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:
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:
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