How First-Past-The-Post caused “Brexit”

The EU Referendum demonstrated the extent to which the “First-Past-The-Post” (FPTP) system has allowed politicians to become distanced from the people they purport to represent and has contributed to a sense of powerlessness amongst large sections of the UK population.

Three key effects of FPTP were at work:

  1. Safe Seats
  2. Distorted election results
  3. Distorted politics

 

  1. Safe seats:

Under FPTP, safe seats (where a change in the party holding the seat would only happen in very unusual circumstances) account for the majority of parliamentary constituencies.

An MP in a safe seat does not need to worry about getting re-elected; he or she does not have to listen to their constituents and does not need to explain their position to them (for example why the UK’s membership of the EU is a good thing).

Voters in a safe seat are effectively powerless to make a difference to a General Election result.  All they can do is contribute to the national headline percentage of the party they support, or use their vote as a protest.  They have no responsibility for the result and, at some level, most realise this – they get into the habit of voting irresponsibly.

Consequently, when it came to the referendum, many “Leave” voters did not believe their vote would actually make a difference.  Of those that did realise this was the one opportunity they had to cast a meaningful vote, many saw it as an opportunity to rebel against the establishment – to “take back control” from the politicians.

 

  1. Distorted results:

FPTP leads to grossly disproportionate results, allowing single parties to govern based on considerably less than 50% of the popular vote.

In 2015 the Conservatives gained an overall majority in Parliament on less than 37% of the vote, leading directly to the EU referendum, because it was in their manifesto.  (It has been widely reported that Cameron was happy to have this commitment in the manifesto because he believed he would not win a majority, and so would not have to carry it out.)

Meanwhile, FPTP resulted in 8 seats for the Liberal Democrats (instead of the 50 or so warranted by our vote share), diminishing the strongest voice in favour of the EU (or at least the media representation of that voice) at precisely the time it was most needed.

Paradoxically, UKIP only gaining 1 MP did not diminish the representation of their views in the media (there were other forces at work).  We are left to speculate whether UKIP gaining parliamentary representation in proportion to their vote in 2005 or 2010 might have forced the pro-EU majority in Parliament to counter their arguments earlier.

 

  1. Distorted politics:

FPTP does not just distort the results.  The behaviour of politicians and parties trying to win under such a twisted system distorts every aspect of politics.

In order to win, the Conservatives are a broad coalition party, rather than the two (or more) parties they should be.  The result has been to give undue influence to the anti-EU right wing of the party.  Similarly, Labour is forced to be a coalition of multiple parties; this undoubtedly contributed to their ineffectiveness in the referendum campaign.

 

Does it matter which system?

It’s certainly true that some of the problems with FPTP that led to the Leave vote would be solved by almost any system of proportional representation (PR).

But the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is existing Liberal Democrat policy, has a number of advantages over other forms of PR.  Under STV, every constituency has a reasonable chance of some change at each election – safe seats as they exist now would disappear.  STV would give voters more choice of candidates and hence more control over the result.  And if the party structure becomes disconnected from the changing views of the public, STV provides a safety valve, with voters able to exert a gentle pressure to re-align politics through their voting choices.

 

In summary

FPTP has multiple distorting effects – on the relationship between voters and MPs, on overall election results, and on the entire conduct of politics. This article gives just a few examples of how FPTP distorts every aspect of politics and government in the UK; its effects can be seen in almost every area of public administration and policy.

It is probably the single biggest underlying cause of the vote to leave.  An insistence on replacing it with a proportional system must be part of any response to the referendum result.

The Liberal Democrats should continue to promote the Single Transferable Vote as the system of PR that best delivers fair representation and power to people, and thus best solves the defects in FPTP exposed by the referendum result.

By Dr Crispin Allard, Chair of LDER

This article was originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice

New opportunities for proportional representation

The dramatic changes in the UK’s political landscape following the vote to leave the EU are opening up new opportunities for PR.

The referendum result demonstrated the extent to which the FPTP system has allowed politicians to become distanced from the people they purport to represent – strengthening the case for reform.  It has also provided an impetus to those arguing for realignment on the Left, with the potential for Labour to split over the leadership, which would make PR essential.

One example is MoreUnited.uk, set up by Paddy Ashdown among others.  Whilst they have not yet fully defined the policies they will back, a number of “examples” are provided, including “Take the big money out of politics and reform the voting system to ensure every vote counts”.  Policies will be decided by its members, so I would encourage you to join me in supporting this initiative.

Autumn Conference – an opportunity missed …

Federal Conference Committee has failed to select our motion on Prioritising PR for debate at Autumn Conference, despite it being supported by 12 local parties and over 140 members.  To quote their response:

“FCC decided that they did not feel that now was the correct time in the political calendar, and taking into account the current political environment and the recent referendum result, to discuss this motion.”

We at LDER beg to differ!  We have decided to resubmit a cut-down version as an amendment to the Europe motion.

… and an opportunity to get pissed

Our friends at the Electoral Reform Society are holding a reception at 6pm on Sunday 18 September in the Gresham Suite at the Old Ship Hotel, King’s Road, Brighton BN1 1NR.

Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform – opportunities to get involved

As always, we will be running a stall at Conference.  If you would like to help out, just go to our Doodle poll  and indicate which slot(s) you want to do.  You don’t need to be an expert on voting systems – the main qualification is enthusiasm for the cause.

Our AGM will be at 2pm on Sunday 18 September at: The Quadrant (upstairs room), 12-13 North Street, Brighton BN1 3GJ.

In addition to an exciting constitutional amendment, we will be electing the LDER Committee for the coming year.  If you are interested in standing, or would like to know more about what’s involved, please contact me at crispin.allard@gmail.com.

Regards,

Crispin Allard
Chair, LDER

Volunteers needed to help on our conference stall

Fancy chatting to Lib Dem members about electoral reform? We’re looking for volunteers to help on our stall in the Exhibition Area at Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, 17-20 September.

Just click here for our stall rota.

You don’t need any special knowledge to help out – just a passion for a fairer and more democratic politics. We’ll be there to brief you on what to say and provide everything you need.

If you’d like to help, enter your name on the left-hand side of the poll, and click any time-slots which you can cover. It’s a great way to help raise the profile of electoral reform within the party.

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