Change to German electoral system – is Sir Keir watching?

This week the German coalition government of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals began moves to reform the Federal Parliament (Bundestag) in what would be their country’s biggest constitutional shake-up for many years.

With electoral reform likely to be on the UK’s political agenda after the Conservatives almost certainly lose the next general election (due by January 2025 at the very latest) the choices made in Berlin are worth examining. Especially because their present government is ideologically very similar to a likely Labour-led coalition in the UK.

Germany has a hybrid system, with some MPs elected on a Westminster-style first-past-the-post system, but others elected via a top-up list so as to make the entire Bundestag represent the nationwide percentage share of the vote.

This hybrid system means that the Bundestag is not simply divided proportionally to match the parties’ share of the vote. For example, to gain proportionally-based seats, a party must poll at least 5% nationwide, or qualify for proportional top-ups if it wins at least three directly-elected seats. This happened recently with the far-left party Die Linke.

Markus Söder, leader of the Bavarian conservative party CSU, which would be the biggest loser if this week’s reforms are passed.

On the other hand, a party with a very strong regional base can end up winning more directly elected seats than a proportional carve-up would have given them. This is the case with Bavaria’s conservative party CSU. Extra seats are created to balance out such anomalies and are known as ‘overhang’ seats: these have meant that the present Bundestag is the largest ever, with 736 MPs.

This week’s proposed reform would eliminate ‘overhang’ seats, and fix the number of German MPs at 598.

At a basic level the reform is likely to be popular with voters, since it will save money and cut bureaucracy. And it’s a cunning move by the government because it will weaken the CSU. Even though CSU is the sister party of CDU, the present system of ‘overhang’ balancing takes no account of that, and gives an artificial boost to the combined CDU-CSU strength.

Reforming this would be likely to make any future conservative-led government more dependent on a deal with parties further to the right – presently AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) or whichever party succeeds AfD if it splits/declines. Unsurprisingly, the present reform is similar to a policy that the AfD itself promoted four years ago.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (above right, meeting Prime Minister Sunak) and her SNP would be the big losers if the UK adopted a system similar to that now proposed in Germany.

Here in the UK the party in a similar position to CSU (though very different ideologically) is Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party. The present electoral system gives the SNP grossly inflated importance at Westminster, relative to its share of the UK-wide vote. At the last general election SNP won 3.9% of the UK-wide vote, and 48 MPs (i.e. 7.4% of the House of Commons). The system almost doubled the SNP’s importance at Westminster, and this would be far more important in the event of no major party gaining a Commons majority, thus making Sturgeon and her allies kingmakers.

By contrast a more purely proportional system would probably give a populist/nationalist party (i.e. whatever replaces Reform UK and UKIP) more Westminster seats than the SNP. The other big winners from a change to a German-style system would almost certainly be the Greens.

Most importantly for racial nationalists, it would end the ‘wasted vote’ argument that has so far prevented many of those who sympathise with our ideas from voting for a racial nationalist party.

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