Fourth past the post: what 2015 could mean for electoral reform

Credit: Ben WatersCredit: Ben Waters

With the general election now six weeks away, the political landscape of the United Kingdom could hardly seem more fractured. Divided between the establishment parties and the surging forces of UKIP, Green and SNP, it is seeming increasingly unlikely that the electorate will provide a clear winner on May 7th. This chaotic state of affairs has exposed the flaws of the British electoral system and, from some quarters, has been accompanied by a renewal of calls for voting reform. Most importantly, it is the smaller parties who are really revealing the perversity of first-past-the-post (FPTP) in the changing world of twenty-first-century politics. For the first time in recent history, at least five parties are polling above 5 per cent of the vote. UKIP and the Greens are consistently achieving levels of popular support equal to or above that of the Liberal Democrats, throwing the three-party system to the wind, while in Scotland the wave of support for the SNP in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum has made Nicola Sturgeon’s party the likely kingmaker in the probable event of a hung parliament. In this context, a system based upon a majoritarian culture dominated by two parties appears to many as ineffective, unrepresentative and outdated. Perhaps the bell has finally tolled for the electoral system which, over a hundred years ago, Churchill condemned as creating “fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation”.

UKIP, the Greens and the ‘proportion problem’

Using the online seat calculator on the New Statesman’s May2015 website is a dispiriting experience. By creating one’s own prediction of vote shares, or choosing likely models and scenarios, the user of the “election forecasting-machine” can aggregate the latest polls – including Lord Ashcroft’s polling of the most marginal and closely fought constituencies – to calculate the probable number of seats for each party that would be secured with such a vote. In May2015’s own prediction, both the Conservatives and Labour would currently achieve just over 33 per cent of the popular vote, translating into 272 seats each. The Liberal Democrats, down to just 8 per cent of the national popular vote, would retain 24 of their seats. Yet UKIP, achieving almost double the popular vote of Nick Clegg’s party, secure only 5 seats, while the Greens, rivalling the Lib Dems on almost 6 per cent, are threatened with losing their only seat. Put another way, UKIP and the Greens are predicted to achieve over a fifth of the popular vote, but achieve less than 1 per cent of the seats in parliament between them. Viewed quantitatively, the discrepancies are striking.

Comparison between Predicted Popular Vote and Predicted Proportion of Seats in Westminster

Comparison of predicted popular vote and predicted proportion of seats in Westminster (Source:, created by author)


The seat calculator acts, therefore, as a hypothetical unfairness forecaster, its predictions laying bare the divergence between popular will and parliamentary representation that currently defines the UK political landscape. It is only with the growth of the small parties that this disparity has become so visible; in the past, with only two or three parties carving up both parliament and the popular vote, such discrepancies were far less evident to the public.

It is in this context that the public have begun again to recognise the discrimination against minority parties that lies at the foundation of the UK’s parliamentary system. Dormant since the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum of 2011, electoral reform may be back on the agenda. UKIP’s Douglas Carswell recently hinted that targeted reform of the voting system might be a demand should Farage’s party hold the balance of power in May, while Green MP Caroline Lucas, in a recent interview, declared FPTP to be “creaking at the seams… not fit for purpose”. This sentiment was echoed by the Green parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Rupert Read, who told The Cambridge Globalist that “in this context, our electoral system is more broken than ever”. Read points out that, while the Green Party is going to experience a surge in its support at the general election, outside its top dozen target seats (of which Cambridge is one), “we are unlikely to be in the running to win. The result of the election is going to be devastatingly unfair and unrepresentative.” As these minority voices grow louder, the debate on electoral reform is reviving.

Yet the fundamental catch-22 at the centre of the debate is clear. The nature of the status quo has produced a paradoxical situation in which small parties can only gain a substantial and representative number of seats with electoral reform, yet need a substantial number of seats in order to pressure for electoral reform to be implemented. Change seems distant in a system based on a duopoly of parliamentary power, unlikely to sign its own death warrant. Some have pointed to the Liberal Democrats as the pro-reform group that has most sway in parliament. As the most thinly spread party before recent years, Clegg’s party has long been a victim of electoral distortion; the lack of a homogeneous geographical heartland comparable to Labour’s North or the Conservatives’ South East has led to a proportion of seats significantly less than their proportion of the popular vote. But, ironically, it may be that the very electoral system which the Liberal Democrats have fought so hard to reform may be the only thing saving them from huge losses this May. The dire straits of the party on a national level will likely be tempered by the trend of locally-popular Lib Dem MPs holding seats despite the collapse of the party’s popular vote, as may happen in Cambridge. Once the traditional victim of the electoral system’s two-party dominance, Clegg’s party will owe its survival on May 7th to the distortions of FPTP.

Hanging over the issue is still the looming spectre of defeat in the AV referendum of 2011, and memories of a public debate described by one political scientist as “bad-tempered and ill-informed”. Yet, only four years after the AV referendum, it seems that the electoral climate is fundamentally different. The coalition of 2010 and the rapid degree of political fragmentation of the past few years have together created a new context. Today, the classic defence of FPTP that it delivers stable single-party governments rather than chaotic plurality appears demonstrably untrue. It is predicted that May 2015 will see a level of popular support for the main two parties lower than 70 and perhaps even nearer to 60 per cent. This is a far cry from the hey-day of the two-party system in the 1950s, when Labour and the Tories would share over 90 per cent of the vote between them, and is indicative of a more general historical trend which culminated in 2010, an election which saw the main two parties gain the lowest combined share of the vote in post-war history. Symptomatic of increasing alienation with the political establishment, a state of fragmentation and disengagement is rapidly becoming the norm. The balance between efficiency and fairness in our representation has changed, with the result that, in the eyes of the electorate, May’s election will deliver neither.

Subsequently, polls are suggesting that it is increasingly likely that neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be able to achieve an outright majority: all five of the main polling organisations used by are predicting a hung parliament. While discussion of parties having a popular ‘mandate’ is always problematic – no single-party government since 1931 has had a majority of public support as expressed through votes cast at a national election – the trend towards increasing diversification of the party system will inevitably generate questions of legitimacy. It is this decay of the majoritarian culture of the political establishment that could lead to challenges to its very structure. And questions of legitimacy and representativeness have also been fuelled by one particularly unpredictable phenomenon of 2015: the rise of the SNP.

Despite losing the independence referendum, Alex Salmond is casting an increasingly long shadow over the 2015 election campaign

Despite losing the independence referendum, Alex Salmond is casting an increasingly long shadow over the 2015 election campaign (Source: Scottish Government)

The SNP and the West Lothian Question

On the other side, the SNP pose a different problem of disproportionality. Lord Ashcroft’s latest prediction has suggested that the SNP are set for 56 of 59 Scottish seats, almost wiping out Liberal Democrat and Labour representation north of the border. This will be the latest development in a rise unprecedented in the history of British politics. No party has ever gone from winning 20 per cent in one national election to winning 50 per cent in the following one. Yet the repercussions are, both numerically and politically, hard to predict. Pollsters have very little to base their estimates on, with the predicted number of SNP seats ranging from as high as the mid-50s down to around 40. This uncertainty is even reflected linguistically, with some now using the term “nowcast” rather than “forecast” to express the volatility of the current climate in Scotland.

Irrespective of the specific figures, what is certain are the further discrepancies that will be caused by such an SNP landslide. While the party may achieve around half the popular vote in Scotland, this will only convert into approximately 4 per cent of the vote in the entire UK. Yet, the party’s number of seats will still eclipse that of more widely supported parties, for example UKIP, who could achieve four times the popular support of the SNP across the UK while gaining as little as a twentieth of the number of seats in Westminster. Although leader Nicola Sturgeon has expressed her preference for a more informal confidence and supply agreement, reports of the potential for the SNP to ‘prop up’ a Labour minority in coalition have already triggered an English backlash. Former prime minister John Major, writing in The Telegraph this month, told Ed Miliband to rule out a coalition with the SNP “to secure the long-term unity of the United Kingdom,” arguing that the “anti-English fervour” of the SNP would lead them to “pick the pockets of the Tory shires” and ensure that Scotland was disproportionately funded in comparison to the rest of the UK. The Daily Mail has similarly decried the “terrifying prospect of the Scots ruling England.” One can imagine the right’s rhetoric shifting from the threat of a UK governed from Brussels to the threat of an England governed from Holyrood, if the SNP were to play a major role after May 7th.

The West Lothian question – the debate on whether non-English MPs should be able to vote on English domestic matters – will appear more important than ever in this context. At the end of last year, William Hague laid out coalition proposals on how to resolve the issue, although his party remain divided between those backbenchers who believe Scottish MPs should be barred from voting at any stage of English legislation, and others who favour a less absolute approach. Meanwhile, Labour have denounced Tory plans for a more independent English legislature as a partisan attempt to exclude Scottish Labour MPs from votes at Westminster, although after the election Miliband will likely have far fewer MPs north of the border left to defend. Nevertheless, regardless of possible solutions, the rise of the SNP in 2015 will give the question a greater sense of urgency. And with regard to electoral reform the issue is that, if the SNP play a decisive role in a hung parliament after the election, English frustration at disproportionality will be aimed against Holyrood rather than against Westminster. With efforts focused on resolving the eternally complex West Lothian question, the more fundamental question of UK-wide electoral reform may be swept under the rug.

Towards Change or Chaos

The question is whether collective frustration at disproportionality will translate into genuine political change. On one side, minority figures such as the Greens’ Rupert Read are predicting a “huge popular upswell of dissatisfaction and anger, beginning on May 8th” and a hung parliament in which “the chances of electoral reform are better than they have ever been”, and in his correspondence with The Cambridge Globalist he remained decidedly upbeat about the prospects of a “green surge”. On the other side, however, neither Cameron nor Miliband are publicly admitting that the result of 2015 will almost certainly be a hung parliament, making the main parties look out of touch in this new era of multi-party politics. A clear solution is not apparent given the need for those in power to push through reform that is not in their political interests. As the political scientist Iain McLean has pointed out in the context of the AV debate in 2011, electoral systems are invariably chosen by legislative majorities, who are unlikely to vote for their own downfall, meaning that electoral reform is rare. For both of the main parties, FPTP is currently a valuable barrier against losses to the smaller parties: for the Tories, protecting them from UKIP; for Labour, from the Greens. Neither Miliband nor Cameron are likely to consent to another referendum on electoral reform in the next parliament.

However, Nick Clegg’s party is said to have proportional representation for local government elections as one of their key demands in negotiations for a Lib-Lab coalition. Such reform, albeit on a local level, might pave the way for greater change. The Lib Dems have strongly supported PR, as do the Greens and a substantial proportion of UKIP, including leader Nigel Farage. Even a significant body of opinion in Labour is in favour of reform in some shape, including the Labour candidate for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner, who recently spoke at the launch event for the latest issue of The Cambridge Globalist, arguing for a more informed public dialogue on the issue. “For those of us who have long argued for electoral reform,” Zeichner told The Globalist, “the prospect of a Constitutional Convention offers the opportunity for a genuine citizen-led discussion about the kind of political system that will best serve us in this century.” Indeed, it seems what is most needed is an increased public awareness about the issues of our current electoral system, and a Constitutional Convention of the sort which paved the way for the creation of the Scottish Parliament could facilitate a constructive and balanced debate on the future of the FPTP. Decisions made from such a citizen-led assembly would have the potential to reinsert legitimacy and fairness back into the political system. While reform of the House of Lords and devolution to both regions and nations are higher on the list for constitutional change, if the discrepancies of May 7th are recognised by the public, electoral reform more generally will also remain on the agenda. With 2015 exposing the flaws of our electoral system, the challenge for politicians of all stripes is to frame future debate in terms of proportionality and fairness, rather than thinking with narrow political interests in mind.

These questions will only gain in significance as voting discrepancies continue to grow. As a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown, greater party competition is likely to see FPTP produce even less proportional results, and so we can expect future parliaments to be even more unrepresentative. The effect of geographical spread will only become more pronounced in this election, as UKIP and the Greens fall victim to the geographic concentration and carefully-targeted strategies of Labour, the Tories, and now the SNP, with their potential to create an almost uniformly nationalist Scotland. Indeed, UKIP strategists have forecast that the party will come second in over 100 constituencies; while this might succeed in legitimising UKIP locally as the main alternative to the incumbents, nationally it will mean little. Silver medals do not secure seats in Westminster.

Perhaps change is inevitable, given the accelerating trend towards a more fractured and diversified political landscape that will see hung parliaments and coalitions becoming the norm. However, in post-election waters muddied by the West Lothian question, the disproportionality of FPTP may be forgotten in an English backlash against the disproportionality of Scotland in Westminster. Nevertheless, with the growth of UKIP and the Greens in England and the SNP in Scotland, the old two-man race to be first-past-the-post is starting to become a very crowded field indeed.