FPTP is dead; it needs to be buried

The First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system is dead, at least as far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Let me elaborate on what I mean by that: a clear majority of voters think it is no longer fit for purpose, and it will be abandoned for UK general elections within the next 20 years.

Increasingly voters are turning to minor parties. As James Graham points out:

Regardless, it is clear that the public (at least the ones who voted) are starting to enjoy the flexibility that PR gives them. Almost exactly 2 in every 5 voters supported a party which is not represented in the House of Commons. It would be nice if in 2014 we didn’t have quite so many vanity projects running at once (Jury Team, Libertas, the Socialist Labour Party, NO2EU and the Christian Party all seemed to be living examples of what happens when you mix excessive quantities of self-importance and money together) but fundamentally there is no going back to bad old days of zero choice and foregone conclusions in European elections. What’s more, the appetite for genuinely competitive elections can only increase.

People like choice. They like it when they’re buying groceries, and they like it when they’re choosing who to vote for. People have got used to being able to vote for UKIP, the Greens or the BNP, and having their vote count. They’re also increasingly more likely to vote for the smaller parties — Libertas, NO2EU, English Democrats — even though their vote is less likely to count there.

In the 1950s, when the combined voting share of the big two parties was over 90%, FPTP made sense (or at least there seemed little point in changing it). Even in the 1980s when the SDP/Liberal Alliance (now the Liberal Democrats), it was at most a 3 party system. But now there are many parties that have caught public attention and the average voter has a good general idea what they stand for.

In the 2004 European election, Labour and the Tories together got less than half of the GB vote (49.3%) and in the 2009 European election their vote share was even lower at 44.2%. (If you include Northern Ireland, the big 2’s vote share was of course lower still).

Political Betting has produced a graph to show how the vote share going to parties other than the big 2 or big 3 has increased over time:

minor-party-vote-share

Key: The bottom line (column F) is votes going to parties other than the big 3 (Con, Lab, LD) in general elections. The dark purple line (column G) is votes to parties other than the big 2 (Con and Lab) in general elections. The yellow line (column K) is votes to parties other than the big 3 in European elections. The pink line (column L) is votes to parties other than the big 2 in European elections.

Note that the trend in all these lines is upwards, and if you added last week’s Euro election, the upwards trend would continue.

So how will FPTP eventually be destroyed? It’s likely that the voting share that the Conservatives or Labour need to win a general election will over time go down. In 2005, Labour got an overall majority on just over a third of the vote, and it’s possible that an overall majority could be secured with just over a quarter of the vote, if the opposition to the biggest party is fragmented enough. This is likely to produce significant disquiet and opposition to the system, and would call into question the legitimacy of the election result. At the same time, many smaller parties will rack up millions of votes and yet get no MPs for them — the Euro election result would have given UKIP 100 MPs and the Greens 60 in a PR Westminster election, but they’ll probably get none under FPTP. These voters are likely to feel cheated and eventually the pressure for reform will be too great to resist.

But this will take time. Is there a shortcut that would speed up the demise of FPTP? I think there is. Consider the 40% of GB voters who voted for parties not represented at Westminster, such as UKIP, Greens, etc. Some of these voted as a protest against the big parties (for example over expenses), but most of them genuinely support the party they voted for. Say a quarter registered a protest vote; that means there’s a bloc of 30% of the voters who support parties that would benefit from PR. Add to that the Lib Dems who got 13.7% of the vote and you get 43.7%. If all these 43.7% got behind one candidate in each constituency, they’d win an overall majority in a FPTP election.

So the Liberal Democrats should talk to UKIP and the Greens and offer them an electoral pact: they’d not run candidates against each other, and whichever party’s candidate was best placed to win each seat would fight it. (Since in the 2005 general election, the Lib Dems polled higher than UKIP or the Greens in nearly every constituency, that would mean nearly all candidates would be Lib Dems. UKIP and the Greens would probably not be happy with that arrangement, so to secure the deal the Lib Dems would probably have to offer that the other parties would get to run a candidate in some of the constituencies where the Lib Dems were the main challenger in 2005). This electoral pact could be called the “Reform Govermment Pact” and would pledge to introduce a referendum on PR and other constitutional issues immediately on election, and to hold another general election when the changes resulting from the referendum had been enacted. It’s quite likely the SNP and Plaid Cymru would want to come on board with the Pact, since they are also in favour of PR. It would probably not make sense for the Pact to include the BNP, even if they wanted to join, because they are a toxic brand that would tarnish the others by association.

Of course all this talk of electoral pacts would become moot if Labour did the sensible thing and called a constitutional referendum now. But it’s not obvious to me that Brown has any capability for firm or decisive action.

So to summarise: the Liberal Democrats should seek an electoral part with UKIP, the Greens, and other parties that favour PR. This pact would field a joint candidate in every constituency. If they win the election, they would pledge to immediately hold a referendum on PR and other constitutional changes, enact the changes that the people vote for, and dissolve parliament.

UPDATE: I’ve created a new graph that adds the results of the 2009 European election:

voting_shares_1945_2009

In case it’s not obvious, here’s a key:

GEN2 = votes going to parties other than the big 2 (Con, Lab) in general elections
GEN3 = votes going to parties other than the big 3 (Con, Lab, LD) in general elections
EN2 = votes going to parties other than the big 2 in European elections
EN3 = votes going to parties other than the big 3 in European elections

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16 Responses to FPTP is dead; it needs to be buried

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  2. MatGB says:

    You’ve identified part of the problem with the suggestion:

    It would probably not make sense for the Pact to include the BNP, even if they wanted to join, because they are a toxic brand that would tarnish the others by association.

    To a lot of Lib Dem activists (who would have to approve such a pact under the terms of the party constitution), UKIP are a toxic brand.

    And from what I can tell for a lot of UKIP members and voters, they feel the same way about the Lib Dems.

    It’s not the same with Greens, SNP, Plaid, etc, but it is for UKIP. I was chatting with our local Tory PPC at the count on Sunday, and mentioned off hand that where I grew up (Torbay), there wasn’t much of a BNP presence, UKIP were the racists party of choice. And while I believe Farage when he says his party is avowedly anti-racist, I don’t believe his supporters or indeed all his members are.

    Besides which, a lot of Labour MPs favour reform, remember it was in the 1997 manifesto—what do you do in, say, Exeter, where I used to live? Bradshaw has always been in favour of electoral reform, one of the reasons I voted for him in 2001 when I lived there was his support for it.

    I think getting a referendum at the time of the GE is a good idea myself, even if we only get AV it’s a step forward (AV allows for other left/right/independent candidates to fight in ‘safe’ seats, not ideal but better’n FPTP).

    • cabalamat says:

      To a lot of Lib Dem activists (who would have to approve such a pact under the terms of the party constitution), UKIP are a toxic brand. And from what I can tell for a lot of UKIP members and voters, they feel the same way about the Lib Dems.

      I expect this is a good deal more true of members than voters. Most voters actually approve of parties working together to get things done. I guess Lib Dem and UKIP activists need to decide what’s more important: getting power so they can change society, or being ideologically pure. Myself, I’d go for the first option every time.

      And while I believe Farage when he says his party is avowedly anti-racist, I don’t believe his supporters or indeed all his members are.

      I beleive Farage too: like anyone with sense, he knows that UKIP is vulnerable to accusations of racism, and therefore needs to emphasize that they aren’t racist. I’m not aware of any UKIP policy that is actually racist. (Although some of their policies such as limiting immigration, are going to appeal to racists).

      It’s not the same with Greens, SNP, Plaid, etc

      An alliance with just those parties would be an alliance of the center-left. An alliance including UKIP would appeal to people right across the political spectrum. It’d also pick up a lot of votes from people disgusted with the present system (which is a lot of people, and not just about expenses).

      Besides which, a lot of Labour MPs favour reform, remember it was in the 1997 manifesto—what do you do in, say, Exeter, where I used to live?

      If the majority of Labour MPs favour PR, they should either tell their leader to implement it, or get a new leader.

      Possibly the Reform Pact would not run candidates against sitting Labour or Tory MPs who favour reform. Or possibly it could say to them: run under our banner, just for this next election. Maybe this could be decided in each individual constituency.

      • MatGB says:

        Problem with this:

        I guess Lib Dem and UKIP activists need to decide what’s more important: getting power so they can change society, or being ideologically pure.

        Mostly, they made that decision when they joined their party.

        Why would Clegg be in the Lib Dems if the policies mattered less to him than power—he’d be on the front bench, and probably leading, one of the big parties, as would Cable, Huhne, Laws, etc.

        Farage used to be a Tory.

        The other problem is that you assume UKIP voters would be prepared to vote for a Lib Dem candidate and vice-versa—some would, definitely, there’s a crossover that can be seen in the Devon local results. But many others would not, at all. Voters resent being told to vote for a different party, electoral alliances are a difficult beast and don’t work well (I’ve studied this, there’s lots of research).

        Especially in Devon, where it’d be a real issue, determining who goes where would be really hard, and then getting people to vote that way almost impossible—UKIP voters would frequently rather vote Tory than Lib Dem, regardless. Really, truly, it’s a complete non-starter.

  3. Blue Eyes says:

    People do want choice, but what good is a broad spread of parties to vote for if the Lib Dems are always the power-brokers? Why should a party that – say – 15% voted for hold all the Aces? You can’t compare the competition between retailers and service providers with political parties because there can only be one government at a time. Or are you also suggesting that people should be able to choose how much of their income they give away to others? I would be all for that, but I suspect you wouldn’t be…

    • cabalamat says:

      People do want choice, but what good is a broad spread of parties to vote for if the Lib Dems are always the power-brokers?

      That’s an invalid premise, because the Lib Dems wouldn’t always be the power brokers. This can be seen by the devolved PR assemblies that already exist: the Lib Dems don’t hold power in Scotland (the SNP do), Wales (Labour and PC do), or London (the Tories do).

      If there was a Westminster election under PR, going on the voting shares received in the European election, the most likely ogvernment would be a Conservative-UKIP coalition.

      In the 1980s it was perhaps a valid criticism that the Lib Dems would hold the balance of power, but it wouldn’t be now if we had PR. There would be 6 GB-wide largish parties (Tory, Labour, LD, UKIP, Green, BNP), regional parties (SNP, PC, English Democrats, possibly a Cornish party), and minor parties coming up from time to time (Libertarian Party, Pirate Party, etc). Then there’s the Northern Ireland parties. And with any decent systme of PR there would be a few independents. So a much wider range of people than at present would feel their views were represented in parliament.

      You can’t compare the competition between retailers and service providers with political parties because there can only be one government at a time.

      That’s a valid criticism. However, if you allow devolved governments where the people want it, you could have, as well as the UK government, an English government, several English counties that have opted out of the Englih government to form their own regional government (e.g. London might do this), several counties where the country government has full powers of a devolved assembly, ansd several counties that are directly subordinated to the UK government (and therefore don’t have to pay for a devolved level of government).

    • MatGB says:

      This answer is predicated on the idea that the current party system will continue to exist once you get a different voting system.

      The last time the voting system was changed was in 1950—look at that graph, within 10 years, 3rd party votes had almost disappeared, single member FPTP encourages a 2-party system. STV, for example, would encourage a system with 4 major parties and a bunch of smaller ones, and there would be shifting alliances, etc.

      The idea that one party would always hold the balance of power is false, has been repeatedly demonstrated as false, and is based on the experience of post-war Germany which uses a weird AMS system, and is no longer correct as Germany now has 4 effective parties and a bunch of regionalists.

      Currently, under FPTP, minorities within a major party hold the aces—look at the last days of the Callaghan Govt or Major post 1992 election. But those negotiations take place behind closed doors, voters get no say. STV would return the power to determine the shape of Parliament to voters, then a Govt is formed that commands the support of the house, and thus the country.

      But the Govt doesn’t have to be the initiator of all legislation, that’s also a fairly recent development, give it back to MPs.

      • cabalamat says:

        But the Govt doesn’t have to be the initiator of all legislation, that’s also a fairly recent development, give it back to MPs.

        I agree.

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