November 21, 2006

The Electoral Systems of Britain and Sweden


The quality of a democracy is regulated by the electoral system that awards seats in democratic assemblies to those seeking office. This paper will compare the electoral systems of the parliaments of the United Kingdom (herein called Britain) and Sweden in order to determine which country has the preferred electoral system. The quality to be measured is the fairness of democratic representation, which is to say, how properly the various public interests are represented and how much control voters have over their government. The first part of the paper will study each electoral system separately, looking at the mechanics of how the members of parliament are elected, what kind of political party system can participate in the parliament, and how the parties go about setting up the executive branch of government. The second part will compare and contrast the two parliaments, and afterwards it will be shown how one of the parliaments represents its electorate more fairly and democratically. These two countries have been chosen because Britain’s electoral system is characterized as a system of single-member districts, and Sweden’s system is considered to provide proportional representation, which strives to elect members of political parties in the proportions in which votes were cast.

The Electoral System in Britain

Voters in Britain elect members of the House of Commons, the more powerful lower house of the Westminster Parliament, for maximum terms of five years. Each one of the 659 electoral districts sends one member to the House of Commons after being chosen on the basis of plurality. Candidates obtain their places on the ballot by being nominated by their party. Frequently the winner that is chosen to represent the constituency receives less than a majority of the votes but wins by plurality, and no runoffs are held to confirm the voters’ choice (Nation Master, 2003: "British House of Commons"; Kavanagh, Dennis, 2000: 116-19). British voters have traditionally been motivated by party ideology when casting their vote, but some votes are cast for incumbents with favored personalities (Kavanagh: 125).

The mechanics of such an electoral system have generally supported the domination of Britain’s parliament by two parties, allowing one party to form a governing majority on its own. Currently, the Labour party holds a majority of seats with the Conservatives in opposition. Historically speaking, though, at times party factions and regional interests have undermined the two-party system as well as the players that dominate it. In the early part of the twentieth century, the two-party system was dominated by the Conservatives and the Liberals (today known as the Liberal Democrats), though it was threatened by the Irish Nationalists. The 1920s saw a three-party system as the Liberals factionalized and the new Labour party solidly gained power, with the Labour party at times forming minority governments by entering coalitions with smaller parties. Since 1945, a two-party system has been maintained by the Conservative and Labour parties, with the Conservatives holding a majority for much of the twentieth century (Kavanagh: 140-72).

The plurality, single-member-district system in use effectively discards votes for third parties and frequently awards a majority of seats in the House of Commons to parties that win a mere plurality. In 1983, the Conservatives won 62% of the seats with only 42.4% of the popular vote, and Labour’s 1997 "landslide" victory of 65% of the seats was achieved with 43.2% of the votes. In addition, the system can award seats in inverse proportions to the votes that are cast, depending on how voting patterns are regionalized. In 1951, the Labour party got the most seats without getting the most votes, and in 1974 the Conservatives received the same advantage though Labour received more votes (Kavanagh: 117).

The party composition of the parliament based on election results in turn determines the composition of the executive cabinet, wherein the winner’s advantage in governing is further amplified. The House of Commons chooses cabinet ministers from its own membership, and these choices are confirmed by a simple majority vote, so the majority party has no need to share executive power with the opposition. Since 1945, every cabinet has been composed of only members of the governing party (Kavanagh: 140). Britain’s executive branch dominates policymaking and the proposal of legislation, so the electoral system allows one party exclusive control of the most powerful branch of government (Kavanagh: 272).

"Responsible government" is a positive feature of this concentration of power. This is the concept that voters can alone credit the majority party with the successes or failings of government and choose to maintain or eliminate their policies of government at the next election simply by voting against them (Kavanagh: 140-41). The presence of the opposition in parliament serves to remind the government of alternatives to policies being carried out, and the opposition provides the voters a clear choice

Despite the imbalance of power gained by the winning party, a sense of interparty cooperation is maintained. Ultimately, the consent of the parliament is required to pass laws that the single-party government proposes, and parliamentary rules require that the committees in each house that first consider proposed legislation be composed of members from the different parties in the same proportions as the numbers of seats they hold in parliament (Kavanagh: 277-78). Thus the party in opposition has the opportunity to participate in the consideration and revision of legislation before each house votes on it. An especially interesting feature of cooperation is the informal convention for members of the opposition to abstain from voting when paired with ministers that, due to government business, must be absent from votes in the House of Commons (Kavanagh: 282).

Factionalism within parties is another phenomenon that helps prevent a single agenda from overwhelming the government at the expense of other interests. The Conservative party is thought of as especially flexible in its ideology, and two major camps within it are identified as neo-liberalism and the "one nation" stance (Kavanagh: 144). The Conservative government in 1994 and 1995 was divided on issues such as the European Union and fuel taxes and actually had trouble maintaining a working majority, only one of a few twentieth-century examples of the majority party struggling to maintain majority control (Kavanagh: 168). The Labour party exhibits left- and right-wing factions as well as a division between Old Labour and New Labour (Kavanagh: 147, 150).

The Electoral System in Sweden

Voters in Sweden elect members to represent them in a unicameral parliament known as the Riksdag for maximum terms of four years. Candidates are chosen on the basis of proportionality to represent 29 constituencies. The parliament has 349 members, of which 310 represent constituencies and the remaining 39 hold the adjustment seats provided to increase the overall proportionality of representation (Ferrara, Federico, 2003).

Voters can choose to use one of three different ballots to indicate both party and candidate preference. The first type of ballot contains the name of the party and its rank-ordered list of candidates on which the voter can mark a preference next to one candidate. Voters can choose ballots that allow them to write in and rank a list of candidates, either on a ballot with the party name already printed or on a ballot where the voter may write in the party name (Ferrara).

The actual proportionality of party representation that can be achieved in the Riksdag is diminished somewhat by the fact that the electorate is split up in districts that have from two to 36 members, with the whole state essentially being the largest "district" represented by the 39 adjustment seats whose members are determined by the overall popular vote (Ferrara). There are even thresholds set that prevent especially small parties from having any members elected: A party may enter the Riksdag by either winning at least four percent of the votes nationwide or by winning twelve percent of the votes within a single constituency (Nation Master, 2003: "Elections in Sweden"). The positive side of having two types of thresholds is that minority interests have a reasonable chance of gaining representation regardless of whether they are regionalized.

Sweden actually improved the proportionality of its electoral results in 1952 by changing its highest average formula for awarding seats from the d’Hondt method to the modified Sainte-Laguë method (Metcalf, Michael F., 1987: 237). Highest average systems award seats by taking vote totals for each party and dividing them by a series of numbers while ranking the resulting numbers from each step of the division process in descending order. Seats are awarded one by one to the corresponding party whose vote count was divided while moving down this list. Division and ranking stop when all seats have been allocated. The modified Sainte-Laguë method starts with the divisor 1.4 then uses odd integers from 3 up. The pure Sainte-Laguë method yields results that are even more proportional (Farrell, David M., 2001: 71-77).

Since the proportional electoral system awards seats to parties whose votes exceed the minimum thresholds -- thereby avoiding the magnification of awards to the winning party and including parties with less support -- Sweden allows a parliamentary system with multiple parties. Due to the minimum thresholds, the parties that win seats are more likely to be viable parties without extreme political views, so it has been possible for multiple parties to work together in a stable arena. Between 1921 and 1998, only five different parties ever won representation, though one of these, the Left Party, actually won no seats from 1925 through 1969 (Ferrara; Metcalf: 288-89). The other parties that have continuously been represented are the Moderates, the Liberals, the Center Party, and the Social Democrats. The electoral system allowed other parties to begin winning seats, beginning with the Green Party in 1988 and then the Christian Democrats plus the New Democracy party in 1991 (Ferrara).

The Social Democrats have been the dominant political force of the twentieth century and they have the most members in the Riksdag today (Ferrara). This party has won more seats than any other party in every election since 1921, although it was unable to be a governing party for a total of ten years since that time (Metcalf: 288-89; Ferrara). Swedish voters have consistently shown their support for a system of social democracy that ensures the welfare of its citizens. This system, known as the Nordic welfare model, is designed to reduce social and economic inequalities by providing services such as health benefits, unemployment compensation, education, and daycare for children. The state is granted a monopoly on essential services and issues comprehensive labor regulations that benefit workers. Despite this, Sweden and the other Nordic countries intervene in the marketplace less than countries in other regions of Europe (Arter, David, 1999: 173-81). Social democracy began to be funded by strong capitalist growth seen after 1945, though the cost of the system, an average of more than 50 percent of personal income paid in taxes, is being questioned more and more in today’s economy (Arter: 176; Ferrara).

The party that wins the elections for the Riksdag is usually given the first right to try to form the executive cabinet (Mattila, Mikko and Tapio Raunio, 2002: 261-62). However, the Social Democrats have usually held a minority of seats and often cannot expect to have a parliamentary majority approve a cabinet made of only their own members, so a frequent strategy is to form a majority coalition with one or more other parties in order to cooperatively appoint cabinet members and approve them as a cohesive majority. In fact, the fragmented party system has organized itself into socialist and non-socialist blocs. The socialist bloc, of course, is led by the Social Democrats who have cooperated in the last decade with the Left Party and the Green Party. The non-socialist bloc is often led by the Moderate Party that may ally with the Liberals, the Christian Democrats, and the Center Party (Ferrara).

Mikko Mattila and Tapio Raunio discussed the importance of the "electoral principle" in their article "Government Formation in the Nordic Countries: The Electoral Connection." This principle holds that the electorate expects the winning parties, those that gain seats, to be in government and direct the building of a coalition if it is needed. The election results are considered to be a mandate supporting the intended policy of the winning party (Mattila and Raunio: 261-62). However, among the Nordic governments between 1945 and 2000 that they studied, Sweden was found to follow the electoral principle the least often: nearly half of its governments were found to be formed by losing parties, those that lost seats (Mattila and Raunio: 268).

Comparison and Contrast

The striking difference between the electoral systems of the two countries studied here is that British citizens are only represented by the first-place winners of each of their districts whereas the Swedes are represented by their winners plus many of the runners-up from their districts. Not only that but minority views that cannot quite win in their districts can still get a voice in the Riksdag through the system of adjustment seats. Voting is regarded as the primary way of participating in democracy, but voters in Britain essentially throw away their vote if it is not cast for the district winner. Voters in Sweden only lose their influence if their chosen party fails to receive enough votes to reach one of the minimum thresholds.

Though the Westminster Parliament is dominated by two parties, it should not be misunderstood as representing fewer viewpoints than the Riksdag that is occupied by a fragmented party system. As noted earlier, the factions of the dominant British parties constitute a multiplicity of interests, but the important difference is that the Swedes have a clearer choice of what ideology they want to support at the polls. Britons can neither mark a specific preference for New Labour or Old Labour, nor for neo-liberal or one nation. Swedes have more control of the ideology that is to be represented, but neither parliament is a microcosm of the society it serves (Esaiasson, Peter, and Sören Holmberg, 1996: 19).

One common criticism of fully proportional electoral systems does not apply to Sweden to any significant degree: A fully proportional system does not count votes on a district level but treats the entire country as a single constituency, and parliaments formed this way are faulted for allowing its members to be separated from local interests (Farrell: 97). Constituency is valued in Britain because its elected members of parliament are able to support local interests and are indeed tied to their districts to maintain voter support for the next election. So Sweden also supports the institution of constituency by maintaining local electoral districts, though with multiple members, and the members of the Riksdag indeed feel obligated to their constituents (Petersson, Olof et al., 1997: 130). Of course, it is possible that the larger districts with up to 36 members may be a little confusing for voters to express their local views; however, the reverse of this criticism is that if a voter has only one representative, and that representative belongs to a party opposed to the one this voter supported in the last election, then the voter may feel that he or she does not have a representative at all. Sweden offers a compromise that includes constituency plus wider representation of the constituents.

The Westminster Parliament and the Riksdag are both characterized by stability despite swift and unsettling changes that are possible in either system. Britain is open to criticism with its single-party government because the whole government changes when the majority party changes, but in practice the two dominant parties have often continued each other’s policies when changing places (Kavanagh: 167-69). Sweden is open to criticism with its proportional representation, a system that is often thought unstable with its ability to let in small extreme parties, but the Riksdag has actually had a stable party system that forms two opposing coalitions in a way that parallels the left-right ideological division of many two-party systems, and, further, the Riksdag has consistently promulgated a policy of social democracy. So both countries have been stable despite their different electoral systems.

In terms of the parliament following the new mandate from the voters in each election, both countries have failed at times. While Britain excludes all members outside of the winning party from executive functions and sometimes allows a party to win when its opposing party received more votes, Sweden forms governments unpredictably from combinations of the winning parties, losing parties, or both. Britain could only solve its problem by forming cabinets differently, or, more likely, introducing real proportionality into its electoral system. Sweden would have to institutionalize a new procedure for selecting a cabinet, but this issue may be less troublesome since, according to Mattila and Raunio, sometimes parties can "wield more influence from being in opposition, a rationale particularly applicable in the Nordic countries" (Mattila and Raunio: 261).

Nevertheless, Britain’s single-party government allows the government to be easily accountable to the voters, as described earlier above, and, correspondingly, this is a point of weakness for Sweden. The Center for Business and Policy Studies in Stockholm has claimed, "The great disadvantage of the proportional system of elections is that holding incumbent politicians to account is made more difficult," and, like Mattila and Raunio, it also noted the trouble that the electorate has in influencing government formation (Petersson et al.: 146). These issues must be weighed against Britain’s brand of continual parliamentary exclusion of small parties and occasional executive exclusion of the most popular party. It is quite telling that a 2001 opinion poll of voters immediately after an election showed an overall sentiment to adopt proportional representation (Dunleavy, Patrick et al., 2001: 28-32).


At first glance, it seems that Britain and Sweden each have fair and democratic representation; their differences just mean that each has country has made different tradeoffs to establish their electoral systems with similar levels of democratic results. Britain lacks Sweden’s proportionality but instead has tighter constituency relationships. Sweden lacks Britain’s immediately responsible government but instead puts more than one party in its cabinet. They both have two major parliamentary forces representing the left and the right (parties in Britain, blocs of parties in Sweden), and in neither country will the nationwide popular vote reliably determine who will form the cabinet. The list of tradeoffs goes on and on.

At second glance, finding which system really has the best characteristics is an empirical nightmare. There is no reliable way to balance all the factors and gauge which system represents the will of the people more closely. At third glance, we can only ask about democratic theory and consider democratic sentiment.

Democratic theory clearly favors a proportional representation system over a system of single-member districts. Democracy is believed to be government determined by the overall will of the people with respect for minority interests, so a tyranny by the majority is considered unacceptable. With its single-party executive branch, Britain is worse than that — it is a tyranny by the plurality. There is little benefit to having an immediately responsible government if there are inadequately few choices for government in the first place.

Democratic or public sentiment also favors proportional representation. A bill that would have placed a form of it in the Westminster Parliament almost passed in 1917, and discussion of electoral reform continues to this day in Britain. In 1997, the Royal Commission under Lord Jenkins that was charged with considering constitutional reform actually proposed an electoral system that would incorporate some proportionality as well as alternative votes (to reduce votes simply wasted on small parties), but no action has been taken (Kavanagh: 119-21). The literature on Sweden studied here is silent about any corresponding movement to change its electoral system.

After turning to democratic theory and to democratic or public sentiment, it must be concluded that Sweden’s electoral system is fairer to voters’ interests than the system in Britain. Unfortunately, it is natural to expect the politicians entrenched in Britain’s two-party system to maintain the status quo for the benefit of their parties as long as possible.

Works Cited

Arter, David (1999). Scandinavian Politics Today. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Dunleavy, Patrick et al. (2001). Voices of the People. London: Politico’s Publishing.

Esaiasson, Peter and Sören Holmberg (1996). Representation from Above: Members of Parliament and Representative Democracy in Sweden. Brookfield, Vermont: Dartmouth Publishing Company.

Farrell, David M. (2001). Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction. New York: Palgrave.

Ferrara, Federico (2003). "The Election of the Swedish Riksdag, September 2002," Representation. 39(2): 146-156.

Kavanagh, Dennis (2000). British Politics: Continuity and Change. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mattila, Mikko and Tapio Raunio (2002). "Government Formation in the Nordic Countries: The Electoral Connection," Scandinavian Political Studies. 25(3): 259-280.

Metcalf, Michael F (1987). The Riksdag: A History of the Swedish Parliament. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Nation Master (2003). "British House of Commons." St. Petersburg, Florida: WikiMedia. .

Nation Master (2003). "Elections in Sweden." St. Petersburg, Florida: WikiMedia. .

Petersson, Olof et al. (1997). Report from the Democratic Audit of Sweden 1996. Stockholm: SNS Förlag.

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