Could electoral reform revitalise democracy? The role of choice and personalisation in voting systems

The EU referendum … the Conservative and Labour Party leadership contests …. ‘voter fatigue’ …. over the last couple of months, politics has been dominating the news.

We’ve written before on this blog about low turnout for elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners, and whether the Swiss style of direct democracy could ever catch on here. What’s clear is that political engagement is lower in the UK than in some other countries. There’s also a breakdown in trust in politicians, often linked back to the reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. And there’s been a dramatic shift in the landscape of party politics and allegiances, as seen in the collapse of Scottish Labour support and the rise of UKIP.

To what extent, though, is the electoral system itself a contributing factor to disengagement? And can electoral reform help reinvigorate democracy?

Multiple voting systems in the UK

Public interest in, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction with, voting systems is hard to gauge. In the 2011 UK referendum on changing the voting system for general elections to Alternative Vote, the result was 67.9% against and only 32.1% in favour, on just a 42% turnout. Many people also assume that ‘first past the post’ is still the only electoral system in the UK.

In fact, there are multiple different voting systems within the UK, and people have regularly voted on the same day for elections operating under different systems.

Electoral reform and its impact

A recent event held by the Constitution Unit at UCL explored the character of electoral reforms across Europe and considered the implications within the UK. Reporting back on recently published research focusing on national/state-level electoral systems, Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit, highlighted a number of key findings. Most surprising was that there’s little evidence that electoral reform leads to improved turnout or satisfaction with democracy.

The panel of speakers recognised that discussion of electoral reform can be ‘nerdy’ but it was clear that there are some key questions that tie in to wider debates on citizenship and public engagement:

  • Is voting in elections actually a poor way for the public to express policy preferences?
  • Does highly individualised political consciousness lead to a concern for what candidates can deliver for you personally (or at a local level) rather than big policy issues?
  • Has the collapse of class politics and discrediting of the traditional left resulted in the concept of political identity itself becoming obsolete?
  • And are wider societal shifts — the individual as consumer — responsible for dissatisfaction with processes for political representation?

The importance of choice in democracy

Traditionally, discussion of electoral reform has focused on the distribution of power — the debate between proportional/majoritarian electoral systems. There’s been a shift recently, however, to focusing on the question of the degree to which voters are able to choose among candidates rather than parties.

It seems that as voters disengage with political parties they become more interested in intra-party dimensions. Personalities can become more important than policies.

The shift within wider society to consumerisation is also leading to an inevitable change in people’s views of politics (and politicians). Having a choice between two or three ‘political brands’ (the main parties) doesn’t fit well with the ethos of competition and markets which are now present in other areas of our lives. Voters increasingly expect to be able to influence not just how many seats each party wins, but also who fills those seats. However, the ‘first past the post’ system means that if you support a party, but not your local candidate, you don’t have a means of saying so at the ballot box.

Processes for candidate selection have also been criticised for not doing enough to address the under-representation of certain groups within politics. Last month’s independent Good Parliament report made recommendations for a more representative and inclusive House of Commons. It’s argued that the public perception of parliament as an elite will never change unless candidates reflect the communities they represent.

The Institute for Government also recommended in 2011 that there should be more ‘primary elections’, where candidate selection processes are opened out beyond party members to the wider public. The question of candidate selection (and deselection) is likely to come to the fore again as a result of the current issues within the Labour party, and prominent mayoral elections.

Electoral reform and personalisation is no panacea

Any response to the current disaffection with the political system requires more fundamental reforms to allow the public to engage more fully and thoughtfully in policy debates. We’ve written on this blog about some initiatives which are attempting to do this, such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding regeneration within London and an innovative theatre project which introduces strategic planning to local communities. There’s also great work being done in some areas on participatory budgeting and citizen assemblies.

Small electoral reforms, or changes to institutional arrangements, such as those that followed the MPs’ expenses scandal, can create a ‘good story’ for government in terms of appearing to be modernising, but they rarely stem from strong public demand. It could be time to debunk the “great electoral reform myth” and consider deeper changes to how our public institutions engage with the public.


Panel speakers at the event on 26 July were Dr Alan Renwick, UCL Constitution Unit; Professor Justin Fisher, Brunel University; Darren Hughes, Electoral Reform Society; and Professor Roger Scully, Cardiff University. It was organised by the Constitution Unit at UCL.

The research cited is from the book Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe, by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet.

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