The election when first past the post lost

One part of the result is crystal clear even before polling day: our electoral system no longer functions

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

The defence of the Westminster first-past-the-post voting system is that while it’s certainly unfair, it delivers decisive results. A relatively small swing in support from one party to another can deliver the kind of parliamentary majority that ensures fully functioning government. This worked well when British politics was a two-party business, and pretty well when it became a three-party affair. But in this new era of multi-party politics, the Westminster voting system is no longer fit for purpose — as the past few months have demonstrated.

When Britain was asked about changing electoral systems in the referendum for the alternative vote, we stuck with the devil we knew. Understandably: at the time there was reason to believe that coalition might prompt a return to two-party politics, in England at least. But then Ukip established itself as Britain’s third most popular political party, and even after coalition the Lib Dems still have considerably more MPs than they had in 1992 while the Greens are no longer simply a postscript in the election results. The electorate’s political preferences have diversified — a fact that the House of Commons is unable to reflect.

The other problem with first past the post is the way it encourages all parties to concentrate their resources almost exclusively on a handful of swing seats. This longstanding problem has been massively exacerbated by modern polling techniques, which mean that the parties know (or think they know) precisely which seats, and which wards in those seats, could yield the votes they need. The growth of junk mailing computer databases means they also believe they know which voters to target. In this way an election to govern a country of 60 million souls is reduced to a battle for a couple of per cent of the electorate.

In many cases, parties abandon voters completely. One of the more depressing experiences of this campaign has been seeing candidates from near-unwinnable seats abandon their home turf to help out in nearby marginals. This is an offence against basic democracy: there may not be many Tories in Labour’s safest seats, or vice versa, but those who do exist deserve a candidate who is campaigning every day in their own constituency, not someone else’s. This trend is no fault of the candidates who are going walkabout: they are only obeying orders from party HQ, often with a very heavy heart. All this contributes to the narrowing of our politics as the parties lower their ambition and abandon seats that they can’t realistically win; the Liberal Democrats have only really contested about 10 per cent of seats in this election. As a result, parties pass up the chance to sow the seeds of a recovery or reach new voters.

This focus on marginal seats is cynical. But it’s the logical response to the current Westminster voting system: you don’t mean a thing if your seat’s not a swing.

First past the post has much to recommend it. The link between an MP and his or her constituency is valuable: everyone has an MP working for them. It prevents party bosses from having the power that a continental-style PR list system gives them. But I wonder if now it is time to move to a two-round system, such as that used in France. In any constituency where no one has received an absolute majority of the votes cast, there is a run-off a week later. This second contest involves only candidates who secured the support of at least an eighth of registered voters.

This would lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of safe seats. Those who were voting tactically (for example, to keep out the nationalist candidate in Scotland) would be operating with far better information than they are today.

The SNP’s dominance of this campaign is a reminder that there is much unfinished business from last year’s Scottish independence referendum. It has long been assumed that the English simply weren’t bothered by the West Lothian question. But in this campaign the Tories have managed to interest English voters, if not in the constitutional niceties of the debate, then in the fairness or lack thereof of the current devolution settlement. As the SNP becomes far stronger and more provocative, English resentment will only grow — and this will become just as much of a threat to the union as Scottish nationalism. This will, in turn, make it that much easier for advocates of Scottish independence to argue that England and Scotland would get along better as separate states.

It always used to be said that the best answer to the West Lothian question was not to ask it. But that position is no longer tenable. Even if the Tories wanted to stop asking it, they couldn’t — politically — stop now. If they did then Ukip would take up the cause — and the votes that go with it. Indeed, Ukip sources privately admit that the Tory focus on the SNP — or ‘ajockalpyse now’ as Boris Johnson called it — has helped them pick up votes in safe Labour seats in the north. Traditional Labour supporters worry about SNP influence but would never vote Tory, so are looking for an alternative party to support. They are now Ukip’s target voters.

The extraordinary surge in support for the SNP north of the border shows that the constitutional question is not going away in Scotland. Fortunately, there is an answer that deals with both the Scottish question and the West Lothian one: federalism. The best way to preserve the union now is to move to a system where there is full financial autonomy — the Scottish Parliament should be in charge of raising all the money that is spent in Scotland. And meanwhile, let only the English decide English laws. Without such reforms, it is depressingly hard to see how it can survive for another generation.

When David Cameron agreed to a coalition five years ago he explained to his colleagues that only from government could they shift some of the negative perceptions about their party. It’s safe to say that this strategy has not been a resounding success. In part, that is because deficit reduction has had to take precedence over social reform — but as the election demonstrated, the party’s appeal remains far too narrow. The mission, now, is to find a way to craft a Conservatism that can appeal to 40 per cent or more of voters.

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  • goodsoldier

    Let’s see whether it is Merkel or Nigel Farage who wins today. That is really the choice before us.

    • tjamesjones

      oh you kipper fools, you’ll give us Ed yet.

      • Mr B J Mann

        Looks like it was the Tories that were trying to fool us all.

        And succeeded in fooling you!

        • tjamesjones

          if things could have gone any better it’s only in my dreams. cybernats, kippers, it’s been fun, but we don’t need you any more. good night!

          • Mr B J Mann


            Interesting response.

            What you need to worry about is how they (note the “they”) are going to respond next time round.

          • tjamesjones

            that’s even less of a worry: scotland is heading one way and that’s into self made oblivion. Full fiscal autonomy within a couple of years and they can do what they want.
            we’ll vote to stay in the EU, and remaining Kippers will presumably target northern england, and try to kick out labour like the nats did in scotland.

          • Mr B J Mann


            You’re hoping for a “North” breakaway leaving the EU region of Londonistan to soar on the back of taking in each others financial services and selling overpriced and underperforming/ non-performing/ Ponzi schemes and other toxic “investments” to each other?!

            Brilliant plan.

            Once the “workers”, the au pairs, the barristas, the Hispanic gardeners, the African limo valeters, the Asian maids, are having to collect their wages of your sin in wheelbarrows full of vastly overpriced and/or worthless banking shares and junk bonds they’ll soon up sticks and start flooding back to Calais.

            Taking even the few remaining indigenous poor, plus the taxi drivers, with real Cockney accents with them!

      • Pacificweather

        Not under FPTP they won’t. The turkeys have voted for Christmas.

  • William MacDougall

    Mostly well argued, but why do you suggest the French two round system, when that is almost the same as the AV system so decisively rejected in the referendum, and actually the first choice of few at the time? Surely the best option is the List top-up system used in Scotland and Germany? And you are mistaken re central power; the system with the most power for the party leader is FPTP – with a list PR system party members who aren’t favoured by their leader can always start new parties, while with FPTP that is much more difficult.

    Perhaps the strongest argument for PR is Scotland, where under FPTP the SNP will get nearly every seat, but with PR they would only get around half the seats. The distorting affect of FPTP is very severe and dangerous for the Union.

    • Ian Walker

      Baffling to want the French system, which is just an expensive version of the AV. The STV system is almost universally recognised as the best way to keep the constituency link while achieving broadly proportional representation.

      A long, but well worth reading piece here: http://www.knackered.org.uk

      • William MacDougall

        STV clearly has a weaker constituency link than top up systems, because it requires larger constituencies to be at all proportional…

      • Sam

        Thanks for the link

      • rtj1211

        His argument is designed so the run off would only have UKIP, Conservative and Labour. The agenda is the extermination of Libdem and Green Parties.

        It’s got nothing to do with democracy, to do with a right wing cabal agenda coming from unelected shadowy figures with power and influence…….

  • Otherwise a good story, but the proposal to adopt a two round election system totally misses the point! This wouldn’t help minority parties like the Greens at all, they would still face a very steep uphill battle to secure any seat, with the consequence that their voters would remain underrepresented in parliament. No big difference to the unsatisfying state of affairs now.

    No, real change can only come from a switch to a system that ensures the composition of parliament reflects the choices by the voters. To achieve that, you need to have additional candidates on party lists, to make up for the difference between directly won votes and the number of seats required by the popular vote. That’s the way to make it happen that a party that is supported by, say, 10% of the people gets their fair share of 10% of the seats! This can’t be accomplished at all by adding a second round to the election, so Mr. Forsyth’s proposal is rather useless.

  • Earlshill

    Of course proportional representation is the answer to a completely broken parliamentary system of government. In Scotland it would allow the 50% of the electorate not seduced by the SNP message to be properly represented, with a reasonable number of Labour, Conservative, LD and maybe even a UKIP candidate elected as well as SNP candidates.
    In England and Wales it would allow a much fairer and more representative set of MPs to be elected. It’s utterly perverse that the two main parties continue to support an electoral system that patently does not reflect the will of the people as evidenced by their voting pattern. If no action is taken to rectify this abuse of the democratic process during the next five years, we will face a serious prospect of insurrectionary action to resolve it.

    • Pacificweather

      We could have had a Conservative UKIP coalition under proportional representation. That rather than a desire to live in a democracy will fire up half the nation. When the British don’t understand something or they get the least bit fearful they vote for the status quo. The two main parties know this so expect a rise in the fear quotient.

  • Frank

    That is one way of looking at it. Another might be to realise that had Cameron not divided his party, he would be waltzing into power with a massive majority. He might even have done this in 2010 when he was faced by one of the most disliked Prime Minister in decades!

  • IndependentEngland

    ‘…let only the English decide English laws’. I agree 100%. However you do not explore how this would be done. English Votes on English Laws is clearly nonsense. Not only does it not fully address procedures in the House of Commons, it ignores the fact that voting in the legislature is only one part of the process of government.

  • 9 referendums between Scotland, Wales & NI to England’s zero referendums ever. Isn’t it time the English had a say on England?

    • IndependentEngland

      The British governmen doesn’t want England to have an independence referendum because they are not confident of the result.

    • Closedshop

      Around 85% of Westminster MPs are from England. It is an English parliament in all but name.

      Britain was only a made up identity so Scotland would go along with being ruled by London.

  • rhys

    Earlshill is spot on. But there is more : the current system effectively confines over 400 safe seats, maybe a lot more, to ‘Rotten Borough’ status, not unlike the system before the 1832 Reform Act.

    And it encourages abstentionism and disillusionment.

    As a candidate one of the most depressing questions I heard at a school Hustings was from a VIth Former who asked ” What is the point of voting here when everyone knows the Labour candidate always wins ?” The same question could have been asked, mutatis mutandis, in the great majority of constituencies.

    At the 2010 election here ( Bishop Auckland ) a total of approx 46,000 people voted – and some 40,000, almost the same number, did not trouble to vote.
    And one can understand why, even though not endorsing such abstentionism.

    If SNP really do sweep the board today that will be their springboard for a renewed campaign to break up the UK, which might well acquire unstoppable momentum, given zero or almost zero unionist MPs representing Scotland in Westminster.
    So FPTP will be a direct and powerful causative factor in the break up of the UK.

    Yet : a) the Unionist vote in Scotland is certain to be equal or near equal to that of the separatists ( but almost unrepresented in Parliament ) ; and b) the UKIP vote is predicted to be well over twice that of the SNP – yet SNP may have a phalanx of 50 or more, and UKIP half a dozen MPs at most. Even Greens may get almost as many votes in total as SNP ( yet have only one MP ) : how can it possibly be legitimate for a Parliament debating and ordering the affairs of the nation to be so grotesquely unrepresentative of the electorate ? The word ‘democracy’ is completely inappropriate to describe this fix up of the Establishment cabal.

    I don’t think honestly more than a small minority value the ‘constituency link with the MP’ ~how many can even name their MP ? But in any event there are PR systems which allow for such a link. E.g. ‘PR Plus’ which Jenkins recommended nigh on 20 years ago.

    Why not a system based on the current ( and therefore familiar ) system used for electing MEPs ?

    I.E., region based PR, with larger numbers of MPs than are elected for Westminster ? And it gets better, because at no extra cost you could organize for the ballot paper to contain not only boxes for Party preference : 1, 2,3, but also you could have a sub~box within the Party box with the candidates listed in alphabetical order, and permitting ( but not requiring ) voters to choose their preferences for the individual candidates.

    Electors interested could attend Hustings / read electoral literature, not only of the contesting Parties, but also, separately, Hustings / literature within Parties so as to be informed as to which of a particular Party’s candidates they ( the electors ) preferred.

    As I say, this could be an optional, not an obligatory choice, so Electors could still if they wished just list 1,2, 3 by Party preference – but it would transfer some of the power of patronage from Party managers to the wider electorate.

    FPTP is both BUST and BUSTED. It must never again be used to ‘elect’ ( sick joke ) what should be the people’s Parliament.
    Greens, UKIP, LibDems , not to mention persons of fair mindedness in other Parties must put aside their differences and agitate forcefully and ceaselessly for this reform before all else. From tomorrow.

    • Vee

      There are already several groups – such as the electoral reform society, Unlock democracy, 38 degrees, change.org, and avaaz starting campaigns/petitions for reform. Even a young lad not yet old enough to vote who has opened a petition which – at the last count – already had 500,000 signatures.
      let us hope that if we get that far again the populace will not be so easily deceived into voting ‘no’

      • Pacificweather

        All the two parties have to do is make it sound confusing and the British will vote for the status quo. Tell them the Northern Irish are bright enough to vote using STV and you might get some reaction. It is beginning to dawn on people (especially Ukippers) that the majority of votes are ineffective but how many know that 2/3 of MPs are elected by a minority of the votes cast by their constituents. The TV companies did not mention these facts in 2011. It they do it might be a different story. Well, possibly. It takes a great deal to get the British not to vote for the status quo. No to Brexit is still on the cards.

        • Vee

          So we get an MP who is NOT wanted by more voters than DO want him. And this is supposed to give them a mandate to govern?
          Interestingly, almost before the polls had closed there was a surge (which continues) of people, many of whom had never joined a political party before, who rushed to join the Lib Dems. What does that tell us? Were these the folk who had left voting to others, in the expectation that all would be well? Or what? Intriguing.

          • Pacificweather

            The joys of a postcode democracy.

  • KilowattTyler

    Having one vote per elector gives an all-or-nothing choice. If each elector had ,say, 10 votes to allocate as they please they could indicate the depth of approval for the candidates on offer. If, for example, one thought that the Conservative candidate was very good, but that the Labour one was ok and the UKIP candidate made some valid points one might allocate the ten votes in the proportion 5:3:2.
    There could be constituencies where electors were unenthusiastic about any of the candidates on offer. It might be useful to have an “All candidates unsatisfactory” box on all ballot papers. If votes in this category exceeded a certain threshold value the winning candidate would still gain their seat but a by-election could be held exactly one year later, giving time for new candidates to put themselves forward and campaign. This “null option” would be an active alternative to simply not voting, and avoid the “voter apathy” ‘explanation’ currently wheeled out whenever turnout is low.

  • A Nonymouse

    Sinn Fein has 80 times the representation in Westminster that UKIP have. The Tories have 110 times. There is a very big hole in the middle. The Lib/Dems and UKIP got 20% of the vote and 1.5% of the seats.
    Bin the Lords and replace it with a PR chamber.
    You will recall what happened the last time “taxation without representation” was tried.

  • Dominic Stockford

    Do nothing hasty, for you will repent in vain if you do. Replacement of one system with another at the behest of middling parties that lost out under a system which didn’t give them the answer they wanted is dangerous.

    Do we really want to put an end to independent candidates?
    Do we really want to put an end to smaller parties with 10 or 20 candidates?
    Do you really want to put the power into the hands of the larger parties for all time?

    Be careful. As Mr Churchill said, this is a terrible way to do things, but it is so much better than all the others.

    • rob232

      The problem with proportional representation is that instead of having one representative each constituency has several often from different parties. Judging from Spain where I have lived since the introduction of democracy in the seventies you may as well vote for cardboard cutouts. No one even knows the names of their MPs and most certainly they will never reply if you should write to them.

  • John Carins

    We can mend our own Union by getting out of the EU. The chance will come in 2017 and if we do not vote to get out then that will be the end of the UK.

  • Molly NooNar
  • John de Rivaz

    It would be interesting to have a website where citizens can vote on every parliamentary bill. Such a site would be for information only, ie the “Citizens vote” result would not be binding on Parliament. However once it became well used, it would provide feedback on what people actually want

    • rob232

      It would be argued that only a certain kind of person voted on a website and that it wasn’t representative of public opinion. There are already sites where people vote and they aren’t really reliable.

  • Hamburger

    PR does not work either. We don’t have the ability to remove individual politicians. If, for example, the SDP lost an election heavily, the top echelon of politicians would remain as MdPs. They may, in an unlikely scenario, resign their mandates but the voters cannot throw them out. We have a situation here where the CDU/CSU received nearly 50%of the votes, the SPD 25%. They are however in power.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    One of the most infuriating and revolting clichés parroted by supporters of the establishment Parties is that even the result we saw last week is, well, “democracy” – so that’s alright, then.
    It wasn’t and isn’t “democracy”: last week gave us a shamefully perverse result whereby the third most popular Party, UKIP, scored just one seat, while the roughly 50% of Scots supporting the SNP contributed fewer than half the votes UKIP got – with 56 Parliamentary seats won.
    No-one can credibly or honestly suggest that this is any meaningful interpretation of “democracy”. It’s wicked, perverse, and disgraceful.

  • Paul Staples
  • Ampleforth

    Interesting article. I’ll be looking at some alternate systems and applying the results to recent general elections this over the next few days on Ampleforth. http://wp.me/p6aEH2-I

  • Philip Dutton

    Crikey. This right wing, ‘divide and conquer’ really does work eh!!! What a horrible selfish country we have become.
    I just wish people would stop thinking about themselves and start thinking of others…even if it means losing a little yourself!!!!

  • Philip Dutton

    If we had a one man one vote system…God help all you selfish right wingers. All the disillusioned would turn out to vote and then the Tory’s would never get in again. The Corporations would actually have to pay tax and the poor would not have to beg for handouts from wealthy people!!
    I actually truly believe that most right wing votes are due to the right wing propaganda machine. 85% of the press owned by Corps??? Say no more!