionally. In the North East of England, for example, where there are only three seats, it is clearly impossible for any more than three parties to win representation. Even the largest region – the South East, with ten seats – is quite small in seat terms, making it impossible to reflect the pattern of votes perfectly in the allocation of seats. Continue reading

Choosing a voting method for British Columbia: the case for a Mixed Member Proportional system

jq finalIn the second of two posts on the voting reform referendum in British Columbia, Jameson Quinn argues that the province’s electorate should support a move to some form of proportional representation. Specifically, he argues that the version known as Mixed Member Proportional is best for both the province itself and representative democracy as a whole. 

This is the second of two posts on the upcoming British Columbia (BC) referendum on proportional representation (which I’ll call ‘pro-rep’, because ‘PR’ has too many other meanings). In the first post, I discussed the context and rules of the referendum itself. In this one, I’m going to discuss the options available, in the context of theories of voting and democracy. I’ll also look at some of the arguments being used in this campaign.

Before I start, I should lay my cards on the table. I am unabashedly in favour of voting reform. For over 20 years, I’ve felt that choose-one voting, as used in most English speaking countries, is a badly-flawed form of democracy. Also known as FPTP, for ‘first past the post’, choose-one almost inevitably leads to spoiled elections, dishonest strategic voting, or both. My support of voting reform is what led me to join the board of the Center for Election Science, a non-profit that advocates for better voting systems.

As my previous post mentioned, I was one of the primary organisers of the BC Symposium on Proportional Representation. Though many of the experts and activists attending that symposium were, like me, advocates for reform, the symposium itself remained neutral on whether changing to pro-rep was a good idea. Our role was to impartially lay out the evidence regarding the relative advantages and disadvantages of various options.

The functions of representative democracy

In order to argue that pro-rep is a better option for BC, I’m going to be explicit about what I mean by ‘better’; that is, what representative democracy is for. I believe that representative democracy serves three basic functions:

  1. Provides a format for regular, orderly, non-violent transitions of power. If you’re dissatisfied with the current government, you don’t have to pick up a gun; if you’re currently in power, you avoid excessive corruption, because you know the next government would investigate. Any voting method can fulfill this function, as long as it’s seen as legitimate; so I won’t discuss this further.
  2. Helps make relatively good decisions. Diverse groups in society get to have input, and all in all the wisdom of these diverse points of view can, at least sometimes, add up to more than the sum of its parts. We all know that democratic decisions can still sometimes be terrible, but as far as I can tell, any other government structure is more often worse.
  3. Is relatively efficient at making decisions. Unlike direct democracy, where everybody has to weigh in on every argument, representative democracy keeps that task to a relatively small group of professionals. Ideally, the voting method should make voters’ task easy, while choosing representatives who are both well-qualified for their jobs and reflective of the community from which they are elected.

Any well-designed pro-rep method—which all three of the options on the BC referendum are or could be—is clearly superior to the current choose-one method on the latter two points: each would give outcomes that are more representative without being more divisive (point 2), all the while remaining comparably simple for voters (point 3). Continue reading

When assessing electoral systems we should consider the degree of personalisation as well as proportionality


A new book by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet examines the ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems. In this post, Alan Renwick outlines what such personalisation is, what patterns of personalisation the book identifies across European democracies, and what all of this means for the future of electoral reform in the UK. He argues that the importance of personalisation strengthens the case for first past the post for elections to Westminster but that the system used in European Parliament elections in Great Britain is ripe for reform.

Electoral systems are among the most discussed and studied of all political institutions. Few UK elections pass without debate about whether the electoral rules should be modified. Scholars have examined in enormous detail the effects of different electoral systems upon such diverse aspects of politics and life as the representation of women and minorities, corruption, budgetary discipline, electoral turnout, growth rates, and the stability of democracy.

Yet these debates have long been very partial. Though electoral systems are complex things, the great bulk of attention has focused on just one of their aspects: their proportionality, defined as the degree to which they share out seats across political parties in proportion to votes won. As is well known, the first past the post system used for elections to the House of Commons is not very proportional, whereas the various systems used for European Parliament and devolved assembly elections are more so.

Proportionality certainly matters. But it is not the only feature of electoral systems that deserves our attention. Indeed, as voters have become increasingly disengaged from and disillusioned with political parties, we might expect that their interest in proportionality – defined, remember, across parties – has declined in favour of other concerns.

Continue reading