By Colin Talbot
First-Past-the-Post is not just deeply unrepresentative, it is poisonous to democratic politics. It fundamentally undermines real democratic values. The UK general election has just demonstrated this, again.
That first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral systems can produce unrepresentative results is well known. Even in two-party races this can happen, if there is an uneven distribution of votes. In multi-party elections this can be much more distorting.
This election in the UK demonstrates this. In England the Conservatives won just under half the popular vote but almost two-thirds of the MPs.
As the table shows, if the number of MPs were genuinely representative of people’s votes the Tories will have only won 252 seats, not the 345 they actually got in England. The Liberal Democrats would have 66 MPs, instead of the meagre 7 they actually won. Smaller parties like the Greens and Brexit Party would be properly represented.
2019 General Election: England
Source: calculated from data on BBC website
Even more dramatically the number of votes needed to elect a single MP across the UK as a whole are astonishingly different. The Tories needed just 38,304 votes, whereas Labour needed 50,649 votes for each elected MP. The Liberal Democrats got one MP for every 331,226 votes – almost ten times the number needed to elect a Tory.
These distorted results are not just ‘facts on the ground’ which we all have to live with, they also distort the conceptual universe of politics. What we see is what we get, in terms of MPs elected. Whereas the reality of people’s votes is very different.
The story being told about this election is of a massive triumph for Boris Johnson. He has a big majority of 80 over the opposition parties. He won 365 MPs to Theresa May’s paltry 318. What an achievement!
Johnson was the fortunate beneficiary of the divided nature of his opposition, rather than of being a brilliant campaigner who won over millions more to the Tory banner. He garnered less than a third of a million extra votes – 329,767.
The British Lion didn’t “roar for Boris” – as the Daily Express claimed – it was more like a bored yawn. FPTP warps our perceptions of what is really going on . It is like wearing someone else’s varifocals – what you see is distorted version of real opinion trends.
‘BIG TENT’ COMPROMISES – BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
FPTP is a dying system – it is only used in a few major democracies and mostly where there have been two-party duopolies – like the UK, USA and Canada. In fact FPTP encourages the creation of so-called ‘big-tent’ parties because it penalises small parties (see above).
This shifts a lot of the compromises needed to create policies and govern effectively to inside these large parties – inside what is in effect a closed coalition where policy is decided behind closed doors, often by very small elites.
This has historically been true for both the main parties in the UK – Labour and Conservative. The public have no say and cannot even see how compromises are arrived at. They are presented by two large menus to choose between and have little chance to change specific policies.
The alternative – multi-party proportional democracy – means people can, in theory at least, vote for the actual policies they want and then see how compromises are reached within an elected legislature as parties process issues. It doesn’t always work as it should, but at least it provides the possibility of amore deliberative and participatory politics?
LIES WE TELL THE VOTERS
One of the most disengaging aspects of two-party FPTP systems is the way that – come election time – everyone in a big-tent party pretends to be in total agreement with one another.
Candidates must pretend they agree with almost everything in their party’s manifesto, even when everyone knows they don’t.
This has a corroding effect on voter’s trust of politicians. We all know they are lying when they pretend to agree with things they have clearly opposed in the past. Politicians dissemble and duck-and-dive to avoid answering awkward questions. It makes them look shifty and disingenuous – because that is exactly what they are being.
In the age of mass, and now social, media it is ever harder to hide the fact that candidates do not really support some of the tings they claim to. How many voters seriously believed the majority of Labour candidates wanted Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister, or that most Tory ones thought Boris Johnson was trustworthy?
Tactical voting has been a major talking point in this election. There have been many campaigns to try to maximise the vote on specific issues: stopping a Tory majority; blocking or delivering Brexit; etc.
The truth is that tactical voting has always happened, just at an individual level. When FPTP forces people to choose between two unpalatable alternatives, they choose least-worst option.
The figures we analysed above are based on how people voted with FPTP in place – we don’t know how people might vote if the incentive to back one of the ‘big two’ was removed. But it is safe bet they would not get anything like the results we have seen in this election.
Some parliamentary democracies are classified as ‘majoritarian’ by political scientists. By which they mean that whoever ‘wins’, gets the most MPs, tends to get all the power. Arend Lijphart, one of the greatest analysts of different patterns of democracy, more or less equates majoritarian democracies with what is often called the ‘Westminster model’.
Although it is possible to have a majoritarian, winner-takes-all, system of government coupled to a proportional electoral system, in most cases proportional representation encourages more consensual forms of government (see Lijphart’s “Patterns of Democracy”)
Voters can be fickle, claiming they want more compromise – consensual – government whilst at the same time wanting the ‘firm government’ majoritarian systems supposedly deliver. Although consensual systems also can have their problems, most research tends to suggest they are preferable to winner-takes-all majoritarian ones.
CAN CHANGE HAPPEN?
One argument that is frequently deployed against change to a more proportional system is that it cannot happen because the people in power, or who would be in power, benefit from the existing system.
That of course ignores the gradual reform of British democracy from the 1832 Great Reform Act onwards – every step of which was resisted by forces who benefitted from the old system.
The 2011 Alternative Vote referendum is now cited of further evidence that change cannot happen. And indeed the ganging up of the Labour and Conservative parties against the Liberal Democrats proposed replacement of FPTP clearly worked. Only a third (32%) voted for change.
But that was a top-down referendum, sprung on voters without any of the sort of campaigning that led to reforms of the suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A bottom-up campaign could succeed.
The argument against FPTP is not merely that is unrepresentative – it is clearly that. But it also poisons our politics, creating division, cynicism, lack of transparency and even mis-shapes our thinking about what is happening in politics. Boris Johnson’s 1.2% “triumph” ought to be enough to convince anyone just how pernicious the effects of FPTP are?
9 thoughts on “Unrepresentative Democracy: the poison of first-past-the-post.”
In 2011 68% voted to not change the electoral system … yaaaaawn
If you had bothered to read the article (which you clearly have not) I discuss that.
As yiu have nothing interesting to say, other than something I already did, suggest you toddle off and play somewhere else?
Fascinating stuff. After the Brexit referendum, I asked a few friends why they choose leave and after parroting the campaign slogans, the common thread was that they felt their lives had gotten worse because the elites had ignored them. One lady, who had lived in a “safe” Conservative seat since she had arrived on planet Earth said that her vote never counted until the Brexit referendum. FPTP had robbed her of the feeling of participation and that elections were just something that happened to her.
That’s sense of hopelessness was echoed throughout friends of mine. If you had asked any of them to attend an anti-EU march in 2010, they would have laughed at you. However, the referendum had once again demonstrated that their vote didn’t count but this time is was plain to see and there were millions that felt the same.
The sense of taking back control is what the individual voter wanted. To be heard. To be represented. That’s what they feel they’re getting and in certain ways that may be true but I think removing FPTP is the only way to engage the electorate.
Thanks again for the insight, it will help bolster my own argument in the future.
The 2011 AV vote was not even a form of PR.
I had voted for Liberals/Lib Dems in every election from 1983 to 2010 but once they blew the opportunity to have a vote on genuine PR I swore I would never vote for such political imbeciles ever again (even for the council) and I never have!
About two thirds of the population favoured PR after 2010 but by the time the Lib Dems had been totally outmanoeuvred by Cameron, the AV system interested only a third of the electorate. I voted for it as it was all that was on offer, but I knew it was doomed from the start (just like Swinson’s ineptitude doomed the Lib Dems this time).
Still, I think he is Sir Nick Clegg now and no doubt a peerage when it suits so that is all fine!
Good article. FPTP isn’t just unfair and corrupt, it is a serious threat to our society as it is a massive disincentive to innovation and change as it supports the largest parties, which tend to be sclerotic and difficult to adopt change that is happening in the wider society, as they look for compromised broad internal agreement on policy. The fact that smaller parties, based on different thinking, are massively disadvantaged is a real problem for the development of the society, as they cannot get any proportionate foothold and grow as they have more influence and respond better to change in social structures and new thinking about how to govern and organise our societies in the face of environmental and existential threats.
I am seeing a lot of progressives bemoaning FPTP at the moment, they blame the voting system for why they lost the election.
This is so frustrating. They are backing the cause of electoral reform for all the wrong reasons; AND they are looking for excuses as to why they lost which will prevent them doing the soul-searching necessary if we’re going to win next time round and deliver the sort of government we all want. And the fact that in the mind of many progressives, the main reason for FPTP being bad is that the Tories have just won under it, means it will drop off their agenda right at the time they attain the position to implement it.
So can we talk about what could replace FPTP?
I don’t have a fixed preference. And even if I did, I think it is a matter for some sort of “constitutional convention” type body to discuss and reach a consensus about what alternative(s) to propose?
This would all be a bit more persuasive if we hadn’t just witnessed:
– an entryist party force its agenda, not just on one of the reluctant majoritarian parties, but on the country as a whole (UKIP)
– the Conservatives shift their whole policy offer in order to capture a bloc of seats that were previously deemed not to be in play at elections.
Majoritarian parties are the only way to keep party manifestoes honest and, above all, responsible – you promise it, then you have to do it if you win (or pay the price). There’s no room to hide like there is inside coalition “negotiations”.