What You Didn’t Know About Britain’s Election System
In the past, this system and the whole structure of Britain’s election system, created absurd anomalies with the existence of “rotten boroughs” such as Old Sarum, Dunwich and Gatton. Old Sarum was by local reckoning “one man, two cows and a field” and yet returned two MP’s to Westminster! Gatton, a village in Surrey, returned one MP yet had just one voter in it.
The 1832, 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts changed a lot of the more absurd abuses that surrounded the electoral system so vividly described by Charles Dickens in “Pickwick Papers”. However, the principle of First Past The Post or FPTP was kept.
On the upside, FPTP has created within Great Britain a political system that is essentially stable as politics is dominated by just two parties. The chaos of the political systems of Italy and Israel is avoided using FPTP. Minority governments have occurred in the UK using FPTP, but the life span of those governments was limited. In recent years, governments have been strong as a result of the clear mandate given to it using the FPTP system.
In a constituency, one MP is elected and therefore, the people of that constituency will know who to ask or pursue if they have a query etc. In a multi-member constituency, in which a number of parties are represented, this would not be as easy.
Only 48 countries in the world today use “First Past the Post” today and Britain is the last country in Europe to use the outdated and what many now think is a broken system.
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The downside with FPTP is quite obvious when looking at the last election. It artificially exaggerated divides in the UK – giving the SNP nearly all Scottish seats on half the vote, while excluding Labour from the South of England and over-representing them in Wales and under-representing the Conservatives in the North of England and Scotland.
At the same time, cross-community parties in Northern Ireland got a tenth of the vote and no seats, yet the DUP received nearly half the seats on just a quarter of the vote.
- 50% of votes in the election (15m) went to losing candidates, while 74% of votes (22m) were ‘wasted’ – i.e. they didn’t contribute to electing the MP
- 2.8m voters were likely to have voted ‘tactically’ – over 9% of voters
- Under a more proportional voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – the Conservatives would have won 276 seats to Labour’s 236, while the SNP would have secured 34, UKIP 54 and the Lib Dems 26. The Greens would have won two more seats – in Bristol and London
- Unlike all other pollsters, The Electoral Reform Society was able to call the winner correctly in 363 of 368 seats – a month before polling day – due to the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under First Past the Post
- The 2015 election saw an MP win on the lowest vote share in electoral history – 24.5% in South Belfast
- 331 of 650 MPs were elected on under 50% of the vote, and 191 with less than 30% of the electorate.
The two party system worked, just about, in the 1950s, but it doesn’t seem to any more. It has become normal for two MPs out of every three to lack the support of a majority of local voters, and an increasing number now win their seat with around 40 per cent of the vote.
The voting system used in our General Elections meant that two thirds of MPs (433, 66.6%) elected in 2010 did not have the support of a majority of voters at all. That parliament was elected with the lowest vote share of any parliament since at least the 1920s.
In the 2005 election, Labour won 35% of the vote but bagged 55% of the seats. Of eligible voters, only 22% voted Labour. Yet with the support of only one-fifth of the electorate Labour won a 66-seat majority. This is not democracy. It echoes the gerrymandering (manipulating district boundaries) and ballot-rigging of two centuries ago, which galvanised the Chartists to campaign for a democratic, representative parliament.
The electoral process under our current system is effectively “rigged“. In 2005, if you total all the votes cast for the main parties, it took an average 26,906 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,373 to elect a Tory MP and 96,539 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP. You could definitely argue that is an outdated and corrupt electoral system.
If there had been a fairer, proportional voting system, we would have never had the stand-alone, single-party governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and, as a result, never had “New” Labour and the disposing of socialism under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Recent political history would have been very different — and more progressive.
With proportional representation (PR), neither Thatcher and Major nor Blair and Brown would have been able to form governments without the support of other parties. Supported by only a minority of voters and with only a minority of seats, they would have had to form coalitions, which would have almost certainly prevented policy excesses, such as the poll tax and the Iraq war.
Democracy is supposed to be about the will of the majority. It cannot be reconciled with a voting system that persistently allows parties with minority support to form governments with often huge majorities.
Until Britain’s election system is made more fair, our democracy will seem to remain tainted and flawed, and the progressive majority – liberals, lefts and greens – will often be out of government, even when they have won a majority of the popular vote.
Graham Vanbergen – TruePublica