First Past the Post – Disproportional Representation or Producer of stable government?

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May 11, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

Let’s start with the two graphs above. On the left are the actual seats won. One the right are the number of seats that would have been won had we been using the same election system ( how we translate votes into seats) as we do in the European Parliament elections. I won’t go into great detail about how the latter works, suffix it to explain that it is using an Open Regional List system that uses the D’Hondt formula to provide the closest we can get to the percentages of votes to seats being exactly proportional. As you can see, the difference is pretty enormous, with UKIP getting 83 seats instead of 1, Greens getting 20 seats instead of 1, the SNP getting 25 seats instead of 56, and the Liberal Democrats getting over 50 seats instead of 8.

The look at this table. It shows you how many votes each party needed to gain a seat, calculated dividing the number of votes by the number of seats they got. As you can see, the Conservatives needed 34,224 and Labour 40,290, the first time in a generation Labour have needed more votes to get a seat, and entirely explained by their Scotland meltdown. This also helps to explain why the SNP needed 25,972 votes to get a seat. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, who have always struggled with FPTP, needed over 300,000 to win a seat. But that pales into insignificance next to what happened to the Greens and UKIP. The Greens increased their vote by a multiple of five, yet got the same number of seats, needing all 1.15m of their voters to get that seat. 

Then there is UKIP, to who I am giving over a paragraph of their own, given their 3,881,129 votes, a multiple of four up from last time, also produced one seat. That seat was won by Douglas Carswell, who many will argue is not representative of the typical UKIP voter, given he is not against immigration and is far more liberal on many social issues. Carswell defected for constitutional reasons, being that he didn’t believe the EU referendum campaign would be conducted fairly and that we have a massive democratic deficit on areas such as the power of recall should an MP break the law. My point is that this election has passed without a ‘homegrown’ UKIP candidate winning a seat, which means that the hopes and fears of 12% of our electorate are not represented in Parliament. 

An election system is supposed to provide voters with a choice. How can voters say they have a choice where votes for the smaller parties are so unlikely to win a seat. It is supposed to provide no wasted votes, but FPTP wastes the vote of every single person who didn’t vote for the MP that wins in a constituency, even if that MP only got 35% or so of those votes. This means that effectively 3.8m UKIP votes were wasted. The election system is supposed to make sure a range of opinions are represented. Yet those of UKIP and Green supporters are not going to be represented in a way that is fair at all. 

The arguments against FPTP seem clear then. Movements for electoral reform have already mobilised to do something about this. 

And yet, and yet, First Past the Post worked. Already delivering a strong link between an MP and their constituency, because the MP elected has to represent everyone, can be lobbied by any constituent and visited by every constituent at their surgery, FPTP actually showed it’s two other strengths well here too. 

It allows an electorate to show their distaste for a political party or a candidate by kicking them out. They did, all across the country. Cabinet ministers were removed, particularly if they were Lib Dem cabinet ministers. Ed Balls was punished for neglecting his constituency, where he only had a 1,100 majority, whilst he was doing his Shadow Chancellor job. Scottish Labour were punished for the entirety of the previous 30 years they have spent saying ‘vote for us we’re not Tories’ instead of properly standing up for Scotland. Now, you may argue that this all went a bit far, and if were represented by a 20 year old who has to finish her dissertation before taking her place in a Parliament where she may need to fix my housing problem, I would agree. But it did give the voters some power, which they used. 

But most importantly, it produced a majority government. Just when everyone was saying that it was over as a useful electoral system, as it didn’t even do its main job, which was to produce stable government, it went and did that. We thought it wasn’t fit for purpose in a multiparty system, but it was wrong. I had been telling students to point out in essays that having produced a coalition in 2010, the strongest argument for it was becoming invalid. I was wrong. The pound was stronger, the financial markets purred, because they had built in weeks of political instability into their pricing, and we have stability. You may not like the outcome, but we at least have a government delivering a manifesto that was voted for. No back room deals, just back to the doctrine of manifesto and mandate. 

I still think electoral reform is needed, but it isn’t all doom and gloom for FPTP. 

I welcome any comments - whether you agree with me or not!

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