In 2005 I could vote in a General Election for the first time. I had studied Government and Politics at A Level and having supported one candidate during a mock election campaign at my school, it was exciting getting to exercise a vote for real. The same year I was on my way to university too, to study history and politics. That experience proved transformative to me – my worldview had been changed.
At school, I was politically biased in favour of one party. By the time I went to university, I was not sure whether I should become a member of any party or just vote for the same one again and again. But amid that uncertainty I could still see the value of MPs. During the summer of 2009, I helped out at Watford and Norwich North, telephone canvassing, meeting voters on their doorsteps and handing out flyers. It was around the time of the expenses scandal. There was a lot of understandable anger from voters.
However, I got to understand why MPs are so crucial for their constituents in many ways.
And yet I went to vote in the 2010 General Election with a sense of disillusionment. I am not proud to say that at the polling station I spoiled my ballot paper. But I was not happy with what any of the main parties had to offer at the time. Small wonder then that in the 2011 national referendum on the electoral system I voted Yes to the Alternative Vote. I had long concluded that First Past the Post should be scrapped.
Why so? Put simply, it does not do what it asserts it does. As shown by the Electoral Reform Society, the post is all over the place. There is no consistency. The relationship between the number of votes cast and the seats won by parties is erratic, to say the least. Furthermore, candidates or incumbent MPs can also win seats with less than 50% of the total vote or even at a lower percentage.
Having not participated in a national referendum before, I found it refreshing to see individuals cross party-boundaries and come up with arguments for and against the Alternative Vote on their own merits rather than rigidly sticking to party policy platforms. All the same, the Yes to AV campaign lost the 2011 referendum. I think it was a blow for British politics. Here’s why.
Since the 1997 General Election, we have had significant constitutional change. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland got parliaments/assemblies. In 1999 Members of the European Parliament were elected using the party list system. In 2000, London could elect a mayor again, and an Assembly. For over 20 years now, a generation of voters and politicians have used different electoral systems throughout the United Kingdom. None of those new bodies use First Past the Post.
Police and Crime Commissioner elections were introduced in 2012 and more and more cities across England directly elect metropolitan or metro mayors. They do not use First Past the Post. In 2007, Scottish local government elections have used the Single Transferable Vote and, at the time of writing, there is a proposal to have STV used for Welsh local government elections too. You have better representation of voters who like the main parties in those bodies and those systems have given opportunities to minor parties or independents that they never would have had had First Past the Post been used.
For General Elections, we persist in using First Past the Post – and it bemuses me why. Clearly, it does not work. Indeed, it runs counter to the spirit of the democratic ideal. In usual daily life, when something does not deliver what it says it does – be it an app, car, restaurant and so on – you stop using it and find something else. We have good alternatives to First Past the Post already in Britain. And yet we stick with it.
We used alternatives before the 1950 General Election. Before that election, London, Oxford and Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Wales and Combined English and Scottish Universities had their own constituencies. Those seats used STV. It has been only for 73 years that First Past the Post has been solely used for General Elections. That’s a long time – but not so long that things cannot be changed.
All voters and all parties have, in effect, been cheated since 1950. In the 1951 election, Labour outpolled the Conservatives and lost the election. In February 1974, the Conservatives outpolled Labour and lost the election.
The most recent General Election, in 2019, saw the Conservatives offer an EU withdrawal agreement in their manifesto. The result was an 80-seat majority for them in Parliament and a Corbyn-led Labour comprehensively defeated. Britain consequently left the EU.
But just how big was the swing to the Conservatives compared to the 2017 election, one which had an indecisive result? It amounted to just 270,000 voters switching to them nationwide, or 1.2%
And this kind of disparity has happened again and again back through the history of FPTP. Voters were likewise cheated at the June 1983 election. Then the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher insisted during the campaign that Britain was on the right track with her policies and should not turn back. Compared to the May 1979 General Election, they dropped a few percentage points. However, they achieved a then landslide majority of 144 seats, in no small part due to what proved to be a catastrophic Labour campaign under Michael Foot. The Thatcher government went on to remodel society in ways few governments have matched since.
Now consider the story of the Social Democratic Party around that time. The SDP was born in January 1981 and, led by four former Labour Government Cabinet Ministers, entered an alliance with the Liberal Party. The Alliance did well. An upswing of 11 points nationwide – and 25.4% of the popular vote – compared to the Liberal performance in 1979. A great result for a new party. What was the return? Just 23 MPs.
Labour still had 209 MPs despite a terrible performance at the ballot box. If the electoral system had been proportional, there would have been 165 Alliance MPs elected. We can only ponder what that could have meant for British politics and the generations that followed?
In more recent years prominent political thinkers have been more outspoken in calling for a new party system to truly reflect Britain’s many divisions. That still feels some way off, given how First Past the Post protects the two main parties and cheats millions of voters who do not vote for them. Neither the Conservatives, nor Labour, are likely to give it up any time soon. Surely the steady collapse of turn-out figures at the polls reflects the despondency that this situation engenders.
I personally feel politically disenfranchised – I am not a member of any party and feel that any vote I make outside of the FPTP’s limited options is unlikely to be of equal consequence. Much as I felt when I spoiled that ballot paper many years ago, I still feel cheated. Come the next General Election, those born in the years 2004-05 will be the newest generation eligible to of vote. They are likely to feel cheated too.
If their votes are to matter – if any of our votes are to matter – it’s time to scrap First Past the Post.