The British Electoral System - A Demoratic One?

Seminar Paper 2010 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Democracy
2.1 Definition of Democracy
2.2 Consensus Democracy
2.3 Competitive Democracy

3. Voting Systems
3.1 Majority Voting Systems using the Example of Great Britain
3.2 Porportional Representation using the Example of the Federal Republic of Germany

4. Majority Voting System and Democracy
4.1 Disadvantages of Majority Voting Systems
4.2 The Majority Voting System and its Compatibility with Democratic Principles

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Honesty Declaration

1. Introduction

“The British electoral system is not a gamble.” (Butler, 194). This famous quotation by the British political scientist David E. Butler gives a first insight in how intricate and controversial the topic has been discussed. The quotation also shows that the British voting system never lacked criticism and the fact that Butler has to deny that the electoral system of his home country is ‘a gamble’ makes clear that also a lot of sarcasm was involved while judging it. All of this seems rather negative. However, in this paper it is not my aim to just condemn the electoral system of Britain, nor do I want to prove that it is a gamble. Yet, the severe criticism must have a reason and cannot be completely unfounded. A main argument of critics that is often discussed is a possible lack of democracy. Therefore I would like to examine in how far the British voting system can be reconciled with basic democratic principles.

To do so, it will be necessary to give a short overview about democracy and its main features. I also don’t want to neglect to talk about democracy as a political system. In accordance with the main topic, namely the electoral system, I will specifically talk about the competitive and consensus democracy because they are most suitable when it comes to discussing the two main voting systems, viz. proportional representation and majority voting.

As it has probably become clear already, I do not want to limit this paper to the British electoral system itself. To illustrate the discrepancy between the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation, I will use the example of the Federal Republic of Germany. This country can be seen as a representative for a typical consensus democracy and in addition it is using the proportional representation quite successfully. By providing information about the common alternative system of voting, instead of just describing the system which is actually examined, it will hopefully become easier to judge the latter in the end.

Arguable is now, to what extent the British electoral system deserves to be criticised or even disapproved. Is it “unpredictable” and “bizarre” as Marco Evers claims? (cf. Evers, 84). Or does the long-lasting tradition of using the majority voting system prove once more that its advantages outweigh its weaknesses and that there should not be any worries concerning its democratic compatibility?

2. Democracy

2.1 Definition of Democracy

In order to be able to judge the British electoral system and its compatibility with basic principles of democracy, it is necessary to define the term democracy now.

The topic of democracy is very intricate and consequently many books were written about it. However, it is not possible to discuss this type of government at full range in this paper. Nevertheless I would like to explain those aspects which are most important for judging a voting system later on.

As mentioned, democracy is a form of government. Due to the original Greek meaning (‘démokratía”) there is another name that is frequently used, namely the ‘rule of people’, but this description can be misleading. In fact, it is not the people who have the power to rule, but representatives who were elected. Therefore it would be rather correct to call it a passive or indirect rule of people. Still, the main characteristic of democracy is that it finds its legitimation in the will of the people. (cf. Holtmann, 110).

But since it is not possible to enforce the individual will of everyone without causing a great conflict, a way to register the people’s will is essential. Holtmann mentions the “majority rule” as the most common way to do that. (cf. ibid, 111). To ensure that the will of the people gets involved in ruling and political decisions, it is necessary to provide a system that is able to guarantee this. In case of democracies this is ensured through periodical elections in which people can express their will by voting. Another possibility which democracy provides is the general opportunity of participating in parties or pressure groups to gain a certain influence on governmental work.

2.2 Consensus Democracy

In the Federal Republic of Germany a democracy of consensus can be found. As its name suggests, this type of democracy rather puts a focus on proportionality and moderation. Typical for this form of democracy is the fact that several parties compete with each other for the voter’s favour and thus, for power. Another aspect that is connected with this one is the fact that there are coalitions which form the government. Hence, several parties share the power in order to rule the country. (cf. Becker, 15). This applies to the Federal Republic of Germany. In general there are five main parties which compete in elections: the CDU, the SPD, the FDP, the Grünen and the Linke. The winning party always has to accept a coalition with at least one other party to be able to form a majority. Among other things, the criteria I have just mentioned leads to a proportional representation in elections. At the same time, this is another typical characteristic for consensus democracies.

Typical for this form of democracy is further the fact that pressure groups tend to be more incorporated in the government. The more important the concern of a pressure group is, the more likely is the chance for the particular pressure group to be involved in certain decision-makings. In Germany this can especially be seen in economic and health policy. (cf. ibid, 16).

The last criterion I want to mention is the balanced proportion between executive and legislature. (cf. ibid). However, it is important to say here that this does not completely apply to Germany. Since the federal government obviously dominates the ‘Bundestag’ it would be wrong to say that the proportion between executive and legislature is balanced. This aspect is rather comparable to the competitive democracy which can be found in Great Britain.

2.3 Competitive Democracy

Like the name already shows, are competitive democracies rather characterised by competition and exclusion. Great Britain almost seems to be a prime example for a typical competitive democracy which is probably the reason for the fact that it is often called ‘Westminster-model’ (ibid, 14).

In contrast to consensus democracies the governmental power is concentrated in one-party-cabinets. So usually there is no need for coalitions. Consequently, another criterion of the competitive democracy is that there are mainly two parties which compete for power. That is, in the case of Britain, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Yet, the Liberal Democrats should not be disregarded; especially not concerning the latest developments of the election in 2010. So apparently there are more than two parties which compete for power. Nevertheless it is important to mention here that only the Conservatives and Labours were able to win a majority so far; this is the reason for the term ‘two-party-system’. Consistent with that, the majority voting system is used in Britain. (cf. Becker, 15)

As already brought up above, the government is dominant compared to executive and legislature. But this is one of the rare similarities with the consensus democracy. As far as the handling with pressure groups is concerned another great difference occurs. Pressure groups are not incorporated, the way they are dealt with is much more pluralistic. Thus, in an ideal competitive democracy, every pressure group has the same influence on the government and can only increase it by competition.

3. Voting Systems

3.1 Proportional Representation using the Example of the Federal Republic of Germany

In the Federal Republic of Germany the proportional representation is the chosen electoral system. In contrast to the British voting system, also often referred to as “one person, one vote”, the German voter casts two votes. Casting the first vote might remind you of the British electoral system. In every constituency one MP is elected. The candidate who got the most votes, wins the constituency. However, it is important to mention here that German constituencies are usually much bigger than British constituencies. (cf. Rothe, 393). So according to that the comparability has to be moderated.

While looking at the cast of the second vote, the proportional representation comes into play. With his second vote, the German citizen elects the party he favours. But the fact that the number of constituencies does not match the number of mandates makes it impossible to use the rather simple ‘British way’ of voting. In compliance with the number of second votes, every party wins a certain number of seats. Rothe cites the following example: Assuming that party A got 42% of all second votes, it gets 42% of 656 seats, namely 275. (cf. ibid, numbers taken from the general election in 1999). After this calculation the seats every party got through the first votes are subtracted. The remaining seats are distributed on the basis of the party list, another feature that cannot be found in the British voting system.

After this description which still only covered the main characteristics of the German electoral system, it becomes obvious how much more complicated and intricate the proportional representation is. Arguable is now, whether the ‘simple’ British system can compete with the ‘sophisticated’ German way of electing.

3.2 Majority Voting System using the Example of Great Britain

In Great Britain the majority voting system, also known as “first-past-the-post”, is used to elect MPs. This kind of electoral system can also be found in countries such as Canada or New Zealand. In general it is rather found in countries which are based on an Anglo-Saxon Law.

Currently, Great Britain is divided in 650 constituencies and each of them sends one MP to Westminster.[1] Hence, there are 650 mandates that can be appointed. The person who gets the most votes wins the particular constituency. Concerning this, it is important to say that it does not matter if the person who got the most votes does not have the majority of votes. Thus, it is still possible to win the constituency if someone only gets 25% of the votes for example.

Finally, the party with the most won constituencies is allowed to appoint the prime minister. One of the main differences compared to the system of proportional representation can be found in the fact that all the remaining votes are left unconsidered. (cf. Hübner, 94). Therefore there is to say that this system sometimes creates disparities between seats and votes. However, Kavanagh points out that “over the long run the aggregate shares of votes and seats for the main parties have not diverged too sharply.” (Kavanagh, 96). Since this question seems to be disputable, it shall be discussed in greater detail in chapter 4.


[1] http://www.wahlrecht.de/ausland/uk.html (26.05.2010)


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Ruhr-University of Bochum – Englisches Seminar
Wahlsystem Großbritannien electoral system Britain british voting system Majority voting systems first past the post mehrheitswahlsystem Verhältniswahl proportional representation coalitions elections verhältnisdemokratie politik in großbritannien british politics



Title: The British Electoral System - A Demoratic One?