First Past the Post – a peculiar British tradition

By Charles Boney

Driving on the wrong side of the road, our Royal Family, roast beef, and our electoral system are some of those quaint British oddities when looked through the eyes of our European friends. The relationship between how we vote and the leaders we get is distorted by the first-past-the post system (FPTP) in a way that most of our neighbours find very strange. No wonder, if we just study the most recent elections in Cornwall. The news media heralded a massive Conservative victory, as if the Brexit-supporting county had all been cheering the Tories to the rafters. Let us check the facts.

Conservatives only secured 37% of the vote, meaning 63% did not support them. Yet they won 47 out of 87 council seats giving them a clear overall majority. On a pure proportional representation system they would have got only 32 seats, well short of being able to rule on their own. If council elections were run according to the Mayoral/Police and Crime Commissioner supplementary vote system they would not be in power – in many seats they fell well short of a majority and their closest opponent would have received many of the second preference votes. The Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens all suffered badly and are underrepresented on the new council. Mebyon Kernow [the Party for Cornwall] and the Independents have roughly their fair share, although they had many fewer candidates and their votes were concentrated more in certain seats.

The most obvious criticism of FPTP is the simple unfairness shown in this data. It is repeated time and again in many elections. Thatcher never had anywhere near 50% of the vote and neither did Tony Blair, yet the elections of 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 were all described as “landslides”. They were not – the majority of voters did not want either of these historic winners to have all the power a modern Prime Minister wields and the same surely applies to the 2019 election where the ruling party obtained 44% of the votes yet received 56% of the seats and a comfortable 80 seat majority thus giving it the freedom to do anything it wants under the guise of “the will of the people”.

If we changed the voting system, we would change the culture of politics. We would accept that a Prime Minister should be someone who can build a wider team not just use talent from their own tribe. Many supporters of FPTP like to mock the regular changes of government in countries such as Italy but it happens in a different way here. It is called “reshuffle”: when the internal pressures mount in the one party government, the PM brutally sacks ministers and moves the deckchairs. The national interest is abandoned for the party interest.

And when the culture of politics changes, then the centralising tendency of the state changes as well. In large European countries such as Spain and Germany, there is far more power devolved to the regions than in the UK, whereas we are about to embark on another trial of strength over the future of Scotland.

We are a restless and divided nation and none of us know where our sad decline will end. Perhaps we should look to the electoral systems and politics of our European friends for inspiration.

On the demise of PR in the United Kingdom

By Ann Higgins

Thanks, Anita, for your insightful Dutch perspective on PR, to Rosemary for her peep into the German voting systems, to Emmanuelle for sharing her country’s system on Zoom, and to Charles for the rundown on the scene in Cornwall and beyond.

Meanwhile, as signalled in the Queen’s Speech, if our Home Secretary gets her way, the small vestiges of PR that exist in the UK will soon be obliterated with first-past-the-post being installed as the only method of voting. The pretext for this is thin in the extreme – those few of you who remember the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum may be surprised to learn that according to Priti Patel, we were voting not just on whether we should adopt the alternative vote system in general elections but on whether the UK as a whole should reject all voting methods other than FPTP for all time. Do you remember that ever being discussed? No, nor me.

Her argument gets even thinner when you consider that the London mayoral elections, which started in 2000, and which have always used a form of PR called Supplementary Vote [SV], continued to use that system in the 2012 and 2016 elections without anyone saying that the electorate had decided that it should be abandoned. You’d think some would have spotted that, wouldn’t you?

And the same applies to all other mayoral elections as well as those of Police and Crime Commissioners who only came into existence in 2011. If Patel were right you’d think that Parliament might have noticed that the country had just voted against all non-FPTP forms of election and would have taken steps to amend the Act which created them, wouldn’t you, before the first elections took place in 2012? But no, no changes were made.

But, I hear you ask, what does voting method matter? Well if we return to the outcome of the 2019 general election, FPTP resulted in a party which obtained slightly fewer than 44% of the votes cast gaining 56% of the seats in the House of Commons, and as the author of this article published by the Electoral Reform Society points out, then in one PCC election it would have resulted in a candidate with only 27.3% of the vote being elected. This surely has the opposite effect to the one the Patel claims for FPTP in that it makes PCCs less accountable rather than more. If, as SV requires, you have to get 50% of the vote to be elected, that surely creates a greater connection with the electorate not less. And the same applies to mayoral elections where the victor must gain legitimacy from having gained the support of at least 50% of the voters.

Looking at the wider picture, can there be any doubt that if the last general election had been decided by a form of PR we would not be in our current parlous state?

And now the spectre of Voter ID also raises its ugly head, with the government aiming to introduce it for the 2023 local elections. Described by ex-Tory cabinet minister David Davis as “an illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem”, it runs counter to the Cabinet Office’s own assessment issued in March of this year which said that our elections were of the highest standard and voters could have full confidence in them yet less than two months later the government sees them as wide open to potential voter fraud. According to the Electoral Commission, in 2019, out of the 58 million votes cast there were only 595 allegations of electoral fraud, only 33 of which involved voting fraudulently, and which resulted in four convictions and two cautions. As they say, there is no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud yet the whole system is to be revised at an anticipated cost of £20 million so that we can all provide proof of who we have been all along.

And how is this to be achieved? How many of us still resemble our passport photos let alone our driving licence ones? Are voting booths to be equipped with shaving facilities to allow those with beards to remove them if returning officers are dissatisfied with their resemblance to the proffered ID? How many will be turned away because their face literally doesn’t fit or because they simply can’t be bothered to queue? And that is before we consider the 3.5 million in the UK who lack any sort of photo ID or the 11 million without a passport or driving licence. What is planned for them? How much will this disadvantage those who tend not to vote Tory, i.e. the young, the poor and the marginalised?

A far greater problem, completely ignored by this government, is the number of people eligible to vote who are not registered to do so – a whopping nine million at the last count. If only the government put as much effort into getting those who are eligible to vote onto the electoral roll as they are preparing to spend on stopping the very few cheats from voting, the UK would be a far more democratic place. But then perhaps more democracy is not the name of the game they are playing.