The British Electoral System
A system of simple plurality or ‘First Past the Post’ [FPTP] as it is more commonly known has long been in place in Britain. Its advantages are clear. FPTP is a process renowned for its ease of understanding, as well as its ability to produce strong stable government. However it is not without its critics, who deem it to be unfair, and a disproportional system as ‘The share of seat do not reflect the share of votes, and the share of seats do not reflect the share of votes’1. Farrell argues that FPTP is a system of majority not plurality.
Rapid changes have taken place since 1997 when Labour recaptured power from the Conservatives. These changes pose further questions about the intricate workings of the current electoral system and there is ongoing analysis of whether further change should be introduced. To this end I hope to thoroughly evaluate the current electoral system, and establish whether this model should remain in place or whether recent calls for reform are merited. The actual operation of FPTP is so simple that it requires little explanation. Six hundred and fifty nine candidates run for election.
Voters mark their preferred choice with an X. The candidate with more votes than any other gains a seat. The underlying principles of FPTP are that; it’s a simply electoral system, easy for voters to understand, and easy to tally votes. Due to its definitive yes or no nature it also in theory produces clear and stable governments. Coalitions do not work under FPTP and so it operates best in party system. Britain has evolved into almost a two party system, as result of the Liberal Democrats victimisation under the system.
Nonetheless the system is inextricably based upon simplicity and is more straightforward than the ordinal ballots employed under the system of STV (as used in Northern Ireland) This is an important feature in an age where voting apathy and declining partisanship are just some of the challenges facing those running for office. It is also a quick and easy method of voting as voters simply mark an X beside the candidate they wish to choose.
This is in contrast with the Additional Member System (AMS) in the Scottish parliament, which is understood by approx. 0% of voters, although many more found it difficult to explain how the system actually worked according to opinion polls. A second positive feature of FPTP is its ability to produce strong government. Single parties usually have majority control of the assembly, this makes for strong and effective government. Also the government, which is formed, has a clear mandate from the electorate, and the single party government rarely collapses, as they are not casualties of disunity and internal friction.
Defenders of FPTP ague that the ‘Cube Rule’ has a built in mechanism to produce single party parliamentary majorities2 In defence of the system Farrell cites an argument by Butler that ‘ The British electoral system is not a gamble…. The theoretical possibility of quite haphazard results arising from any given division of votes is undeniable; the practical improbability is so great under present conditions that it need not be considered’. 3 Denver however contests the stance of the ‘Cube Rule’.
He believes that the Cube Rule in fact illustrates one of the negative aspects of the system and produces huge disproportionality between votes and seats. He challenges the integral aspect of the Cube Rule, saying that in a situation with a 100 votes 60% of votes received leads to 77 seats gained whereas, 40% of votes received leads to 23 seats being gained. Butler said this however in 1963, forty years on we are living in an ever changing political environment, and one which faces greater threats from radical independent groups.
Burnley’s council in Lancashire would dispute Butler’s theory as several members of the extreme right wing British National Party (BNP) are gaining huge support in local elections. Critics of FPTP argue that the had France operated under FPTP; Le Pen would have been 2. 7% away from victory. One positive advantage of FPTP is that it harbours a close relationship between MP’s and constituents, ensuring that all requisite constituency duties are carried out. It also offers the electorate a clear choice between potential parties of government. So say those commentators who are pro-FPTP.
Critics refute the fact that it gives the electorate a choice. They argue that that the current system in fact distorts electoral preferences by under-representing the smallest parties and those with the third party effect – that is those parties whose support is geographically evenly distributed. The study of electoral reform has found that member-voter linkages are stronger in single member than in pure multi member districts. 4 FPTP is a double-edged sword, the benefits if simplicity of the system can at times, be at the cost of fairness to the smaller parties.
Alternatively the fact that smaller parties far greater challenges under the system means that it is more difficult for small radical parties to be elected under the system. ‘Compared to PR, plurality favours the two largest parties and heavily penalises third and fourth parties unless their support is regionally concentrated; examples being, SNP ; Plaid Cymru……. In addition the system often rewards ;;bonus seats;; to the party that comes first compared with the party that comes second’5
Equality is supposedly a key cornerstone of democracy, if this is true then the system of FPTP is thoroughly undemocratic, as all candidates do not enjoy equality. FPTP rewards parties with a concentrated political following and punishes those whose support is evenly distributed. This is one of the greatest challenges of the system and one, which the Liberal Democrats know only too well. They are the constant victims of FPTP, as the amount of seats gained is rarely in proportion to the amount of total votes received. This is primarily a geographical factor.
As I have already mentioned, FPTP penalizes thinly spread belts of support. It is only when figures are accumulated nationally that we can detect the levels of distortion, which occur. The system is believed to be largely biased in Labours Favour as there is greater disproportionately at regional level than for the country as whole. FPTP causes a great amount of vote wastage. This factor encourages voter apathy as some people may never get to see their chosen candidate in power. In order to gain a seat a candidate does not need to gain all or even an overall majority, they simply need more votes than any other candidates.
The votes, which are used on competing candidates are then wasted votes, as they cannot be transferred to other member via a top-up situation. Under FPTP the more seats per constituency the less proportional the result. The election contest in each constituency is a battle between candidates not parties, so those campaigning are contesting against others within the same party. The voter can only show one preference when voting because of the systems categorical voting structure6. This can potentially evolve into a political ‘free for all’.
The measure of unfairness within the system is often referred to as ‘deviation from proportionality’. The Jenkins report was the first real proof of possible change. The report outlines AV plus as a possible alternatives to FPTP, which could be introduced and put to the nation in a referendum. So far neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats backs this proposal. As a result, this referendum has yet to come to light. Several organisations and website exist which illustrate that there is a real need for change of the system. Some of these include the Electoral Reform Society, The Electoral Commission and Make Votes Count.
The election in 1997 was a historic victory for Labour as it produced only the third ever Labour majority in British History. The preceding victories were in nineteen forty-five and nineteen sixty-eight. Dunleavy writes that as yet Mr. Blair has not been swayed by the case for PR. He believes that ‘It serves one member-one constituency link….. he is more persuaded of the merits of the alternative vote system which maintains the single member constituency system but which serves greater representation to smaller parties’. This is preferable to an absolute system changes as it retains some of the benefits of FPTP.
The electoral commission is so far embroiled in an ongoing period of reconstruction. 7 The prime condition cited for electoral reform is the need for strong government, yet this is supposedly one of the main features of the current system. This is one of the most difficult points to address. Those in favour of FPTP argue that it does create strong and stable government as there is less internal conflict and disunity within single party government and they also have a clear mandate. Those in favour of reform argue that FPTP creates instability because changes in government can lead to a radical shift of politics and direction.
Since 1997 under the Labour electoral reform several changes have been made; the introduction of the AMS in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections, the use of Alternative vote to elect the Mayor of London, a regional closed party list for European elections, and the use of STV in the Northern Assembly. Perhaps STV would go furthest towards removing power of the party elites to determine which candidates are to be elected. Anti-reformers maintain that they system of ordinal ballots is too complex, yet other nations manage to adhere. There are few remaining democracies employing single member simple plurality systems.
STV was almost adopted in Britain in 1918 yet they reverted back to a system of FPTP. Farrell notes in his text and its quite interesting, that new democracies such as Spain and Greece, shied away from FPTP and citizens seem t o be quite happy with their electoral systems. The purpose of democracy is the birth of new ideas, fresh faces entering the political arena and with them come fresh perspectives. This is not possible under the current system as there was a virtual conservative monopoly from 1979-1997. A long running joke during the eighteen years, was that ‘if labour lost another election, they would get to keep the liberal democrats.
Sine their 1997 campaign promise of a reform of the current system Labour has been riding a strong political wave, which illustrates public support for such changes. When questioning whether Britain does in fact, need a new electoral system to be introduced it is important to analyse whether FPTP performs to its expectations. These expectations being, simplicity, and the ability to produce strong and stable government. A more important question however is whether these requirements are a legitimate base for modern democracy.
It is difficult to define what are the most important characteristics of a successful electoral system, a lot is personal opinion, backed by culture and tradition and so is sure to vary from country to country. Undoubtedly no system is perfect, and while FPTP stays true to its underlying principles there are also apparent tragic flaws in the democratic process. However all systems have some imperfections. The most important task is finding equilibrium. The past few years have seen dramatic reforms in the system, such as a devolved assembly, and the newly introduced voting practices in the Scottish parliament and welsh assembly.
Labours campaign promise was to radically overhaul the electoral system. The cynic in all of us, could argue that this was a clever campaigning tactic. Target the apathetic voter, illustrate the dramatic need for change and sway the electorate with convincing reform policies. Whilst some reforms have been brought about, there is a need for further change, which can only be introduced through a referendum. On the other hand, any new reforms will alienate FPTP from its founding beliefs and render it a simple plurality system in name only. In elections candidates who are not successful have tendencies to cry foul.
It is little more than that in the case of Britain. Huge changes have been made to the system already, granted changes that were well overdue. Whether Britain is ready for a complete system overhaul is another question, but electoral reform organisations are working on ideas, until a referendum is put to the nation no concrete changes can be made. FPTP will remain firmly in place with little prospect of changing before the next general election. There is current speculation that Labour may have a new leader during the next term. If successful. Perhaps this will be someone with the knowledge to address this highly contentious issue.