From the 1867 Reform Act and the 1918 Representation of People Act to the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1969, the United Kingdom has enacted legislation to make its voting process more inclusive and, thus, more democratic. Yet its belligerence in keeping the First Past the Post (FPTP) system suppresses its ability to uphold its democratic values in practice.
DEMOCRACY AND OUR DEMOCRATIC VALUES
We often hear politicians talk about democracy with an international lens. Countries are divided by those who are democratic and those we are not, with the latter overwhelmingly demonised. However, this binary distinction is unhelpful. Democracy is better understood as something that we can always have more – or less – of, rather than a permanent state of being. The democratic systems underpinning nations can be made more inclusive, more representative, and more responsive. And the reverse can also be true if these countries become complacent of their democratic values.
Democratic systems are only effective if they uphold three components: (1) the will of the people; (2) individual autonomy; and (3) equality. Without these principles, the process is incomplete. In practice, that means:
- Allowing people to control their own lives (within reason)
- Allowing everyone to have the same opportunity to influence governmental decisions
The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced why these values are important and it has also shone a magnifying glass on how quickly democracy can be subverted by executive powers. It has made many – including myself – reflective about the voting system in the UK and whether FPTP allows us to embody the democratic values we consider intrinsically linked to our national identity.
PROS AND CONS OF FPTP
After some researching, it appears the main advantages and disadvantages often used when talking about FPTP are:
What is most telling is that the advantages of keeping FPTP all seem to revolve around the practicalities of governing rather than how democratic the system is. FPTP is considered as easy to understand and easy to carry out in practice. It helps governments achieve legislative voting majorities, which means they can implement their electoral manifesto commitments more easily, and it reduces the possibility of smaller parties becoming decisive in the country’s legislature and gaining leverage they otherwise would not enjoy.
There is no mention of the benefits it brings to upholding individual autonomy or equality – two principles underpinning democracy. This raises the question: should a country’s voting system be geared towards making governing easier or being representative of its citizens?
If the answer is the latter, then there is an inherent problem with using FPTP as your voting system. The biggest disadvantage it has is how unrepresentative it is. Not only does it fail to reflect the popular vote, but also the party that nationally wins the most votes is not guaranteed to win the most seats. In the UK this most famously happened in 1951, when the Conservatives won a majority of 16 seats despite receiving 0.8% fewer votes than Labour. However, most pressingly, the disproportionate representation perpetuated through FPTP leads to a continuous privileging of the status quo that suppresses political diversity.
HOW HAS FPTP AFFECTED THE UK’S GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS?
When analysing the UK’s general election results for the past one hundred years, it becomes clear how much FPTP has skewed the representation of all parties in government. The two big beneficiaries are the Conservatives and Labour, who have seen their number of seats exceed their representative shares in 23 and 18 of the 28 general elections respectively.
Here is a graph showing the difference in number of seats obtained by the Conservatives under FPTP compared to their actual voting share:
The Tories have a net gain of 1,435 seats from the past 28 general elections, which works out as an average of 51 extra seats per election. In some instances, they have even gained 150 seats more than their actual voting share. That is 23.1% of the total seats up for grabs in a 650-seat House of Commons. They are the party that has overwhelmingly benefitted the most from having FPTP as our electoral system.
Here is a graph showing the difference in number of seats obtained by Labour under FPTP compared to their actual voting share:
In second place, Labour has a net gain of 558 seats from the past 28 general elections, working out as an average of 20 extra seats per election. Though they are some way off the levels of extra seats gained by the Conservatives, they have also enjoyed general elections in which they have gathered ~150 extra seats than their voting share.
Here is a graph showing the difference in number of seats obtained by the Liberal Democrats under FPTP compared to their actual voting share:
Unlike the UK’s two main political parties, the Liberal Democrats have seen a net loss of 1,680 seats from the past 28 general elections, which works out as an average loss of 60 seats per election. In fact, they have seen a net loss in every general election so far. It reinforces Duverger’s law which states that country’s that use FPTP methods will lead to a two-party system. Despite winning 20-25% of the vote at times, the Lib Dems have barely made it past 60 seats, when a proportional system would have seen them have ~163. Thus, FPTP has prevented them from breaking the two-party stranglehold of the Conservatives and Labour, except in 2010 when they were able to use their leverage as the UK’s third party to form a coalition government.
Nationalist Parties (e.g. Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party):
Here is a graph showing the difference in number of seats obtained by Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party under FPTP compared to their actual voting share:
Together, the two nationalist parties have a net loss of 29 seats from 24 general elections, working out as an average of 1 seat lost per election. Interestingly though, these parties are now seeing a decent amount of added seats from recent elections, whereas before they were always losing seats. It demonstrates another disadvantage of FPTP: it favours parties who can concentrate their vote into specific geographic areas. The SNP has been able to win a similar amount of seats as the Liberal Democrats (~60) with ~15% less votes due to their concentration of votes in Scotland. However, the rise of nationalist parties is perhaps unsurprisingly given the consistent loss of seats to votes from 1959-2010, which could have given voters the impression that their voices were not being heard.
Other parties (e.g. the Greens and the Brexit Party):
Here is a graph showing the difference in number of seats obtained by “other” parties (such as the Greens and the Brexit Party) under FPTP compared to their actual voting share:
Finally, the “other” parties of the UK’s electoral system have a net loss of 359 seats from 28 general elections, which works out as an average of 13 seats lost per election. This is quite significant to another counter-argument against FPTP: the suppression of political diversity. These smaller parties are disadvantaged in the race to win seats, even if they gain a significant proportion of the votes. It means smaller parties find it difficult to break through into the mainstream. The most obvious example is in 2015 when they won just 21 seats despite gathering 19.5% of the electoral vote.
WHAT WOULD GETTING RID OF FPTP MEAN FOR THE UK?
Though there are legitimate concerns about getting rid of the First Past the Post voting system in the UK, they appear to be rooted firmly in the practicalities of governing rather than upholding democratic principles. Democracy is not a binary distinction in which some countries have it and others do not. It is a scale with accurate representation and inclusive voting the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a fallacy to say that the UK has this currently. FPTP skews the electoral results, privileging the status quo of “two-party” dominance and disincentivising political diversity in the process. Our political debate is optimised by partisanship and a lack of cooperation between different factions of the political spectrum. Getting rid of FPTP could mean a move towards a more collaborative approach to politics. We would certainly be better off for doing it.