The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Britain had Germany’s electoral system, Boris Johnson may have lost the election

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at a campaign event in London. (Frank Augstein/AP)

In continental Europe, the results of Thursday’s general election in the United Kingdom were largely met with a mix of frustration and a lack of understanding.

Europe’s startled take on the British elections may — at least partially — also be based on one fundamental difference between Britain and continental Europe. Whereas Prime Minister Boris Johnson celebrated a historic win on Friday, the same results may very well have made him a loser if, for instance, the election had taken place in Germany.

The difference comes down to electoral systems.

Britain follows what is known as the first-past-the-post system. The country is split up into electoral constituencies, and voters choose their preferred candidate. The candidate who wins the most votes, wins the constituency. It’s a system that gives an advantage to big parties with concentrated regional support. With 649 out of 650 seats declared by Friday morning, the Conservatives won a majority with 364 seats, compared with the Labour Party’s 203.

Boris Johnson wins majority, while Jeremy Corbyn says he won’t lead another general election campaign

In a proportional representation system — in place in countries such as Germany and New Zealand — the results would have looked very different. There, the share of total votes a party receives largely determines the number of seats in parliament. The Conservative Party would still have won the most votes, with a share of 43.6 percent. But without a majority, Labour (32.2 percent) may have been able to form a Brexit-skeptical coalition with the Scottish National Party (3.9 percent), the Liberal Democrats (11.5 percent) and other parties, under the assumption of full proportionality with no minimum vote share threshold required for entry to Parliament.

In other words, while Johnson delivered his victory speech in front of a slogan claiming that he would lead “the people’s government,” his administration does not actually represent the majority of voters.

“In Britain, you can have a strong single-party government that represents only a minority of [voters]," said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London.

In the past, this has led to calls to change the system. In 2010, an agreement was reached to hold a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should change its electoral model. But when that vote was held the following year, appetite for it appeared to be limited. About 68 percent of voters rejected the introduction of a so-called “alternative vote” method — a system that would not have been comparable to the ones in place in Germany or New Zealand. Turnout in the referendum was only around 42 percent.

Still, the referendum “effectively ended the debate,” Bale said. “With the election of a conservative government with a very, very big majority, there’s absolutely no chance of electoral reform coming in the next decade or so.” There have also been questions about the Labour Party’s actual determination to change the current system.

Similar attempts elsewhere have worked, however.

In two referendums in 1992 and 1993, New Zealanders voted overwhelmingly to abandon the previous system — which was similar to Britain’s — in favor of a model similar to the one in place in Germany, after a series of events that were described as a “revolution from below” amid an “accident from above.”

During a TV debate in 1987, then-Labour Party Prime Minister David Lange had accidentally promised to hold a referendum on a new voting system, even though he was in fact staunchly opposed to the idea and refused to follow through. When his center-right National Party opponent, Jim Bolger, lashed out at Lange’s broken promise during the next election campaign three years later, Bolger ended up promising the same, even though he and his party weren’t in favor of the idea, either. After he won the election, Bolger felt compelled to finally deliver on that promise.

Amid deep dissatisfaction with the political system, voters were ready for a change. Whereas the New Zealand Labour Party received more total votes in elections in 1978 and 1981 than the center-right National Party, the latter won the most seats in Parliament. Midsize parties were almost entirely unrepresented. After two referendums in favor of a new system, the first elections under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system were held in 1996.

Under the MMP model, voters can cast their ballot for both a national party and a regional representative in their constituency. That representative does not have to be a member of the party the voter chooses to support nationally. The national vote share largely determines a party’s number of seats in Parliament. Parties usually need to receive more than 5 percent of the total votes to be represented in Parliament, even though there can be exceptions.

In Britain’s case, that threshold could prove challenging, as regional parties such as the Scottish National Party and the Democratic Unionist Party would fall below the customary 5 percent. But New Zealand’s model, for instance, leaves a loophole for parties that fail to gain more than 5 percent nationally but win individual constituencies, which entitles them to some representation in Parliament. There are similar exceptions in Germany.

Supporters of that system argue that it has promoted the interests of groups previously underrepresented in Parliament, while safeguarding against small extreme parties.

In New Zealand, the new system is largely considered a success, Bale said. When voters were asked in 2011 whether they wanted to keep it, a majority supported it.

But in Britain and elsewhere, reservations have persisted regardless of New Zealand’s experience. Given that a proportional system favors coalitions or loose alliances over the leadership of a single party, the result can lead to instability. Germany’s governing coalition, for instance, has appeared to be on the brink of collapse for months.

Some argue that Germany’s grand coalition between the center-left and center-right parties has also fostered the rise of the far-right in recent years, amid “dissatisfaction with an establishment stitch-up,” Bale said.

In addition to concerns over whether such a system would work in Britain’s favor, the preconditions are hard to compare to New Zealand’s in the 1990s.

At the time, New Zealand’s two main parties were rapidly losing the confidence of voters. In comparison, the shares of Labour and the Conservative Party in Britain “are actually reasonably high,” Bale said. “We haven’t seen the kind of fragmentation that we were already beginning to see in New Zealand before the change.”

In Britain, the current system’s “main function is to provide strong single-party government, even if the electorate as a whole is quite fragmented. And that’s exactly what it has done this time around,” Bale said.

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