The bankrupt mess of the UK’s First Past The Post electoral system

Paul Ging

London (Brussels Morning) When I was a student at Manchester University in the late 80s, I was regularly assailed as I walked to and from lunch at the Union building – or even the occasional lecture, if I was feeling really ‘out there’ – by activists from the main UK opposition Labour Party. The odd tankie aside, I couldn’t fault their egalitarian principles and their exasperation, which I shared, about how such inequities could persist into the then-modern era and the horror at, for example, the reckless sell-off of public assets

Since I was ostensibly studying politics (squeezed in somewhere around trips to The Hacienda and The International), I would ask them about what I considered the elephant in the room: the UK’s obviously unfair First Past The Post system; the issues with it included votes for parties that didn’t win a particular seat piling up uselessly, undemocratically and not counting towards the overall national result. 

Sometimes I simply got a blank look; but more often, it was regarded as an irrelevance. Any minute now, the electorate were going to ‘come to their senses’ and ‘see reason’. There’d ‘be a tipping point.’ It was ‘obvious’, apparently, and voting reform was a distraction from the ‘real issues.’ 

But, I’d respond, the FPTP system meant that only a few dozen marginal seats counted. That was where the election was won or lost. As a result, those ‘real issues’ never got addressed. Wouldn’t they be better off promoting awareness of the disparities in the system that were undermining their efforts? Shouldn’t they be supporting voting reform, ideally proportional representation, where parties could be awarded seats in precise relation to the number of votes they actually received? Best of all, a version of PR maintaining the vital constituency link?

Like all missionaries when their gospel is called into question, this was the bit where they would get more aggressive. The fault was clearly with me, not with their message! Couldn’t I see that? I was ‘being defeatist’, they’d say, as if spittle-flecked partisan commitment and a sense of righteousness could somehow overcome the mathematics. In more extreme encounters, I was a ‘sell out’. But how can you sell out something that nobody’s buying in the first place? 

These accostings stopped for a while after the thrashing Labour got in the June 1987 election. The Conservative Party that year received only 42% of the vote, but the winner-takes-all FPTP system meant they gained another large parliamentary majority with a monopoly on all national governmental power. 

By the autumn term, these activists were back; the defeat was the fault of ‘media propaganda’, they said, as if this factor hadn’t occurred to them before the poll. It’d be different next time, when voters saw the Tories’ ‘true colours’, I was assured.  Apparently, they hadn’t seen them just three months earlier – after eight years of Thatcherism. 

It seemed the disconnect between the facts and where the activists believed they were within touching distance of was, as in all other religions, filled in by faith; like a huge glob of putty on a hopelessly broken and misaligned window frame. 

The UK Labour Party: a dismal electoral record

Yet beyond the supernatural realm, the Labour Party is famously not very good at winning elections; after effectively taking over from the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives in the 1918 General Election and consolidating that political realignment in the subsequent 1922 poll, the Labour Party has achieved a parliamentary majority only six times out of 28 general elections. Of those, only two outside the Blair years gave them a large enough majority to serve anything like a full term and/or to govern alone. One of those is the activists’ favourite, the 1945 victory, which led to the creation of the UK’s National Health Service amongst other significant and laudable achievements. This win was born amidst the debris of the recently-concluded World War Two and high public awareness of the recommendations of the Beveridge Report; these two factors were hugely important. The report had been published during the conflict and had been referenced within the context of eventually rewarding the public’s wartime sacrifices and efforts. 

So, let’s set this famous victory with highly significant extenuating factors that delivered Labour a massive and oft-quoted majority literally a lifetime ago with a completely different electorate to one side. That leaves only the 1966 Harold Wilson win – which was in itself a response to Labour’s tiny, unworkable 1964 election majority – and the three Blair victories from 1997 to 2005.  The New Labour wins relied even more than previously on attracting voters from other parties. These were emphatically not converts who switched to Labour permanently.   

The truth about FPTP

So, it’s quite clear that FPTP doesn’t really work for Labour. It needs far more votes to achieve one seat in parliament than its main rival, the Conservatives. In the 2019 election, it took a total of 50,817 to elect each Labour MP, compared to the Tories’ 38,300. Even worse done to were the Liberal Democrats, who only achieved one MP for every 334,122 votes. Compare that to the Scottish National Party, harvesting one MP for every 25,882 votes.   

FPTP allows a party – usually the Conservatives – to take sole power with relatively little popular support. In 2015, the Conservatives under then-Prime Minister David Cameron took only 37% of all votes cast – but 100% of the levers of power, because it gave them a small majority of seats, 51%. Two years later, correctly sensing she could win more of the vote (and hoping a bigger majority would help her navigate the ongoing Brexit fall out), Cameron’s replacement Theresa May called another general election. She won a much-improved 42.4% of the poll, gaining two and a third million more votes. But she actually lost 13 seats and failed to achieve a majority. Another two years of Brexit calamity later, her successor Boris Johnson held yet another election and achieved a very small increase in votes of 1.2%. Yet through this, his party gained an extra 48 seats to achieve what the UK tabloids like to call a ‘thumping’ – but actually thoroughly unwarranted – majority. 

The Conservatives even pledged in their 2019 manifesto to retain FPTP for Westminster elections, “as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver, both locally and nationally”. 

This vague claim about the benefits of FPTP is disingenuous. The system’s imprecise nature actually allows many such people to survive election after election. The manifesto statement also falsely implies that alternative systems don’t achieve this end, when PR in particular is actually much better at it. The suspicion is that the Conservatives  included this in the manifesto so that they can try to insist that the public voted for FPTP, when in reality most voters have indicated they prefer PR, including a small majority of Conservative ones.   

General elections in the UK under FPTP are, as I said to those activists decades ago and many times since, won or lost in a small number of marginal seats. The votes cast in the hundreds of safe seats effectively count for nothing. Political debate is narrowed and short termism flourishes, as potentially unpopular decisions are kicked down the road to try to win in a tiny and unrepresentative cache of electoral battlegrounds that decide the creation or denial of a majority. 

A united front?

But after all this time and so many election travesties, every opposition party in the UK must be foaming at the mouth at this unfairness, right? Champing at the bit to end this obvious injustice, and highlighting the need for electoral reform at every opportunity to raise public awareness? Oddly, no. The Liberal Democrats are all for it. As are the Green Party, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. 

But it’s the Labour Party, who would arguably have the most to gain, who are still strangely ambivalent about it. 

The Alternative Vote referendum: muddying the waters

Admittedly, the waters of voting reform were muddied a full decade and three eventful general elections ago by the Alternative Vote referendum, taking place in May 2011, a year after Labour’s 2010 general election defeat. 

It was part of the price the Conservatives paid for Liberal Democrat support in a coalition government. The 2010 General Election made the Tories the biggest party, giving them nearly 50% of the seats on 36% of the vote, but didn’t give them a majority and therefore didn’t manifest ‘strong, one-party government’ – which is supposedly FPTP’s USP. 

But the price the Tories paid wasn’t very high; despite being committed to voting reform, the Liberal Democrats had no real enthusiasm for the AV system in which, rather clumsily, the voters list candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than half the first preference votes, they win. If not, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to voters’ second preference, meaning parties would actively compete for second and third place preference. Confused? You will be. The later stages get even more arcane. 

To quote a British Academy publication on the topic: 

“As the process continues, the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates.”

Blimey. It was therefore very easy for FPTP enthusiasts and many committed PR reformists alike to highlight the major problems with AV and thereby combine to defeat it, helped by a very low turnout. 

But the potential by-product, perhaps intentional from the Tories, for whom FPTP is the only way to maintain their hegemony, was to try to give voting reform per se a bad name with the electorate. Yet in the public at large, support for PR is now at 42%, outstripping support for retaining the current system by 9%.

Regardless, the AV vote certainly gave an excuse for many opponents of voting reform within Labour to try to declare the matter closed. 

Labour inertia and vested interests 

John Doolan, Parliamentary & Political Officer of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, thinks he understands the motivation of those in his party opposed to reform: 

“Historically, FPTP has meant that you can get a ‘pure’ Labour government. Not very many of them compared to the Tories, but it’s seductive in terms of that possibility.

“The way our electoral system works means it gives you 100% of the power with under 50% of the vote. And when you are one of the two parties that can win under that, it’s attractive.” 

The LCER’s efforts are mirrored on the other side of FPTP’s political divide by Conservative Action for Electoral Reform

They make the point that much of the country has become an ‘electoral desert’ for their party, despite strong support in many of those areas, frustrated by the vagaries of FPTP. They are also particularly concerned by a lack of unionist opinion in Scotland being represented at Westminster. Their party’s high command remains expressly averse to these bigger picture issues and long-term trends. 

Half-hearted consideration of reform 

Labour, however, has kicked the voting reform issue around a bit since the first landslide win for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the loose electoral coalition of interests which had occasionally worked for them before was malfunctioning: Thatcher’s Conservatives took 53% of seats with under 44% of the total vote. During the 1980s, Labour set up a commission under Professor Raymond Plant. Its eventual recommendations, seen as significant at the time, were more tinkering than wholesale reform. It proposed moving away from FPTP, but fought shy of making the leap to proportional representation and went for a single transferable vote system, another relatively complicated ranking arrangement.   

The Plant recommendations were quietly dropped after Tony Blair won a 179-seat majority for Labour in the 1997 election (incidentally, Blair only achieved the same total of the popular vote as Margaret Thatcher had in 1979, but this translated to an even more inappropriate 63.4% of the seats). 

As the Plant recommendations bit the dust, Labour set up a new commission instead, under Lord Jenkins. This ended up recommending a fiendishly complicated variation of Alternative Vote which has come to be known as AV+. It’s a system even the dedicated researchers of SETI might struggle to comprehend, listening for something recognisable in the fuzzy background static of the universe. The Jenkins Commission’s recommendations had a similarly bad reception.     

But, John Doolan believes, the rosy electoral backdrop (from Labour’s point of view) that led to them rejecting Plant and Jenkins has probably gone forever: 

“What we’re saying in LCER and Labour For A New Democracy is that the world has moved on quite substantially since these big wins for Blair in a couple of very fundamental ways. The cards are stacked against Labour in terms of winning under First Past The Post. That’s the naked truth.”

But given Labour’s indecisiveness on the issue of voting reform, it’s understandable that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom even  one of his closest supporters described as “endlessly indecisive” himself and “often not seeming fully present”, was unable to formulate a position on the issue.  

Indeed, before his two general election defeats, Corbyn downplayed the need for Labour under FPTP to attract people who had voted for other parties previously, as Blair and every past Labour leader had had to do, with a vague and ultimately mistaken notion about expanding the existing electorate. 

This was perhaps to reassure his more excitable acolytes that people they considered to be undesirables didn’t need to be courted and that a platform such as his could somehow negotiate the idiosyncrasies of FPTP while simultaneously being battered by a hostile media. With crushing predictability, it didn’t work out. 

Renewed momentum from Momentum?

Yet, encouragingly, even the leftwing Momentum organisation, which backed Corbyn unflinchingly during his tenure, appears to have gleaned a lesson from his 2019 election drubbing. It suddenly came out for proportional representation this April

So exactly where is the ongoing opposition to PR within the Labour movement?  It seems to be simultaneously structural – and yet somewhat amorphous. 

After Corbyn announced he was stepping down, Emily Thornberry was the only one of his would-be successors still openly opposed to some form of voting reform. Thornberry, who represents the ultra-safe London-based Labour seat of Islington South and Finsbury has declared “we are all equal with first past the post” which is true in the literal sense of all having one vote, but when most of them don’t count, it’s highly misleading. 

John Doolan believes the vested interests of those with relatively powerful positions in the Labour movement seem to be an issue:

“There is a quite a lot of ‘small c’ conservativism within Labour amongst apparatchiks who will try to stifle change if they can, because it’s quite a comfortable life. Even if you don’t have a Labour government, there are lots of MPs with safe seats. 

“That’s why I think the Hartlepool by-election defeat might be a good thing for ending the complacency. The ground is shifting and they need to wake up.” 

“The unions are not yet fully onboard and they still carry a lot of sway. With Unite and Unison not onboard with voting reform and other unions against it in some cases, that’s a block up.” 

Union inertia and opposition

Indeed, the GMB union has previously vigorously defended First Past The Post with familiar tropes such as it being a “tried and tested system which delivers strong, single party government”, albeit usually a single party government that the GMB would not approve of – and which would not approve of the GMB. 

The people the Labour Party was built to serve, highly unionised at the time, died many decades ago. Their descendants possess neither the same occupations or preoccupations and certainly not membership of the same occupational unions. Yet the philosophy of this union, at least, is apparently to try to operate on the same, long-gone, terrain.  A block up, indeed – and possibly indicative of the wider problem here. My repeated requests for any update on the GMB’s position met with no response. 

However, many prominent Labour politicians including other former leadership contenders such as Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips are in favour of PR. Even the current leader Keir Starmer, desperate not to offend anyone in a barely-functioning internal coalition he presumably imagines he can still repair, has occasionally paid lip service to it.    

Amongst Labour party members, support for voting reform is overwhelming, with more than three quarters in favour. So, a commitment to PR, it seems, certainly wouldn’t upset the Labour rank-and-file.

John Doolan agrees: “There are lots of policies we can agree on with the Greens and with big segments of the Liberal Democrats, such as workers’ rights, LGBT+ equality and the environment.” 

And, he believes, any legislation produced by a coalition would have a good chance of being stable and durable: 

Academic studies say that, under PR, progressive policies are easier to get in and harder to remove because you’ve had to cooperate with other parties to get them in. The chances are that some of those constituent parts will be in a future coalition, even if you’re not.

“So, the idea that these other parties are going to rip out these policies that they helped design is for the birds.” 

So where to from here? The LCER has been concentrating on getting constituency parties to push for a motion on PR at the next Labour Party conference and appears to be making good progress. 

Would voting reform ‘destroy’ the Labour Party? And so what?

Yet there’s still this vague sense of stasis, if not resistance; Peter Kellner, the distinguished journalist and former president of YouGov, who is married to the Labour politician Baroness Ashton, wrote recently that voting reform could “kill” the Labour Party. With a proportional system, he argued, Labour would be deprived of the ‘wasted vote’ argument to deter people from supporting the Lib Dems, Greens or a new, leftwing socialist party. 

So what? The broad church of the Labour Party is only constituted as such to try to navigate our peculiar and moribund electoral system in the first place. It might make more sense to stop pretending – assuming anyone still does – that the likes of Jon Lansman and Liz Kendall have much in common politically. The same divisions affect the Conservatives; they’re just better at hiding it (Europe aside). 

The Labour Party would not cease to exist, in any case. Mr Kellner’s wife could still play a role even if her party lost its privileged but currently ineffectual position as the loudest voice in the Lose-ocracy. Presumably it is democracy, not prestige, that Labour peers care about.  

It’s even very occasionally been suggested that a rightwing coalition would somehow benefit if the voting system – and thence voting habits – were to change. They are usually vague on the detail of how such a majority might be construed, especially when one considers that in 14 of the last 15 general elections, more people have voted for parties to the left of the Tories and that includes all of Mrs Thatcher’s era. Bravado-filled but poorly-evidenced postulations of a ‘permanent’ rightwing majority under PR might simply be a feint to try to scare the Left away from reform. 

Yet even if that were the case, wouldn’t that be more accurately representative democracy and therefore a preferable situation to any genuine democrat? And like any putative Labour/LibDem, Labour/Green or Labour/Green/Lib Dem administration, any theoretical right-leaning coalitions under PR simply would not have the full control and unbridled power that Johnson’s decidedly talent-lite government, purged of anyone who opposed an extreme interpretation of Brexit, has; or indeed that Thatcher’s or Blair’s governments also unfairly wielded.  

Endemic short-termism under FPTP 

The desire to get elected and wield such power via our all-or-nothing system means parties never collaborate to the necessary extent on solutions to long-term issues and problems, be it housing, poverty or the environment. Many measures which might prove controversial or expensive on these or other topics are kicked down the road, while parties try to win the next election in the handful of marginals that could realistically change hands. PR would substantially remove the incentive for this blight of short-termism. 

As John Doolan says, “the reason I am so passionate about this is not for politically expedient reasons, it’s for cultural reasons. 

“Moving towards PR will change the cultural tenure of politics in this country. There are plenty of Conservatives that agree with that need for change.

“There’s even a majority for voting reform amongst Conservative voters.” 

The comforting allure of permanent opposition

Here’s a couple of names you might not have expected to see in this piece: years ago, the late George Michael said that his former friend Elton John would not be satisfied until George turned up at Elton’s house in the middle of the night and begged Elton to take him to rehab. There is an unreconstructed and dogmatic strand in the Labour Party that will remain similarly unsatisfied until the electorate comes to it and begs it to save them. This diminishing strand needs to accept that this isn’t going to happen. It’s a peculiar kind of saviour complex indeed that won’t allow itself the tools to do the saving, predicated on an unrealistic Manichean world view (with themselves as the Good Guys, of course).   

Despite a consensus emerging on the Left, from Momentum rightwards across the overwhelming majority of the party’s membership, there is an old school minority that has very clear preconditions on only acting to help the disadvantaged people it claims to care about on terms that are highly unlikely to be satisfied and within its own peremptory frame of reference. 

Some of them still insist, as I was lectured years ago on the steps of Manchester’s University Union building, that PR is a distraction from the ‘real issues’ – but those issues can never be satisfactorily addressed if you don’t have long-term access to power. Protesting, marching and all the knockydoor activism in the world is not a solution to those issues. These ‘real issues’ merchants are putting the cart before the horse, as ever. This block to progress at least gives them plenty of time to concentrate on what is arguably their real favourite pastime of fulminating about ‘Blairites’ (by which they actually mean every other shade of opinion in Labour) and ‘yellow Tories’ (the Liberal Democrats). 

I have long seen myself as a Green voter who occasionally lends his vote to Labour. I will never consider lending it again until it unambiguously commits to voting reform. 

Cameron’s huge miscalculation 

PR is the default way that the developed world enacts the democratic wishes of its electorates. At least 80% of the OCED’s member nations use some form of it. Until its recent flounce-out, the UK was the only member of the European Union that didn’t use it. That exit was caused in large part by the political miscalculation of the century, very much related to the UK’s electoral system; in attempting to keep his own fragile electoral coalition together enough to win an upcoming general election under FPTP, David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership to see off a challenge from UKIP, which was threatening to split the Tory vote in the aforementioned tiny group of marginals and deny them seats crucial for a victory. He had nothing to lose; if he failed to achieve a majority, he reasoned, the Lib Dems wouldn’t allow him an EU referendum in a new coalition anyway. But doubtless he was characteristically pleased with himself when he won that general election battle in 2015. He went on to comprehensively lose the war. 

The referendum result was tipped into a slender margin of victory for the Leave campaign by an extra few percent of voters upset about the huge cuts to public services in his government’s austerity programme that couldn’t quite translate via FPTP. This led to the sudden end of his political career.  

The fallout from his spectacular failure also meant the hijacking of his party by precisely the kind of opportunists and extremists that the proponents of FPTP had long and complacently boasted that it frustrated.

Instead, it’s perfectly clear that arrogant and reckless attempts to game the inadequate FPTP system can instead enable extreme politics and bring about brutal, nonsensical, pseudo-democratic outcomes

Reformers’ ongoing mission

Pro-democracy reformers need to continue to raise awareness of the issue and cut through the disinformation about the ‘instability’ of PR. The UK had four general elections in under a decade because of a crisis directly traceable back to its use of FPTP. That’s extremely unstable compared to the PR as used to form governments like Germany’s, most of Europe, further afield in New Zealand and even within the UK itself, in Scotland. The FPTP fetishists’ favourite ‘Aha!’ example of Italy has long been beset by chopping and changing under a series of different hybrid voting systems. 

Reformers also need to continue to confront and expose the vested interests not just of cosy apparatchiks, but of those enjoying the similarly cosy certainties of opposition and the narcissistic presentation of ‘perfect’ versions of the world that they know will never get through the voting system – and that they will therefore never have to ‘sell out’. This is the electoral equivalent of Richard Perle’s ‘Zero Option’.

The British public deserves better options than the corrupt late-capitalist buffoonery of Johnson, the smug, High Sparrow puritanism of Corbyn or the insipid offerings of Starmer in his futile attempts to repair the electoral fire damage of his predecessor. All of them, in their own way, are the creation and consequence of FPTP. 

Abstracted, emotional and inaccurate arguments about PR producing governments nobody voted for are also worthless: compromise is surely the essence of real democracy, not the grotesque parody of it we currently have. The implication that a government that only a minority voted for is preferable because at least somebody is getting exactly what they wanted at the expense of most of the rest of the population is nonsensical, divisive and insulting. 

Just today, Keir Starmer spoke of being willing to “sweat blood for years” to “win back” voters he clearly believes are Labour’s by birthright. Enough of the industrial metaphors from Labour’s long-vanished past.  Time to use your head. 

Let’s kick this ridiculous system into touch. 

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Paul Ging is an international news and music journalist.