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First Past the Post: Elections in Britain

To keep up-to-date with what is changing in UK elections, electoral and voting practices and political parties - see Government and Politics - Links - particularly Political Science Resources, Dod On line, BBC Politics and the United Kingdom Parliament.

Introduction

It is often said that, 'a day is a long time in politics', as leaders and even political regimes can be overthrown almost overnight.

In Britain, a day probably felt like a long time for Mrs. Thatcher when she was put in the situation of having little option but to resign from the leadership of the Conservative Party, and also leave the post of Prime Minister. That was back in November 1990 when her apparent invincibility and desire to lead 'indefinitely' were abruptly ended.  A day probably also felt like quite a long time for Mr. Major when he had to leave number 10 Downing Street in a hurry, after the Labour Party's decisive victory in the general election, on May 1st 1997.
Picture by Anna Borawska

Yet in reality, these sudden changes often have long build-ups. The apparent rapid departures have their histories that may go back for months, even years. And it must be pointed out that changes in personnel are not usually accompanied by sudden changes in the political system. It is true that the system in the UK is now undergoing some radical alterations, for instance the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Yet many aspects of the system have remained the same for over a hundred years.

In this paper I am going to briefly explore one main characteristic feature of the British electoral system, i.e. the so-called 'first-past- the-post' (FPTP) system. In doing this, I will describe to some extent how British democracy is put into action and also to illustrate some strengths and weaknesses of the British system of government. I shall also highlight some areas for useful cross-cultural comparison. I will include some of the main workings of the British electoral system here, concentrating on the general (national) electoral system rather than the system of local and European Union elections, although some references will necessarily be made to these.

The 'First-Past-the-Post' System and Demands for Proportional Representation

One adjective often used to describe the British system of government is 'democratic.' The term 'democracy' is frequently viewed as having positive connotations. It is very often used as a standard for judging a country's level of political as well as social and economic development. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, a well-known writer on politics once described the way in which it had become a 'hoorah' word, an idea worth cheering for (1976). In the late eighties, the demands for democracy in Eastern and Central Europe led to the overthrow of communism. Many people in the West cheered on these dramatic events as they viewed them on their television sets. Yet there is sometimes an incomplete understanding of the full rights and responsibilities that democracy may involve, of what this ideal may actually mean in reality or how it is best fulfilled in political practices and processes.

It is often assumed that the holding of regular elections with universal franchise is enough to gain any country membership of the league of democracies. Without these, a nation may be considered politically under-developed. We frequently hear, for example, of a country obtaining democracy because they are holding elections with experienced observers on hand to ensure that everything runs smoothly and fairly. That, however, is only just the beginning and the presence or absence of elections may not always be a good indicator, especially when broadening the term to include other social processes and ways of life. A sense of active citizenship and political involvement probably goes beyond the ballot box but here I will confine myself to the discussion of general elections.

During a general election in Britain, the electorate vote for one candidate of a particular political party in their designated electoral region, known as a constituency. Only those who put themselves up for election can win and it is the one who gains the largest number of votes who is the winner: this is what we refer to as 'first-past-the-post'. The winner needs only one more vote than his or her closest rival to be first-past-the-post although in reality there is usually a larger gap between the ones who come first and second.  In cases where the result is very close, within the margin of a few hundred votes, there is a recount of all the ballot papers.

There is no political 'consolation prize' for the runner-up. You either go on to become a Member of Parliament (MP) and sit in the House of Commons representing the constituency where you were elected, or you lose and gain nothing but a brief spot of publicity. There is, however, the prospect of the next election within 5 years time, and  many will stand for election once again. Not every prospective MP, by the way, belongs to or is sponsored by the major political parties. Some people stand for election as 'independent' candidates and we occasionally, we see a spectacular victory by such people. In the 1997 election, for example, a BBC journalist, Martin Bell, stood as an independent candidate for the constituency of Tatton in North West England and won a decisive victory over the former Conservative MP, Neil Hamilton. This sort of thing does not often happen. The main reason in this case was Mr. Hamilton's alleged involvement with 'sleaze' and allegations of improper behaviour. Martin Bell expressed his desire to be an MP for only one term and was not intending to remain a politician. He did so to prove a point, and the electorate in that constituency appeared happy to help him do so.

Generally speaking, however, it is the candidates from the main political parties who win the seats in the existing system.  The FPTP system seems both to work and to be fair, especially if you are the winner. It is the system we have always had and British people often appear quite traditional and unwilling to change something they are familiar with. But there are problems with the FPTP system that have led increasingly over the past decade for calls for reforms to make the system fairer and more 'democratic.' The problem becomes clear when we add up all the votes that did not go to the 'winner', that is, the total number of votes for all of the other candidates who lost. Often, this figure is far greater than those that the winner gained. However, as previously pointed out, the losers gain nothing and therefore, it must be asked, what about all those who didn't vote for the successful person? How do they feel when their vote, perhaps at every election, does not lead to gaining the MP of their choice? Together, these voters may constitute a majority but with votes spread amongst different candidates, they represent a divided majority.

Taking a more long-term view, it can be claimed that this system previously worked well because the majority of votes were shared, especially in the post-war period, between the two major parties, Labour and Conservative, with not much in between. The other parties polled so few votes that the flaws in this system were not so apparent. What really highlighted the problem with this electoral process was the emergence of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981, formed by disgruntled Labour party members, notably Dr. David Owen and Shirley Williams. They intended to 'break the mould' of British politics and cause major reforms (See Bradley 1981). What they in fact achieved, probably unintentionally, was to pave the way for Mrs. Margaret Thatcher's subsequent electoral victories. They attracted votes from the 'floating voters', some Labour, some Conservative, and in a sense split the opposition. However, in itself, this new party was never a strong political force.

This effect was partly due to an electoral system based on FPTP that was unaccustomed to multiparty politics. The new party ended up with hardly any MPs and in its revamped form, having merged with the old Liberal Party in 1988, the Liberal Democrats are still a minority party. Understandably, they remain very disgruntled, because having achieved a substantial share of the votes at these two elections, they only gained 20 seats in Parliament in 1992 because of the traditional FPTP system. Percentages of votes are not transformed into percentages of seats in Parliament. As previously discussed, within one constituency, a candidate may take a high percentage of votes but if he or she is not the winner, their votes mean very little at all and become statistics to be analysed, not a source of political power.

It is not surprising, then, that it is the Liberal Democrats who have been calling for electoral reforms for the past decade. They wish to see more proportional representation (PR) where votes are more easily translated into parliamentary seats and not lost because of the FPTP system. During the 1980s and 90s, many members of the Labour Party were also attracted to PR because they were losing out in a system which seemed to make them unelectable. Before the 1980s, they could expect to be in government almost as often as the Conservatives. Some of the smaller political parties could also see the disadvantages of the existing system, with it being almost impossible for them to gain any seats in Parliament at all.

Those more sceptical of PR claim that it would lead to a series of weak, coalition governments which offer limited stability in an ever-changing international political climate. Frequent general elections would, some PR critics claim, result in voter apathy and could actually lead to domination of a few powerful groups. The arguments for and against PR have not only persisted but have grown stronger since the Labour victory in 1997. Mr. Blair's party had expressed interest in looking at ways to bring in elements of PR into the system but very little has been achieved so far although it is on the political agenda.

This question was frequently asked in previous years, especially by voters favouring the Liberal Democrats, when the Conservatives dominated the political scene. One possible solution suggested by some politicians to voters was to vote tactically, which will now be looked at briefly, as another aspect of British electoral system.

Tactical voting: is it really democratic?
To put it in simple terms, tactical voting is where a voter assesses the situation in their constituency at the time of a general election and votes for the party which is most likely to defeat the party they like the least. That means they may not actually vote for the party of their choice, especially if it is one with very little support in their area and their vote will then be 'wasted'.

In many constituencies during the 1980s and 90s, for example, the main opposition to the Conservatives was the Labour Party and if Liberal Democrat voters switched to vote for Labour they could help to oust the incumbent Conservative MP. The same could be case with those wishing to vote for the Green Party or an independent candidate but realising that a vote for a more mainstream party might be more likely to bring about some change. In some constituencies where the Liberal Democrats were the second strongest party, particularly in the South West of England, Labour voters were  encouraged to vote 'Lib. Dem' instead. Similarly in Scotland and Wales, where voters have the added choice of the Scottish Nationalist Party or Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists). In some instances, voters there may have really wanted to vote for the nationalist party but recognised that the Labour Party might be more likely to succeed in overthrowing the Conservatives, with their added vote.

During the next general election, Conservative voters in many areas may consider tactical voting for another party merely to help oust the Labour party.

The obvious question that comes to mind concerns the nature of a democracy that sometimes encourages people not to vote for the party of their choice. Not all politicians favour tactical voting but some do, when it might make a difference to their success or defeat. I have interviewed politicians who knew for a fact that 50 or so fewer votes for the Green Party, for example, switched into votes for them, would have put them in Parliament. It often boils down not so much to who you favour most as a voter but who you dislike the most. There are clearly problems with this issue which will not be solved without considering some move towards PR.

According to Andrew Marr, a well known political commentator, "We drop our ballot papers like feathers into the void and somewhere, sometimes, they accumulate to tip a giant scale and eject or elect an Honourable Member. But for our feathers to make a difference is rare. One estimate bandied around by party strategists is that only around 500,000 people, that is, the uncommitted ones in the constituencies that are genuinely in the balance, 'matter' in a general election" (1995 b).

Of course, one simple way to solve the problem for an individual voter, if they are unhappy that their party never succeeds in your constituency because it is in a minority, is to move to somewhere where they are in the majority. If it is too frustrating to cast your vote every five years and yet never help to elect an MP, changing residence is a simple but perhaps drastic measure. That depends on the individual but there are clear implications for the British electoral system which the present government are committed to looking at and trying to provide answers for.

Conclusions
It is perhaps not surprising that many people do not bother to vote at all, simply staying at home rather than exerting their limited political power by marking an 'x' in a certain place on a ballot paper. There are plenty of such alienated citizens. In Britain there is no legal requirement to cast your vote if you have one, with no system of fines as in other places, such as Australia. There are also many that do not have a vote because, for various reasons, they have not been registered on an electoral roll. Anyone over the age of 18 is entitled to vote, but it is usually necessary to have a place of residence and to register with the local government in order to receive your vote. People who move frequently, those without homes and others who try to avoid government bureaucracy will not be members of the electorate.

Overall the British system of government has stood the test of time but placed as we are on the verge of a new century, some of the problems are becoming more pressing. We will, no doubt, see more changes in years to come not only in political personnel but in the processes and practices of this traditional system of ruling a nation.


Notes

  • 'Universal franchise' is when every adult citizen is given the right to vote without any exceptions. An adult is Britain legally refers to a person 18 and over. In the past, franchise was limited to those male citizens but has been gradually extended over the past hundred and fifty years.
  • 'Floating voters' are those who have no particular loyalty to any one party and switch their allegiance between elections. They often do not make up their minds till the last minute and can 'swing' an election in a certain direction.
References
  • Bradley, I. (1981)  Breaking the Mould? The Birth and Prospects of the Social Democratic Party. Oxford: Martin Robertson
  • Butler, D. d, and D.  Kavanagh. (1992)   The British General Election of 1992. Houndmills: Macmillan
  • Marr, A. (1995)   "Democracy in Britain" The Independent Magazine 5 Aug. pp.  5-6. (See also by same author, Ruling Britannia: The Failure and Future of British Democracy. (1995) London: Michael Joseph,
  • Schumpeter, J. (1976) Capitalism, Socialism and  Democracy  5th ed. London: Allen and Unwin


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