First past the post: Britain’s broken system

23 Dec 2019

 

The past 10 years have been chaotic for British democracy. Four general elections have generated two hung parliaments, one slim majority and one comfortable majority. Is it time we asked ourselves whether our election system is as effective as it can be?

 

We’ve seen how our election system can cause disproportionality between votes and seats. Analysis from the Electoral Reform Society of the 2019 general election found that the Green Party took 864,743 votes and received one MP, whilst the Brexit Party took 642,303 votes achieving no MPs.

 

In contrast it took just 25,882 votes for a SNP MP to gain a seat and 38,300 per Conservative MP. Supporters of first-past-the-post argue that disproportionality is necessary to achieve stable government. But if the past 10 years have been anything but stable, can this still justified in UK politics?  

 

The way our system converts votes into seats causes problems for democracy. First-past-the-post rewards parties with geographically concentrated support, due to only having a single MP elected per constituency. 2019 was a prime example of this.

 

In an election where they only increased total vote share by 1.3%, the Conservatives took 65% of seats in exchange for 45% of the vote. This ‘winners’ bonus means largely unrestricted power for the Conservatives for the next 5 years, and this raises questions about whether there is sufficient room to hold the government to account.

 

If there isn’t a winners bonus, then it’s a hung parliament. Governments that fail to gain majorities in majoritarian systems aren’t built to last, resulting in a compromising coalition, or yet another general election.

 

Our voting system creates a two-horse race between the Conservatives and Labour, ignoring anyone that has another preference. Modern Britons deserve better than a choice between two parties. The SNP have made considerable gains in Scotland yet are mostly ignored in Westminster on national issues. Opposition parties in many constituencies make little effort to campaign as they likely will never be rewarded for it, leaving many voters feeling ignored and disengaged.

 

Often, modern issues are ignored if they aren’t a priority of the two main parties. Is there an urgency in government to stop climate change if the current system will never reward the Green with the number of seats they deserve? Growth and diversity in British politics has been stunted in a global context that is constantly changing and shedding light on new issues.

 

We can never vocalise our true political views as the UK system inherently promotes tactical voting. Voters often vote against their actual policy preferences in order to remove their current MP. 19% of us in Britain said that we were planning to back parties that weren’t our first choice in the 2019 election. It’s clear how British democracy continues to override the diverse opinions of the electorate.

 

 

A majoritarian voting system has been used in Britain since 1950, but it has run its course. Thanks to the increased use of referendums, British politics is more diverse than ever with many voter’s opinions cutting across party lines. We’ve seen how referendums can descend our constitution into crisis, so I think the British public deserve a way to more diversely express their opinions in general elections.

 

A form of proportional representation is the right way forward for the UK. The Additional Member System, used in general elections in New Zealand and Germany, offers some solutions to the problems of first-past-the-post. New Zealand is one of the world’s most stable democracies, whilst still using a proportional system.

 

In AMS, a proportion of MPs would be elected through the same single member system we have now, yet voters would have a second vote. The second vote goes towards a party directly, this elects a proportion of ‘top-up’ MPs, with candidates chosen by parties to fill up the remaining seats.

 

This system builds on the benefits of first-past-the-post, namely its simplicity and the strong ties it gives between representatives and their constituencies, whilst ensuring tactical voting and wasted votes are reduced and smaller parties are not ignored. It’s a compromise, increased proportionality combined with local representation.

 

For example, if you are a life-long working class Labour voter, but also a Euro-sceptic wanting a hard Brexit, you could vote for your local Labour candidate and the Brexit Party simultaneously under AMS. This greatly reduces the dilemma of tactical voting, as well as increasing the likelihood that people will vote in the first place. Voters would become more engaged and the debate would become more nuanced.

 

Currently, a change in the electoral system looks unlikely for Britain. The two parties who benefit most from first-past-the-post, Conservatives and Labour, both have no inclination to make the switch. For now, we’re stuck with first-past-the-post, and stuck with a choice between instability or a largely unchecked government.

 

As modern politics evolves, we should be constantly critical of our democratic system and willing to make improvements.A change in the electoral system could be the first step in that process.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.

SUPPORT BACKBENCH

We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.