Electoral systems: An Amusing Take on the British Electoral System

Another European politics student blog, now on the UK…


The United Kingdom’s electoral system is quite similar to the one found in the United States. Both countries elect candidates to the legislature in what is known as single-member plurality districts. This is a really fancy and slightly pretentious way of saying a number of things. First off, this means that for each district voters elect one candidate to represent them in the Parliament. There are 650 electoral districts across the UK. This is a bit different from a few other European democracies. In some other European countries, constituents vote for a political party rather than a candidate. The British tend to be the odd balls of the EU; must be something in their fish and chips.

The second feature of the UK’s electoral system is also the same as the US. Having plurality districts means that no candidate for office has to get a majority of the vote. For example, if each of the five Spice Girls were to run for the same seat in the Parliament and Sporty Spice receives twenty-one percent of the vote, she wins the seat despite the fact that seventy-nine percent of the people in that district voted against her.

This is system of only needing a plurality of votes tends to be naturally biased towards two dominant parties and structurally makes it more difficult for smaller, third parties to be competitive. However, it is not the same two parties that are competitive in every district. The two parties that typically compete with each other largely depend on region. Although the Conservative and Labour parties are traditionally the dominant ones in the Parliament, in Scotland, the two competitive parties are the Labour Party and Scottish National Party. (Because why shouldn’t Scotland be its own country?)

The United Kingdom’s electoral system also has some very distinct differences from the United States. One of these differences would be its campaign finance laws. Campaigns in the UK are limited in how much money they can spend on expenditures and TV ads are illegal. In contrast, campaigns in the US have recently been characterized by “Super PACs” which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without disclosing donors. Moreover, elections in the UK are very short. They only last for thirty days. This seems rather boring to me and I don’t approve.

The last difference between the UK and US elections that I would like to point out is that in recent years the UK has seen a potential third party become competitive: the Liberal Democrats. In the 2010 UK general election the Liberal Democrats captured twenty-three percent of the popular vote. This gave them enough seats for the Conservatives to need them to form a majority coalition. This has allowed the Liberal Democrats to have a major platform for their agenda. On the downside, the coalition has been rather awkward between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. For a hilarious visual of this awkwardness, look no further than Liberal Democrat leader Nick Klegg’s facial expressions during Question Time.

References

Hill, Steven. Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. Berkeley: University of California, 2010. Print.

“IPU PARLINE Database: UNITED KINGDOM (House of Commons), Electoral System.” Object Moved. Web. 01 Mar. 2012. <http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2335_B.htm>.

Steiner, Jürg, and Markus Crepaz. European Democracies. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2007.

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