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

Conference Motion: Prioritising Proportional Representation

Below is the text of a conference motion which LDER have submitted for debate at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference this year. We are now waiting to find out whether the motion will be selected for this year’s agenda, and will report back to our members and supporters once this is known.

We would like to thank all of the individual Liberal Democrat members and local parties and who have supported the motion.

 


Conference Motion: Prioritising Proportional Representation

Conference notes:

i. The result of the 2015 General Election was even more undemocratic than usual, with the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP gaining approximately one quarter of the total number of votes cast, but only 10 seats out of 650, while the Scottish Nationalists won 56 seats with about 4% of the votes cast.

ii. Opinion Polls show that this result has led to a sharp and sustained increase in support for Proportional Representation (PR).

iii. The results of local elections in England and Wales continue to be even less democratic than those in Westminster; whilst the system for local elections in Wales is now a devolved matter, in England it remains under the control of Westminster.

iv. The House of Commons and local authorities in England and Wales are the only UK public bodies elected using First-Past-the-Post (FPTP).

Conference welcomes:

a. Support for insisting on PR for the House of Commons as part of any future coalition deal, from Tim Farron and Norman Lamb during the 2015 leadership election, and from Nick Clegg earlier this year.

b. That other parties, including the SNP, Plaid, UKIP, Greens and some in Labour, are increasingly vociferous on the need for PR and are regularly engaged in cross-party discussions on this issue.

Conference believes:

i. The Government of any nation should be “Of the people, by the people, for the people”; therefore, the test of an electoral system should be not how fair it is to political parties, but how fair it is to people.

ii. The continued use of FPTP distorts all aspects of government and politics and thereby undermines every other Liberal Democrat objective; its replacement with PR should therefore be the top priority for the Liberal Democrats. Insistence on PR is consequently justified, in light of its unique impact as an enabler for everything else the Liberal Democrats wish to achieve.

Conference further believes that the case for the urgent introduction of PR is now overwhelming following the EU Referendum, which demonstrated the extent to which FPTP has allowed politicians to become distanced from the people they purport to represent.

Conference reaffirms existing policy in favour of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as the system of PR that best delivers fairness to people.

Conference calls for:

1. Liberal Democrats to make the campaign for PR a top priority, taking the lead nationally and making the case on the basis of fairness to people.

2. The Federal Party to ensure that in any future negotiation of a coalition government, the Liberal Democrats will insist on a clear commitment to the earliest possible introduction of PR for the Westminster Parliament and local authorities in England.

LDER at Autumn Conference 2015

Electoral reform was very much a hot topic at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference 2015. At usual, LDER had a stall in the Exhibition Hall, modelled here by our secretary, Penny Goodman:

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Hundreds of visitors stopped by to talk to us, including a couple of well-known faces. Here, new party leader Tim Farron shares his passion for electoral reform with incoming LDER chair Crispin Allard:

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And here is Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, deep in discussion with visitors to our stall:

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We had the pleasure of hearing Katie Ghose speak, too, on the Sunday evening as part of the ERS-sponsored fringe event, ‘Like Minds to Change Minds: building alliances for electoral reform’. Katie, Owen Winter MYP and Katherine Trebeck of Oxfam all spoke about the practical prospects for persuading people across all parties of the need for reform, and building alliances to achieve it.

The evening didn’t end there, though. Another fringe event on the topic of electoral reform followed, this time entitled ‘Changing the Political Map of Britain’, and concerned with the practical impact of STV for local government:

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STV for local government has been a campaigning priority for LDER over the past few years, so we were pleased to have the opportunity to find out more about the work which Lewis Baston and Martin Linton have done to model its effects in practice for every local authority in England. Our incoming chair Crispin Allard also spoke about the benefits of STV at local government level, as a means of ensuring better voter representation and more effective opposition on local councils. You can download your own copy of Lewis and Martin’s report here.

Introducing Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

By Keith Sharp, the Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

Giving the individual voter greater choice and voice – devolving democratic power to the individual and away from institutions – is integral to making the UK a truly liberal and democratic country.

That’s why it is important that new – and existing – party members join Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) and help us campaign to make this essential change a reality.

Take a look at our historic Parliament, supposedly the model for others to follow. Of its two houses, the Lords is totally appointed and expressly undemocratic.

The Commons is elected in a way which distorts the democratic will of the people and freezes millions out of any say in the result. For many people in ‘safe’ seats, voting is an exercise in futility.

In the meantime, local government in England and Wales has been neutered through lack of local autonomy. It features a grossly undemocratic electoral system, which creates virtual one-party authorities, despite substantial votes for other parties.

And in European Parliament elections, we are reduced to voting for a faceless party. The actual MEPs ‘elected’ are left up to the internal machinery of the political parties.

The Liberal Democrats advocate changing our electoral system to one, which addresses these ills; which allows the voter to exercise ultimate control, in the ballot box, over parties and state institutions.

Of course this would mean proportional representation – parties would win seats in the Commons according to the proportion of votes cast for them across the country. But, desirable and badly needed though that it is, the democratic prize is far greater.

That’s why our party supports in principle the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. Already in use in Ireland and in Scottish local government; and used by many democratic organisations across the UK, STV uniquely delivers not just party proportionality, but also choice between different candidates of the same party. The voters’ wishes outweigh the chosen party list of candidates.

This is not a choice between electoral systems; it is a political choice about democratic outcomes.

Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) campaign, inside and outside our party for:

  • a voter empowering proportional system (STV) for elections to the House of Commons. Given the current Conservative Government, the first step should be a Constitutional Convention or People’s Assembly to consider the democratic justice the current electoral system and what alternatives might be.
  • A democratically-elected House of Lords
  • Change England and Wales local electoral systems to the one in use in Scotland.
  • Increase voter choice for European elections, by ditching the fixed party list system.

A key to liberalism is breaking down concentrations of power that frustrate and stifle individual and community freedom.

Is electoral reform the all-purpose answer, on its own, to all these ills? No it isn’t. Will we achieve a liberal, people-empowered democracy without it? No, we won’t. It is a necessary condition for social and democratic progress.

Click here to join us to today

Local government reform: a progress report from Spring Conference

At Spring Conference in March, Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform focused on making the case for reform to local government elections in England and Wales. We were pleased to hear members from across the party raising the same issue at consultative sessions on both Political & Constitutional Reform and the next General Election manifesto, and to welcome a large and enthusiastic audience to our Saturday evening fringe: ‘Worst Past the Post: why local government desperately needs electoral reform’. You can see some pictures of the event, and of our conference stall here.

The fringe event, jointly sponsored by Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and ALDC, was ably chaired by Cllr Claire Hudson. Darren Hughes and Willie Sullivan from the Electoral Reform Society began the evening with a short film on the Scottish experience of STV. Chronicling the day of the 2012 local elections, this showed how STV had prompted major parties to extend their campaigning, while offering minor parties a real chance of fair representation. Voters reported that they found the system easy to use, and liked being able to vote for smaller parties without feeling that they were wasting their votes.

After the film, Darren and Willie reported that Prof. John Curtice’s research into the effects of STV on Scottish local elections had shown that the average number of candidates per ward has doubled, while uncontested wards have been eliminated entirely. They also pointed out that because STV had allowed the Conservatives to secure seats in areas of Scotland where they were previously shut out, this could encourage them to accept it in Wales, where similar conditions apply.

But even Liberal Democrats can sometimes benefit disproportionately from First Past the Post, as the next speaker and leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, Keith House, knows. Keith explained that the Lib Dems typically secure around 50% of the total vote across Eastleigh borough, but 90% of the council seats. This provided a firm foundation for the recent national by-election, but Keith was under no illusions about the disadvantages of single-party dominance at local level: for example, the absence of an effective opposition, or too little incentive to campaign.

At Hampshire County Council level, Keith explained that FPTP elections consistently allocate all of the rural wards to Tory councillors, while Eastleigh and Winchester are the preserve of the Lib Dems. STV would reflect voter preferences more accurately, giving both parties some representation in both contexts and allowing Labour to win seats as well. Keith’s view was that the need for all parties to cooperate in this situation would foster a much more progressive council overall.

We heard next from Baroness Jenny Randerson, former Welsh Assembly Member and current Welsh Officer Minister. Results for local elections in Wales are even more disproportionate than England thanks to the use of First Past the Post in ‘all-up’ block elections every four years. This system can allow one party to take all of the seats in a multi-member ward at once with less than 50% of the vote, and in Wales it meant that Labour increased their share of seats by 70% in a single election in 2012.

But, as Baroness Randerson explained, all-up elections do mean that voters in Wales are used to long ballot papers. In fact, some people already respond to these papers by trying to signal their preferences between the candidates: so STV would not be too radical a change from their perspective. The challenges in Wales were that powers over local government elections still rest with the UK Parliament, for whom the issue is not a priority, while any Labour Assembly Members who express support for change quickly come under pressure from their party to withdraw it.

Finally, Peter Facey from Unlock Democracy addressed practical strategies for achieving reform. He said that in both England and Wales, the most likely context for progress would be coalition negotiations: though for Wales, power over local government elections would need to be devolved first. In England, it needed to be a red-line issue for the Liberal Democrats. But for this to really work, it is not enough to just put it in our next manifesto. We need to articulate the case for reform clearly, and start work on persuading the other parties in advance.

Peter also set out what he felt would be the most persuasive argument in a coalition negotiation: that any party going into government inevitably loses councillors, as voters punish them locally for national issues. STV mitigates those losses, making them less extreme than under FPTP. He further argued that the power to choose electoral systems should be localised, not imposed from the top down. This, after all, lives up to the Liberal Democrat principle of freedom from conformity. It would also mean that we could campaign on it locally, presenting STV as a solution to the particular problems of an individual area.

After the panellists had set out the examples, the arguments and the strategy, the many very passionate and articulate questions which followed demonstrated how strongly Liberal Democrats feel about local government reform. If you would like to help Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform to take this issue forward, and to strengthen the party’s voice on electoral reform more generally, you can join us by emailing info@lder.org.uk to request a membership form.

This article was originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice