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:
- Safe Seats
- Distorted election results
- Distorted politics
- 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
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