First-past-the-post: a broken system?

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Brexit has demonstrated exactly how divided we are as a country. We’re now a country of Brexiteers and Remoaners, northerners and southerners, degree qualifications and GCSEs. Yet somehow through all of this, and through a decade of unconvincing government majorities, we’re still hanging on to a massively disproportionate electoral system.

Brexit has demonstrated exactly how divided we are as a country

Let’s start with the technicalities. Our first-past-the-post system is designed for a strong government – that’s pretty much the only thing going for it. It does this by basing seat wins on a plurality of the vote, not a majority.

The winner of any constituency doesn’t have to have over 50% of the vote, they just have to have more than any other candidate in the room, and once chosen all those votes for other candidates essentially cease to matter. Their views are unrepresented in parliament, because their vote doesn’t contribute to the election of any MP.

It’s incredibly difficult for a third party to be able to significantly challenge the status quo

This is meant to benefit our country. By relying on pluralities and not majorities, it’s more likely that one party will gain a majority because smaller parties are pushed out of the equation. Third parties require very concentrated support in constituencies to be able to beat either major party, and while this does occasionally happen, it’s difficult for a third party to be able to significantly challenge the status quo by getting a substantial number of seats.

This is why first-past-the-post turns us into a two-party system. For fear of ‘wasting’ a vote on a party unlikely to return an MP, people shift their allegiance to one of the two major parties that have a chance of winning, so that they can say that they had a meaningful choice over who represented them.

First-past-the-post turns us into a two-party system

Now for years this probably was the best method of voting in the UK, and there are advantages to it. By allowing a single party to take a majority share of seats, we supposedly create a more effective government and avoid the difficulties and inefficiencies of coalitions (just look at Germany for an example of the challenges of proportional representation). But this doesn’t stand true anymore.

Between 1945 and 2010, there was only one minority government, but in the last nine years alone we’ve had one minority government, one coalition, and one unconvincing majority under David Cameron. Our system is failing us, because our constituencies are no longer the clear-cut party supporters that they once were.

Our system is failing us, because our constituencies are no longer the clear-cut party supporters that they once were

Brexit, austerity, immigration and education have superseded the geographical class divide that once made our elections so simple, splitting our constituencies and giving no party a meaningful mandate. And once that’s gone, first-past-the-post just creates a chaotic parliament where no party can be certain of what their role is.

We lament the corruptness of the DUP deal with the Conservatives (their being given an extra £1 billion in exchange for their 10 MPs voting with the Conservatives), but it’s the first-past-the-post system that really caused this. May has shown how challenging it is to lead with a minority in Parliament when the system is geared for a majority party and primary opposition – it’s why the DUP deal was necessary, yet we seem to be ignoring this fact when we continue to believe that change to our electoral system is unnecessary.

But more than it’s failures in producing a government, first-past-the-post can also take the blame for undermining our democracy. The figures speak for themselves: in the 2015 election, the Green Party, UKIP, and the Liberal Democrats got almost 25% of the vote, but only 10 seats. The Conservatives got around 37% of the vote, and 331 seats.

There’s no way of phrasing this to make it look legitimate – around a quarter of the UK population found themselves dramatically under-represented in parliament, and therefore unable to make their views on Britain’s future known.

And we shouldn’t limit this to just seat numbers. First-past-the-post is even capable of twisting the pluralities it is meant to be based around. In 2017, May received a greater proportion of the vote than Blair did in 1997, yet while Blair is known for his landslide majority, May is known for her abject failure.

Brexit has bitterly divided our country, yet first-past-the-post will exacerbate the lack of trust in our government

We could say that MPs are meant to represent the entirety of their constituency, not just the ones who voted for them. And this is legitimate, but it still ignores the damaging psychological effects of the system’s failure. When governments can be elected on only 35% of the vote (as Cameron was in 2015), it’s no wonder that only 35% of the population could say that they trusted the government, because few others are represented by the group making decisions about their daily life.

These problems become even more important when we consider our current political context. Brexit has bitterly divided our country, yet first-past-the-post will exacerbate the lack of trust in our government because a majority of the population did not vote for it. The emergence of Change UK (formerly the Independent Group) is demonstrating the political and public appetite for a broader party selection, yet first-past-the-post will prevent any accurate or meaningful representation in parliament. There is evident need for proportional voting now more than ever, because the UK can no longer be said to fit into the mould of a successful first-past-the-post system.

Under a proportional system, we can boost our representation without undermining government effectiveness

Under a proportional system, we can boost our representation without undermining government effectiveness. Scotland and Wales have demonstrated how successful such systems can be (they both use the Additional Member System to elect their assemblies).

Yes, there is the potential for difficult coalitions, but the last nine years have set a distinctly low bar for effective elections. And where people feel that they are represented in their government, we can reduce the political acrimony on the streets by channelling their political frustrations through their representatives to make real change.

 

Photograph via Wikimedia Creative Commons

 

 

 

One thought on “First-past-the-post: a broken system?

  • With first past the post, there Is an incentive for individual campaigning and voters are likely to know who their MPs are. Compare with the EU elections based on PR and a list system. Incentives were low for campaigning, a very large share of voters couldn’t name a single MEP and the resulting detachment contributed to the 2016 referendum outcome. With smaller constituencies and first past the post, there may never have been a remain vote.

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