May 17, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
The problems with trying to get a referendum on changing the election system (the way in which votes are translated into seats) is that the only way it can happen is for the government to grant it and by definition the government won’t want to. Every single MP in the House of Commons is there because of how First Past the Post works, and many, even those on opposition benches, will know that a change in election system will cost them their seats, so, unless it is specifically within the manifesto of the governing party (or parties in a coalition), we are unlikely to have a new vote on electoral reform.
Yet this election has provided us with yet more evidence that First Past the Post is fundamentally unfair. UKIP got 3.81 million votes and one seat in Parliament. The Greens got 1.1 million votes and one seat in Parliament. The SNP got 1.4 million seats and not only got 56 seats in Parliament, but have also been allowed to take over the machinery of the third party in the House of Commons, including the former Lib Dem whips office as well as Angus Robertson being allowed to take over Nick Clegg’s Lib Dem leader’s office. The Conservatives achieved, as we know, a majority of 331 seats, meaning 34,000 votes per seat. However, even the Conservatives can point out that in 2005 the Labour Party got a lower vote share than they got two weeks ago (35% to 37%) yet got a majority of 66%, as against the current Conservative Party majority of 12 seats.
This confirms that First Past the Post causes particular problems as an election system. It is obvious that votes are not proportionate to seats, but it’s what that means for our system of representative democracy that is more important. If you are a UKIP voter, you have one representative in Parliament, and Douglas Carswell really doesn’t represent the generally held opinions of most UKIP voters, being far more comfortable with immigration and more socially liberal too. If you take away the votes for Carswell, there were 3.78 million wasted votes for UKIP. The problem is the same for the Greens too. Apart from the votes for Caroline Lucas (who at least DOES represent the views of the wider a Green Party), there were just under 1.1 million wasted votes. Of course, when you are the SNP you could argue that there were barely any wasted votes for you in Scotland, but votes for every other party were mostly wasted. The final issue with this is a lack of choice. We don’t know whether the votes we have actually represent the real choice of the electorate, as many those who knew the party of their first choice had no chance would have voted for one that did have one. That is surely a shame.
If the same election system were used for Westminster elections as is used for the European Parliament election, which is the nearest we get to proportional representation, and uses the D’Hondt system of seat allocation, UKIP would have 83 seats, the Greens would have 20 seats, and the Lib Dems would have 50 seats. Now, some would argue that for UKIP to be denied 82 seats in Parliament by an election system shows it works, but since those same people would complain about what has happened to the Greens, that point should be ignored. In Scotland, the SNP would have 25 seats, which would be a fundamentally different picture there. Added to this, many argue that given a fair choice, many more people would be voting for the smaller parties, so they might actually have more seats.
However, there is one major point against all this. Labour die hards may insist that the reason the Pound rose so strongly against the Dollar on election night as the financial markets reacted positively to the Conservative majority was because it was a Conservative majority, and so the bonus culture was saved. But the truth is that the financial markets had priced in months of constitutional chaos and it didn’t happen. On May 8th David Cameron was able to go to the Queen, form a government, and even announce the retention of the same Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary. We have a Parliamentary system that allows a very quick and peaceful handover of power, on this occasion from a coalition to a single party majority Government, and on this occasion, First Past the Post worked.
Many had said that in this age of multi party politics, First Past the Post was no longer fit for purpose, as its main strength was supposed to be that it led to strong and stable Government. But we are back to a situation where there has now only been one Coalition since the 1930s. Some point out that we are the only country in Europe with our election system, and most European countries have coalitions all the time. But Tristram Hunt, a historian before being a politician, noted on Question Time this week that the reason countries like Germany and Italy have election systems that produce coalitions is that for obvious historical reasons they would shy away from any system that produces a lot of power for one party. The UK don’t have that historical problem, so it isn’t a fair direct comparison. First Past the Post may be unfair, undemocratic and unrepresentative, but it still does the job it is supposed to do.