If the polls are right, we are heading for one of the most grossly disproportionate and illegitimate election results ever, and forming a government may be completely impossible after May. The latest poll has Labour and the Tories on 31%, with UKIP on 16%, and the Lib Dems and Greens both on 8%. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP have a 10% lead over Labour, with Labour on 31% and the SNP on 41%.
On a fully proportional system, Labour and the Conservatives would win 201 seats each, with 104 seats for UKIP, with 52 seats each for the Lib Dems and Green Party, and 40 seats for other and minor parties. But the UK does not have a fully proportional system. The electoral system used by the UK is First Past the Post.
First Past the Post is an electoral system that was created in the 18th century, when there were only two political parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. At the time, it was relatively simple. Whoever came first in each constituency won that constituency, and whoever came 1st in the most constituencies won the election. This is clearly a flawed approach for the modern era. To give an example of how FPTP tends to produce disproportionate results, let us simulate a first past the post election in 5 seats. Let us assume that party C wins 23.6% of the vote, and Party B wins 25% of the vote, and Party A wins 45% of the vote, with other parties winning the remainder. Let us also assume that the vote for party C is much more concentrated than the vote for party B, and that the other parties fail to get over an electoral threshold required for PR seat allocation. With a fully proportional system, Party A would win 2 seats, with 2 seats also for party B, and party C winning the final seat. But, often in a FPTP election, such a seat projection often turns out like this:
Party A: 60%
Party B: 20%
Party C: 20%
Party A: 40%
Party B: 30%
Party C: 15%
Party C: 38%
Party A: 35%
Party B: 20%
Party A: 50%
Party B: 20%
Party C: 20%
Party A: 40%
Party B: 35%
Party C: 25%
So, as you can see, although Party B comes second in nearly every seat, and has a higher % of the vote than Party C in this region, Party A nearly cleansweeps the election, winning 80% of seats, with Party C winning a solitary seat, and 0% of seats for Party B, despite its higher share of the vote than Party C. This kind of disprportionate result was seen in the UK General Election of 1983, when the Labour Party won over 180 more seats than the SDP, despite polling only a few hundreds of thousands of votes more, and Thatcher won a massive landslide. Another example is the February 1974 election, when the Liberals attracted 19% of the vote, and won just 4% of seats. Why does our electoral system tend to produce such massively disproportionate results?
The answer lies, firstly, in local strength. Labour and the Conservatives have always had thousands more councillors than the Lib Dems, or any other party. As a result, they are able to campaign hard in constituencies and squeeze out enough votes to see off smaller political parties. Therefore, it is also clear that the result of an FPTP election does not depend on the share of the vote that political parties get, and this is an effective irrelevence. The result depends on which party has the most broadly widespread and distributed support across the country. This is also partially the reason for the so-called “Labour-Tory gap”, a phenomenon where Labour can win many more seats more than the Tories on the same share of the vote nationally, primarily due to the Labour vote being distributed evenly around the country. It is said that where the Tories win a seat, they win it by 10 or 15,000 votes, and where Labour win a seat, they win it by 100. This is, however, changing, primarily due to events taking place in Scotland. Now, it may be Labour who will be partially disadvantaged by our voting system, as opinion polls in Scotland would see Labour losing the vast majority of its seats North of the border, whereas under a regional party list PR system, the party would be set to hold around half of those seats.
Another major problem with FPTP is the fact that is disenfranchises people in safe seats. Turnout in safe Labour seats in particular has taken a major blow over recent decades. The appearance of safe seats, and the fact that votes effectively do not count in those seats, a phenomenon only seen in first past the post, disenfranchises voters and makes many feel that the way they vote makes no difference to the overall result, whereas in a party list PR system or a multi-member proportional system, voters can cast a second vote for a regional list that will definitely make a difference. The fact that MPs and councillors in safe seats also have less of an incentive to keep in contact with and represent local residents adequately is another major blow to FPTP, especially at a time when trust in politics is lower than it has been at any time since the early 1970s.
An argument in favour of FPTP has been that it tends to produce strong government. However, it is highly likely that the next UK general election will result in a hung parliament, the second hung parliament in a row. This strongly undermines the argument that FPTP avoides horse trading, as horse trading on a scale never seen before may be required after the May election. Another argument in favour of FPTP is that the constituency link is broken with a party-list PR system. This is true to some extent. However, mixed member proportional systems such as AMS, or semi proportional system such as Alternative Vote +, retain the constituency link whilst also making sure that votes in safe seats count, as a seperate party list is used to proportionately elect list members to represent a particular electoral region, as well as an MP for the voter in his own constituency.
To sum up, First Past the Post has numerous problems. It is an 18th century electoral system, built for a two party system, and is not fit for the thriving, multi-party democracy that is UK politics today. Politicians and political parties must be ready and willing to accept this change, even if it is at the cost of less members of parliament for their own respective parties, and more consensus politics.