Image: House of Lords, Flickr, CC 2.0

Guest Blog: Is first past the post why the UK is trapped in broken politics?

This guest blog from researcher Stuart Donald takes on the UK’s electoral system. All graphs and diagrams are based on Donald’s research comparing outcomes and systems in the UK, the Anglosphere, and European peer countries.

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People tend to think that First Past the Post (FPTP) is bad because it is less refined, less democratic than Proportional Representation (PR). It’s also seen as a bit dull, something political geeks like to speak about, not really a priority for governments compared to health, education, and so on. But data now emerging shows that since 1980, the mechanism is a core driver behind why the UK is in a far worse state that its mainland peers; it shows that FPTP is a trap which is driving the inequality gap ever wider.

Here’s why:A graph comparing voter support to seats in parliament

1. It all starts with the absurd winner-takes-all element in the FPTP mechanism

Absurd indeed. It almost feels inappropriate that a term borrowed from the card game rooms of Las Vagas should apply in any way to our democracy. Yet it’s true; if you vote for the wrong party, that is, anyone other than the one with the most votes, your vote simply will not count. This is unlike PR systems where all votes have an impact and as long as a party gets more than the minimum threshold, your vote will influence who gets to parliament. But so what? Is it that unfair? How can this really make a difference, you might ask?

2. ‘Winner-takes-all’ makes the FPTP election a ‘two-horse-race’ A graph showing parties involved in government

Why are there usually only two parties of government in FPTP systems like the UK, Canada, Australia and the US?(2) Because the voters have learned how the winner-takes-all outcome works; they know if they want their votes to count, they need to anticipate who will win. That drives the race down in all cases to two horses – the lowest level to allow the voting strategy any chance of working. So voters vote tactically between the two anticipated leading horses, eliminating all others from the contest. But again, what is wrong with this? Still democracy, right?

3. Two horses means there can only be two voter ‘coalitions’ under FPTP

If there are only two possible outcomes, there can be only two broad communities or coalitions of voters for the parties to appeal to. PR countries, on the other hand, offer a wide range of credible, electable options across at least 4 parties, offering 6 or more viable coalition propositions between them. That means parties can appeal to more focused sections of the electorate. For example, a Green Party and a Christian Democrat Party could aim to attract poorer, lower- and middle- income voters with a coalition promise to raise taxes only for the upper-middle and high-income earners. But back in FPTP land, if you have to appeal to all sections of the income spectrum, you can’t risk a policy like this!

4. The ‘haves’ outnumber the ‘have-nots’ by more than 2 to 1 giving their horse an edge in the race

Over the last 50 years, the ‘haves’ – defined as those that enjoy higher than the median level of income – have represented around 70% of developed country electorates. They are obviously not an organised group of voters, but they all have one thing in common: something to lose. Many of them will not welcome a government that might raise taxes, spend money on things the ‘haves’ don’t think they need and otherwise meddle unhelpfully.  Obviously, not all ‘haves’ will vote the same way, but their sheer numbers mean that the things they hold in common will be central to what policies are taken forward.

5. Most absurd of all, the FPTP mechanism rewards ‘Haves’ with more seats than their votes merit

The Conservatives have achieved on average 42% of the vote in their 8 election victories since 1980. But if this minority victory resulted in 42% of seats in parliament, then the shape of policy would have been very different. They’d have had to negotiate with other parties, ensuring some compromise to their their agenda. But here’s where FPTP is properly bonkers: because Conservative seat majorities are typically more evenly dispersed across the UK than the Labour’s, the winner-takes-all mechanism allocates them many more seat than their vote share merits. As shown here, on average this results in 55% of all seats, a stonking 40+ seat average majority. This is what allows FPTP governments to achieve single party majorities. This is what ensures that, unlike in PR systems, the influence of other political groups on policy are so consistently limited under FPTP.

6. FPTP electorates only trust progressive parties when they are sure there will be no ‘funny business’

On average, traditionally progressive parties in FPTP countries have achieved power 1/3 of the time since 1980, far less than in PR countries. And when they get to power, like UK Labour from 1997-2010, even with more than a decade in government and three election victories, they seem unable to act any more progressively than their Conservative adversaries, as evidenced by social and health spend averages v EU (and largely PR) peers, as indicated below. This is the price FPTP extracts from its progressive ‘wanabees’ for getting to power.

7. Four decades of government with little or no progressive influence have come at a cost

And so it is no surprise that the progressive period of power had limited impact on improving quality of life in the UK when compared to European peers; child mortality and life expectancy outcomes lagged European peers at the same levels before, during and after the stint of progressive party power.

8. With no means to stop and reverse inequality, FPTP leaves the UK trapped in a downward spiral

The Gini coefficient below is the standard measure of how equally dispersed income is across a country; a score of 1 means one person (or family) has all the income, a score of 0 means perfect equality is achieved across all in society. The most equal countries in the world are those at the top of the table, with scores of around 0.25. But FPTP states in red are at the bottom with inequality scores far in excess of the equality leaders, our European peers. The two countries that have suffered the two greatest populist shocks in recent times – Brexit and Trump. This, it seems, is what we can expect when inequality gets out of control. There may be more shocks to come but FPTP appears to have no means of doing anything about it.

Guest blog from researcher Stuart Donald; find out more at his website.

This is a guest blog and the views of the authors are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust

(1) Arguably, Australia has has more than two parties in their government; however, the Liberal and National parties operation in a permanant coalition arrangement that forms the conservative governments, and has operated predictably as a single party for many decades; in practice, this creates a two party system (the progressive party, the Labor party, is constituted as a single political party)
(2) Exceptions to this exist; almost always nationalist parties or parties that seek to represent ethnicities or communities who live in concentrated areas, like the SNP, Bloc Québécois, or India’s various regional parties.