19 Sep 2015

On FPTP

Hail readers! My previous post on the Refugee Crisis may have been overly political for my literary-inclined followers; but rest assured that literary content is indeed on the table. Though I am kept occupied by school—with its homework, exams, and hard decisions—I have completed more of the Ark. Thus, I will soon release a post outlining the progress of the Ark; along with, naturally, a selection of quotes and introspection with regards to what direction the Ark will take.

Currently, it is yet in the early stages of inchoate love. But of course, the Ark is more than just a love story. It is a tale of a fight against all odds; of finding purpose and the will to live in a strange, fantastical new world.

But until then, I am releasing my article on the First Past the Post voting system. Initially, I hoped that OpenDemocracy—a small online magazine specialising in politics, human rights and foreign affairs—would be kind enough to publish it. Alas, they have not replied to my submission. So: why not take a look, and judge for yourself?


FPTP is unrepresentative and obsolete. But few have proposed convincing alternatives; and fewer still are willing to challenge the status quo.

Parliamentary Representation Gained

Votes Won

Attribution: Wikimedia foundation.

The General Election should have been a wake up call. British politics has finally become pluralistic; as, indeed, many European nations already are.

But somehow, it wasn’t. The Tories are happy to continue with the dreaded First Past the Post, having been gifted with a majority—tenuous as it is—now and for much of their history; while Labour is too concerned with its leadership election, and deciding what it really stands for, to campaign. (This is assuming the Labour Party even wants to change the system, which many in the PLP don’t.)

It is the sad irony that underlies FPTP: the victor, even if possessed of good intentions, is given every incentive not to change the system. And it is the victors—and in the case of FPTP, only the victor—who can change the status quo.

The Lib Dems have been campaigning against FPTP for years; and for years, their efforts have been in vain. The Greens have no meaningful power with which to amerlioate their situation. Ditto UKIP, which won 13% of the votes but only achieved 0.2% representation in Parliament.

Such a system can no longer be considered just. In the days of old, when there was only Labour or the Tories (or the Liberals, back when they were a political force) FPTP might have been considered fair—or at least, necessary. Even then, there were always internal conflicts between different ideological factions: Atlee had the Bevanites, Major his Bastards.

But with divisions now increasingly clear—as shown by Cameron over Europe, and most strikingly in the Labour leadership contest, with Kendall and Corbyn being quite different animals—it is increasingly clear that FPTP is a dinosaur.

The question, then, is what to replace it with?

The Hybrids and the Bastards

Aside from a simple proportional representation system—where MPs are elected to Parliament on the basis of party votes, and their position on “party lists”—there are two proposed alternatives. One such is the Single Transferable Vote.

STV, in short, is a system whereby voters indicate their preferred choice of candidates in a constituency—e.g. I can nominate my local Labour candidate 1st, the Green candidate 2nd, and so on—and the second preferences of losers are distributed once they are deselected. For example: if Liz Kendall comes last in the contest, her voter’s second preferences will go mainly to Yvette Cooper, with a few ending up for Andy Burnham.

This system generally works for internal party elections, corporate board votes, and the like: the most favoured candidate is usually selected, and the system is well equipped for dealing with voters divided between broadly similar options.

STV can also help ameliorate instances where voters live in marginal seats between, say, Labour and the Tories: they may choose to vote Green, or Lib Dem, but can gift second preferences to Labour, for example.

But STV was rejected in a referendum, and for good reason: it still produces unrepresentative and often unexpected results, with tactical voting and gerrymandering playing a significant role

The other alternative is the Additional Member System—as used to elect members to the Scottish Parliament, and (in modified form) to the German Bundestag.

In this, voters get two votes: one for their constituency, the other for a proportionally represented region. Essentially, AMS is a hybrid. It works to allow voting for both party and individual candidate; but it is only semi-proportional—the Greens and UKIP, for example, would still end up with only half the MPs their votes would have given them under PR.

AMS is as much a damning indictment of FPTP as anything: the results produced under FPTP are so disproportionate, so out of touch with the voter’s intent, that even a hybrid system still produces highly irregular outcomes.

In the case of the German Bundestag, “hanging seats” are used to ensure proportionality: if the Greens, for example, won 8% of the popular vote but only 1% of the seats, the system permits them to elect additional MPs from their regional party lists. Thus, proportionality is ensured.

There’s just one problem. Two, in fact. Firstly, the House of Commons already has well over 600 MPs—is it practical to add 100 hanging seats on top of that, resulting in a house that has close to 800 MPs?

Secondly—and more importantly—the system effectively leads to toxic power struggles within parties: in smaller parties, it is advantageous for members to gain a place on the regional lists. This can lead to all manner of backstabbing and gerrymandering; and it also means that candidates with good track records have little chance of getting into Parliament if the party elite doesn’t like them.

In the case of larger parties, the opposite holds true: members will want nominations to seats—especially safe seats—and few will desire being on the regional lists.

There are proposed workarounds. In some systems, members can stand for both regional lists and constituencies; but while this can be helpful, it poses various complexities and difficulties.

But let me be clear: party politics is an issue that affects any kind of voting system. Whether it be party lists, or preferred candidates being “parachuted in” to safe seats (as occurred with Shawn Woodward, the Tory defector, under Blair’s primeministership)—either way, it is an issue that needs to be resolved by parties, not by voters.

A Question of Proportionality

The final alternative is pure proportional representation: if you have votes, you are given seats. Who gets to go to Parliament is decided by the party list.

This system has been denounced by the Tories for being subject to “party favouritism”—including by my very own Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi, who was himself chosen by the Party to represent a safe seat! But more legitimate criticisms have been posed, and the most pressing of these concerns stable governments.

Critics argue that PR leads to unstable minority governments, or to fragile coalitions; but this argument doesn’t wash, for two reasons. Firstly, countries in which PR is implemented—examples include Austria, Denmark and many more—do in fact have relatively stable governments. Rarely was Helen Thornen Schmidt, the former Social Democratic PM for Denmark, bound by her hands when discussing on behalf of the nation (to quote John Major). This is despite having been in a coalition in which her party made up half the MPs; the reminder belonging to an eclectic alliance of People’s Socialists, Red-Greens, and Liberals.

Secondly, is not it true that FPTP produces these so-called “stable governments”. British parties are coalitions—one need only look at Corbyn and Kendall, or at Cameron and IDS, to realise this. But not only does FPTP give the illusion of stable government; it is in fact less stable than the governments produced by PR.

In a PR system, a coalition is subject to formal coalition pacts; to non-binding confidence and supply agreements; and to clearly defined positions on issues, held visibly by different parties. This arrangement is much more stable than that found in a “broad church” party, whereby each wing serves to denounce the other (as Labour is experiencing now) or to reach compromises that neither please the party nor convince the electorate (case in point: Miliband).

Fearing the Little Guy

The final complaint levelled against PR is, ironically, is that it doesn’t block small parties from gaining representation. This is only partially true: countries like Germany, for example, have 5% limits on gaining any seats in the Bundestag (parties with votes below the threshold are excluded and the composition of the Bundestag reflects that).

This is helpful in keeping out, say, the BNP; but what about the elephant in the room: UKIP?

Tony Blair raised this very concern, and even went as far as to suggest that smaller parties generally hold excessive power by virtue of deciding the majority.

But there are problems with this. Firstly, small parties will never be in government on their own; and if you’re not in government, there is little you can do. Labour knows this the hard way. It is therefore imperative that small parties attempt to gain favourable standing with larger parties; but doing so requires making compromises. In short: a small party cannot hold a large party to ransom, because to do so means being irrelevant.

Smaller parties are also often ideologically left-leaning or right-leaning; the Danish Red-Greens will never go into coalition with the Danish far right, for example.

But Blair is right to ask questions over what a Tory–UKIP coalition would look like. A match made in Hell, some would say; and a very fragile one at that, seeing as to their considerable differences over Europe, gay marriage, and more besides.

It is however worth mentioning that the vote share under FPTP is likely going to be different to that gained under PR. Many Tory voters will vote UKIP; and many Labour voters will vote Green. But let’s not exaggerate: the Tories and Labour will still be the two biggest parties in Parliament.

The challenge may be a more unexpected one. UKIP, at the end of the day, is a minority party. But the differences between Corbyn and Kendall are real, while the difference between Kendall and Cameron is not that great. It may be the case that the entire party landscape will be fundamentally altered: the Blairites will join the Cameroonians (and the Cleggites), to form the Market Party; UKIP will remain UKIP, but IDS will find himself at home; while many Greens and what remains of the Lib Dems will defect to Labour, perhaps to form the Liberal Green Socialists, or something of the sort.

Such speculation aside, one thing is clear: it is in the interests of democracy, and that of the country, for FPTP to be scrapped. At this stage, anything would be better.

And to assuage the nervous socialists among you: if you want to keep out the far right, look to Austria. Despite two far right parties collectively gaining over 20% of the vote, moderates among Social Democrats and Conservatives set aside their differences and formed a coalition.

Conclusion

Whatever system will replace FPTP, there will be challenges. The establishment—among the Tories, but even within Labour—will not take kindly to having their hegemony disappear behind a flurry of compromises and coalitions. There will be doubters, among left and right. But Britain must challenge this political inertia. The future of meaningful, working democracy rests on it to do so.

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