Why this should be the last FPTP election

I know it’s boring, and technical, and eye-rollingly predictable that people like me want to raise the issue of electoral reform every time there’s an election. But bear with me. If you haven’t been convinced by previous efforts to change the First Past the Post system, this general election may demonstrate its weaknesses so dramatically that it will be hard to defend in a fortnight’s time.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

  • On May 7th, an estimated 5% of the population will vote for the Green party. They are expected to win one seat in parliament.
  • At the same time, a different 5% of the population will vote for the Scottish National Party. They are expected to win 55 seats.

I’ve gone for those two because they’re roughly the same percentage of the votes, but the contrast is even greater for UKIP. For all the hype, their predicted 14% vote share is likely to win them a maximum of 3 seats. Not so scary after all – but not exactly democratic either.

We’ve been able to ignore the silencing of minority political voices for generations, because their votes were so spread out across the country that it rarely resulted in any seats in parliament. Even the Lib Dems, as the third party, only succeeded where they were able to build up a strong and long-term regional presence.

However, the SNP are a different proposition. They only stand in Scotland, meaning their votes are concentrated all in one place. A unique set of historical circumstances is inspiring a large proportion of the Scots to register a protest vote against Westminster, meaning the SNP might actually win every seat in Scotland.

As a result, the SNP will hold the balance of power in the next government. I don’t begrudge them their place, and the scaremongering about them is out of all proportion. But it does leave a huge number of people strongly under-represented in parliament, and our democratic system looking inadequate to the task of our more plural politics.

Will Labour and the Conservatives have the integrity to acknowledge the problem? Not if past performance is anything to go by – they are too well served by the First Past the Post system at the national level. But they know it’s not the best way to run an election. We know Labour know it, because when they set up the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, they chose the more proportional additional member system. And we know the Conservatives know it isn’t good enough, because when they set up democratically elected Police and Crime Commissioners, they used a supplementary vote system to guarantee they had a firm mandate. So when they defend First Past the Post, it rings a little hollow and self-serving.

While our politicians don’t want it, most of us do want more proportional representation in government. A poll released today found that 74% of people back the principle.

With any luck, the SNP’s impact on this election will change this. A lot of people are going to wake up to find that their vote didn’t count for anything, while a smaller number of voters saw their party gifted the keys to the castle. And perhaps, on the other side of constitutional chaos, we might finally get a democratic breakthrough.


  1. I am not a great fan of FTTP but the representative Swedish system is no longer producing governments that the public is satisfied with.

    The real problem is the electorate – we are not satisfied with ourselves. That is the underlying malaise.

    1. Well that’s certainly true. No political system has yet overcome human beings’ tendency to be ornery. But there are lots of reasons why politics can fail to inspire, and a voting system is just one of them. Every country is in a different place on this, and right now, this seems to be the crossroads Britain is reaching.

  2. Dan Hannan supports a change but makes the point a change should be decided soon but for a couple of elections hence so the system chosen isn’t for partisan reasons.

    Henry is right that we are far more disparate as a society so will rarely get parties who represent a majority. That’s a good thing since recent really popular parties have had a messianic feel (New Labour in 1997, the SNP now).

    1. A very good article, and I look forward to hearing more Conservative arguments in favour of reform. I suspect they may be more practical and historically grounded than some others.

      I think we’re only really at the beginning of the end for FPTP, so my title is more in hope than expectation, but I do balk at the idea of pushing reform to three elections away. If the system is incapable of delivering a government with a proper mandate, fifteen years is too long. Perhaps we’d need that if we were swapping to full PR, but STV wouldn’t be so radical a change that we’d need to wait that long.

  3. Why did anyone think a Referendum (in 2011) was an appropriate way to decide? The two large blocs, Labour and Conservative, both benefit from FPTP, and between them are supported by 2/3 of voters. Those 2/3 gain disproportionately large representation so they have a vested interest in FPTP.

    1. As an advocate of reform, I was really annoyed that the Lib Dems negotiated for that reform. It was a gift to the two big parties to bury the issue for another decade and such a waste. Change has to be negotiated much more patiently, over a much longer timetable, and in the context of broader constitutional change.

    2. Also this referendum was ONLY to got to the AV system (which is not much better) and the press heavily influenced the result! Proportional representation is very different and was not at option!

  4. It can change soon enough! But also we need to reform government our system with lords and cabinet and shadow cabinet is out dated!

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