(Photo: The Guardian)
By Owen Buchan – Regular Contributor
Labour or Conservative? These are our only choice of government under the UK’s current electoral system. First-Past-the-Post, or the awkward abbreviation of FPTP, has created an unbreakable political duopoly that starves the electorate of a real and meaningful choice. Therefore, it is time to end this incredibly flawed electoral system and finally free the electorate from choosing between a mannequin with a blue tie or red tie.
FPTP is a relatively new electoral system considering the long history of the UK Parliament being traced back to the 1200s. The system of FPTP was adopted in the 1880s after the passing of the Reforms Acts that allowed for a wider franchise, as well as altering the size and location of constituencies. The outdatedness of FPTP is just one of its many issues. To understand we must understand how it operates and how it inevitably leads to a duopoly.
FPTP’s role as an electoral system is to select one winner from a variety of candidates. The UK uses it for the election of MP’s in general elections. Thus, to win you don’t need an outright majority but what’s called a polarity of the vote. The single largest vote share compared to everyone else.
So, let’s take the scenario of an average election of an MP in a constituency. A variety of candidates put themselves forward so there are 6 in total. Come the election candidate A gets 30% of the vote, candidate B gets 25%, candidate C gets 20%, candidate D gets 15%, candidate E gets 7% and lastly candidate F gets 3%. As there can only be one winner, candidate 1 wins as they have a plurality of votes at 30%. Yet 70% of the people in the constituency voted for someone else. This is the first major issue of FPTP, most people’s MP’s were not elected by a majority of the people.
Whilst it is not impossible for an MP to have a majority of the vote share in a constituency; this being true in safe seats like Liverpool Walton, where Labour won 86% of the vote in 2019, or Clacton, where the Conservatives won 72%. However, cases like these ultimately become anomalies. Most constituencies have an MP that was not elected by the majority. The most extreme example of this is the constituency of Belfast South in the 2015 General election where the winner received only 24.5% of the vote.
As elections persist, the issues of FPTP intensify and the duopoly starts to form. Going back to our example of the 6 candidates will show this. Come the next election, candidates D, E and F drop out as they realise they have no chance of winning and thus their voters have to hold their nose and vote for someone who they may only somewhat agree with. Some come to the next election and the results alter. All the people who would have voted for candidate E and F now vote for one bringing candidate 1 to 40%. Candidate D voters now flock to candidate C bringing their vote share to 35%, Meanwhile candidate B stays at 25%. Thus, the variety of candidates has been lowered and candidate A still wins.
Come the election after that, candidate B voters give up on them and decide to all vote candidate C. Thus, candidate C wins with 60% and A finally loses with 40% of the vote. Then what occurs in successive elections is that voters will switch between A and C and the duopoly is created. Even worse is if candidate B decides to come back; voters from C may go back to them and ensure an easy victory for candidate A each time. This is known as the spoiler effect. The spoiler effect was apparent in the then infamous Peterborough by-election in 2018 where the right wing/Brexit vote was split between the Conservatives and the then Brexit Party allowing Labour to win with 31% of the vote.
Thus, the ultimate effect of FPTP is a lack of choice for the voter on a constituency level. Mostly this is between Conservative or Labour but there are variations. Sometimes it’s between Labour and Lib-dems or even Conservative vs SNP. This issue is translated onto the governmental level where there will only be a Labour or Conservative Government.
So, what is the solution, or do we even need one? Despite the lack of variety, FPTP does often produce a stable government that is able to effectively govern, ignoring the anomalies of 2010 and 2017. So, the solution without a fundamental restructuring of the political system is to abolish FPTP for general elections. A variety of other electoral systems are already used in local elections across the UK.
In 2011, the UK held a national referendum to abandon FPTP and use the Alternative Vote or AV instead in general elections, but this was rejected. Even if AV was accepted, it would still be flawed, as like FPTP is it not a proportional system. An ideal electoral system would allow for two major improvements. Firstly, a greater variety of candidates to stand on a constituency level. Secondly, the number of votes being equal to the amount of representation of parliament. For example, 20% of the votes equating to 20% of the seats in parliament.
The second major improvement described would require a huge alteration to the UK’s political structure and this is realistically un-achievable. Thus, being pragmatic, altering the voting system would be a major and welcomed step forward. Whilst a variety of different systems exist, the most effective and easiest to implement would be Single Transferable Vote (STV), more simply known as ranked choice voting. While not perfect it would be a major step up from FPTP.
On the other hand, one issue of STV is that it is complex than FPTP. Voters, instead of choosing one candidate like in FPTP, rank all the candidates in order of preference. Once all the votes are cast, a threshold of first place rankings needed to win is calculated based upon the number of votes cast and potential candidates, this is called a quota. If no outright winner can be instantly declared, then the candidate with the least first place rankings is eliminated and their voters vote no moves on to their second-place candidate. Thus, your single vote is moved around and transferred in accordance with how you ranked the candidates. This all occurs until a candidate meets the quota and wins. Admittedly, this system can appear convoluted and those counting the vote will have to do a lot more work than under FPTP, but that does not change the fact that it is more representative than FPTP and gives more freedom and variety to the voter.
Ultimately, the abolition of FPTP is unlikely in the current climate. It heavily favours the status quo for Labour and the Conservatives and ensures their regular victories. In opposition, Labour would be more likely to adopt scrapping FPTP but once in power, this fails to shine through as was the case with Blair. Currently, Nigel Farage’s Reform UK Party and the Lib-Dems are the major parties calling for electoral reform. Sadly, their voices will likely fall on deaf ears for the time being.