First-past-the-post voting stifles intellectual diversity in British politics


DURING the early 2010s, it looked like twilight had arrived for the traditional two party system in British politics.

While the much hyped Liberal Democrat surge in 2010 failed to materialise into a substantial gain in seats, the election saw a rare hung parliament and resulted in the first coalition government since 1945.

Over the next few years, the Eurosceptic populist party UKIP and the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) saw their fortunes rise. In the 2015 general election, the SNP nearly wiped out the competition north of Hadrian’s Wall, taking 56 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

While UKIP failed to make much of a dent in seat numbers, only winning in Clacton, the party took 12.6 per cent of the vote – and its strong performance likely forced David Cameron’s hand to offer an EU referendum.

The rise of smaller parties brought along with it the question of electoral reform. After all, in 2010 the Liberal Democrats scored 23 per cent of the vote and Labour 29 per cent. But to show for this, the Lib Dems only got 57 seats as opposed to Labour’s 258.

And to this day, Labour and the Tories still chalk up most of the votes in any given general election. Why?

In the UK, the electoral system is first-past-the-post. British voters do not directly elect their Prime Minister – instead they vote on a local level for their member of parliament (MP), and in these contests, whoever gets the most votes wins, regardless of how large a share of the vote that may be.

A government will then be formed based on how many local MPs of various parties are elected to parliament. Since the Second World War, this has always been either the Labour or Conservative Party.

Out of fear of “splitting the vote” on a local level, this system often forces voters to consolidate around the two parties most likely to win. In response, many activists and politicians have called for a system of proportional representation in British politics to enable other parties to stand a fighting chance.

Of course, no voting system is perfect. The Alternative Vote (AV) system offered in a 2011 referendum was resoundingly rejected by the British electorate. The introduction of this local ranked voting system would have been a small improvement, but would still have gone no where near far enough to bring in proper proportional representation.

But regardless of the actual specific system of voting introduced, the case for proportional representation goes beyond giving small parties a fair hearing.

It is no secret that both the Conservative and Labour parties harbour a range of ideologies under their respective roofs, with Labour in particular often described as a ‘broad church’.

It should go without saying that open, rigorous and good-faith debate is the lifeblood of democracy, but this extensive ideological diversity within two parties is often a hinderance to this.

The Labour Party, for example, features a mix of socialists, social democrats, social liberals and neoliberals in its ranks. Whichever faction holds the leadership at any given time leads to – at the very least – quietening of other voices within the party at risk of a disunited movement.

One only needs to look at the chaos of the Corbyn years, in which various factions fought for relevance both with and against the leadership.

Under a proportional system, these various groups need not live in an uncomfortable alliance. Both major parties could split into more ideologically coherent blocks, offering parliament healthier debate and giving voters a wider range of options.

Various flavours of socialists, liberals and conservatives would all have the chance to compete not as two lumbering alliances of convenience, but as independent parties each with a unique pitch to the British electorate.

Critics will argue that proportional representation will mean an eternity of coalition governments, with no party ever large enough to muster a stable parliamentary majority.

Yet under the current system, the Conservatives have such a large majority that even a substantial intra-party rebellion would struggle to scupper any objectionable legislation or hold the executive to account. In a coalition, on the other hand, parties would be forced to reach a consensus, and partners can hold each other accountable.

While British politics has polarised again since the Brexit vote, the question of electoral reform must not go away.

Many potential voters will often approach politics with indifference, quipping that “all politicians are the same.” Despite being a somewhat tired cliché, when only two competing parties scramble for the lowest common denominator, it is an understandable sentiment.

A voting system that enables a broader range of ideological options would be a fine way to end this apathy.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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