One of the many odd things about the UK is that we insist on using regional constituencies for the European Parliament. We were basically dragged kicking and screaming into using proportional representation in 1999, with the Lords being so opposed it required a rare invocation of the Parliament Acts to pass. So naturally, as with all forms of PR that have been grudgingly accepted in the UK, we ended up with a pretty rubbish system
Effectively the combination of using the D’Hondt divisor (except NI, more on that coming), which favours larger parties, plus relatively small regional constituencies can mean the results aren’t actually particularly proportional. For example in 2014, the Lib Dems were only just behind the Green Party of England and Wales on 6.6% and 6.9% respectively, but since the Lib Dem vote was quite evenly spread and the Green vote quite concentrated, the Greens won 3 seats to the Lib Dems 1. That put the Lib Dems level with Plaid Cymru, who won 0.7% overall, and behind the SNP, who won 2.4% and two seats.
Most other EU countries – 23 of 28 – do not divide into constituencies, because in all honesty it doesn’t make much sense to do so for European Parliament elections. The European Parliament decides quite high level things that, yes, are important to people in local communities but which don’t necessitate MEPs to have a direct link to a specific city or region in order to reflect people’s views.
The remaining 4 after the UK that do are Italy, Poland, Belgium and Ireland. The first two are actually only effectively administrative divisions, with the national vote share determining the number of MEPs, who are then allocated to specific constituencies. Belgium honestly puts the UK and Scotland to shame in terms of paralysing sub-state ructions, so it’s not really surprising it has separate constituencies for Dutch, French and German speakers. Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote for every level of election in the country and it wouldn’t necessarily be great for 11 MEPs, so it too makes some kind of sense to divide it up.
So, what if the UK looked a bit more like a normal EU country, leaving aside the grim hilarity of asking that kind of question right now? In all of these examples, only Great Britain is actually changing. Northern Ireland has always used STV for EU elections, and as it has a completely different party system, it would make basically no sense to try and integrate it into a single UK constituency. To gauge proportionality, we’ll use the Gallagher Index but with a lazy lumping of all sub-3% or non-winning parties into “Other”. For context, the actual results scored 8.74. A smaller index is more proportional.
Sainte-Laguë (a la Latvia)
This one is a very simple alteration of the existing system. Rather than dividing the number of votes by the number of seats already won by that party plus one, as in D’Hondt, it’s dividing by twice the number of seats already won by that party plus one. The difference in very large constituencies can be extremely marginal, which is why I have only bothered calculating this using the existing constituencies. As it divides by a larger number, it’s more favourable to smaller parties.
Using Sainte-Laguë, the Lib Dems, Greens and each of the single-seat parties would see their overall seat allocation unchanged. Brexit would be down five seats and the SNP down one, whilst the Conservatives would be up four and Labour up two. Gallagher Index – 5.43.
Single GB Constituency (a la 23 EU Countries)
Using a single GB constituency would obviously give the most proportional result, as it would be delivering proportionality across the most seats. Most countries apply some kind of threshold, so I’ve gone for my usual 4%. It would also at first glance be the most simple system. However, it might seem to make the position of the SNP and Plaid Cymru awkward, seeing as they only stand in their respective areas.
I’ve assumed that in order to maximise their chances, they would form a single joint list, with Plaid being allocated either the second or third spot on the list and the SNP the other two of the top three. This is how various regionalist and nationalist parties tend to work in Spain, which elects MEPs as a single unit. This time for example there were (at least) two such alliances that won MEPs. “Ahora Repúblicas” elected 3 MEPs in an ERC-EH Bildu-ERC pattern, whilst the “Coalición por una Europa Solidaria” elected just 1 MEP, which therefore went to the leading party on the list, the EAJ/PNV. I’ve also assumed the Scottish Greens and the Green Party of England and Wales would form a joint list.
I’d also say that allowance should be made to count the votes of any party/alliance that crosses the threshold in any one of the three GB nations to be entered into the seat allocation here, but with 4.6% of the GB vote a joint SNP-PC slate would cross it anyway. A final quirk could be introduced if a single GB-wide ballot was used, as this would actually give voters outside of Scotland and Wales a chance to vote for the SNP-PC list, potentially adding to their support. The answer to that might be to have different regional lists, but elect from the overall vote share, as per Italy and Poland.
Anyway, with a single GB-wide constituency, we’d also have seen five seats off the Brexit total and one off the SNP. Here the Conservatives would have been up three, the Greens two, and Labour one. Gallagher Index – 4.74.
4 National Constituencies (a la Belgium)
This is a bit of a middle ground between the current system and a single GB-wide list, and in reality probably the most realistic alternative. Scotland and Wales would remain as they are, with the 9 English regions merging into a single England constituency. Given England elects 60 of the 70 GB MEPs, it’d still be pretty highly proportional.
In this scenario Brexit would be down four seats and the Liberal Democrats one, with the Conservatives up three and one more apiece for the Greens and Labour. Gallagher Index – 4.94.
STV (a la Ireland, the whole island)
This is the most complex alternative system, though remember it’s not entirely unknown as it’s what Northern Ireland has always used. STV works on the basis of achieving a quota in order to be elected. The quota used in this case is the total number of votes cast divided by one more than the number of seats, then plus one more vote. This effectively ensures that if as many candidates achieve that quota as there are seats, there aren’t enough votes left over for anyone else to achieve quota. The chart below shows each party’s quotas per region – I just used the existing regions for ease although some may be approaching “too big” in reality.
Contrary to popular belief, voters for a given party don’t always transfer en bloc to the next most closely aligned party. For example in the Leith Walk by-election in April, only 53.5% of SNP voters put the Greens as their 2nd preference, and 44.3% went the other way round. That’s actually a remarkably strong reciprocal transfer ratio, but still far below the almost 100% a very casual observer of Scottish Politics might expect.
They also don’t always vote entirely for the candidates of one party before moving onto those from others. That makes STV quite hard to actually project without much other information. However, given the huge divide that is Brexit, I have for ease assumed perfect discipline within parties, and then that transfers move within Remain and Leave blocs, or at least where they go cross-bloc the movement each way cancels out.
A total of 44 of the 70 seats would be filled from full quotas. There are an additional 14 part quotas of at least 0.8, which I assume give the parties holding them a clear enough lead that they’d take the seat. That actually only leaves 12 seats that would likely come down to transfers, spread unevenly across the country. I’ll go quickly through each of these to give my reasoning for how I ended up at the final numbers in the top chart.
Scotland, one left over. In running; SNP 0.65, Lab 0.65, Green 0.58. Other important quotas; ChUK 0.13. Expect not enough ChUK to Green to displace either SNP or Lab, then Green to put SNP over the line.
Wales, two left over. In running; Labour 0.76, Lib Dem 0.78, Brexit 0.62. Other important quotas; Con 0.33, Green 0.31, UKIP 0.16, ChUK 0.15. UKIP and Con mostly to Brexit for one seat, Green and ChUK mostly to Lib Dem for second.
North East, two left over. In running; Labour 0.77, Lib Dem 0.67, Brexit 0.55. Other important quotas; Green 0.32, Con 0.27, UKIP 0.25, ChUK 0.16. Con and UKIP mostly to Brexit for one seat, Green and ChUK mostly to Lib Dem for second.
North West, one left over. In running; Con 0.68, Lib Dem 0.54. Other important quotas; UKIP 0.32, ChUK 0.25, Green 0.12, Lab -0.03, Brexit -0.19. As Brexit were slightly short a quota, combined Con-UKIP-Brexit is 0.81. Labour short only 0.03 of a quota, meaning combined Lib Dem, ChUK, Green on 0.88. Would come down to others, but expecting Lib Dem.
Yorkshire and Humber, one left over. In running; Brexit 0.55, Con 0.50. Other important quotas; 0.30 UKIP, 0.16 ChUK, 0.14 Lab, 0.09 Lib Dem, -0.09 Green. Total Lab and Remain is 0.3 matching UKIP, expect latter to favour Brexit, so they win seat.
East Midlands, one left over. In running; Con 0.64, Green 0.63. Other important quotas; 0.30 UKIP, 0.29 Brexit, 0.21 ChUK, 0.03 Lib Dem, -0.16 Lab. Easily Con.
South West, two left over. In running; Lib Dem 0.62, Con 0.61, Brexit 0.57. Other important quotas; 0.45 Lab, 0.27 Green, 0.23 UKIP, 0.20 ChUK. Expect Lib Dem for one seat, UKIP to Brexit then enough Lab to Brexit to overtake Tories.
London, two left over. In running; Con 0.71, Brex 0.61, ChUK 0.47, Lib Dem 0.44. Other important quotas; UKIP 0.19, Lab 0.16, Green 0.12. Expect enough Green and Labour to go Lib Dem that ChUK drop out, transfer to Lib Dem who win seat. ChUK leftovers possibly tip Con enough to stay ahead of Brexit after UKIP transfer to latter, giving Tories last seat.
So in total, this (much less concrete) scenario would see Brexit and Labour both down two seats, whilst the Lib Dems and Conservatives would be up two each. Gallagher Index – 7.44.
So, in short, if we did basically anything else except what we did, it would have been more proportional. Electoral Systems in the UK described in one sentence right there.