Earlier this month, a group of Labour and Green supporters launched www.voteswap.org. This website operates a system in which Labour voters and Green voters ‘swap’ votes to their mutual advantage.
Green voters pledge to vote Labour in seats that can win; in return, Labour voters pledge to vote Green in seats that Labour can’t win. Labour supporters living in unwinnable or safe seats have the opportunity to transfer their vote to a marginal seat, where they are more likely to influence the outcome. Conversely, Green supporters have the opportunity to ensure that the Green national vote share is as high as possible, while working towards the toppling of the current Coalition Government. For Labour and Green supporters, everyone wins.
The existence of these websites is fantastic for those that want to reconcile the need to vote tactically, with the need to register heartfelt politics. They are also, however, a very sad reflection on our voting system. That there is a need for so many people to circumvent the system in such a way highlights the absurdity of first-past-the-post (FPTP) in contemporary British politics.
It has long been argued that FPTP is needed to deliver stable majority governments. In order to avoid the disarray of coalitions, we must forego a voting system that counts every vote equally. When Britain was in an age where 90% of people voted Conservative or Labour, this mechanism functioned as intended; in 1951, there were just 6 MPs in parliament that did not belong to the two biggest parties (all of whom were Liberal).
Social changes have, however, ushered the landscape of British party politics into an era of fragmentation. British society has transitioned from one characterised by nationwide class-based blocs, to something more geographically and socio-economically varied. Increasing support for a more diverse range of political parties reflects this. By 2010, there were 85 MPs who did not belong to the two biggest parties, 57 of whom were Liberal Democrats. This election also saw FPTP fail to produce a majority government for the first time in generations.
In the upcoming election, an unprecedented 6 parties are likely to receive a significant amount of support, with the prospect of another coalition looking certain. If FPTP consistently fails to produce stable majorities as Britain continues evolving into a multi-party democracy, it will no longer become justifiable to tolerate the erratic results that it produces.
The upcoming election is likely to highlight just how erratic those results can be. Take for instance the fact that the SNP are projected to win 35 seats with 3% of the national vote share. This equates to roughly one seat for every 26,000 votes. The Green Party, on the other hand, are projected to win just 1 seat with 4% of the national vote share. That’s one seat for every 880,000 votes. UKIP are also victims of the system, projected to win up to 15% of the popular vote but only a handful of seats. The disconnect between who people vote for, and who they’re represented by in Westminster, will never have been so vast.
In addition to this, the democratic legitimacy of the next government produced by FPTP is likely to be very spurious. As the constituencies are currently organised, Labour need to win around 36.3% of the popular vote in order to become the biggest parliamentary party. The Conservatives, on the other hand, need around 38.2%. With the election outcome likely to be, to quote David Cameron, “on a knife edge”, this leaves a strong possibility of Labour winning the most seats without winning the popular vote, and proceeding to form a coalition. One wonders how a system designed to produce stable governments can produce something so conducive to chaos.
Proponents of FPTP would argue that, despite these oddities, FPTP is still needed to maintain the link between representatives and voters. It is, however, failing to do that too. Although MPs are elected by local people to represent local people, precious few MPs are elected with a credible mandate. Elections in the two-party system of the 1950s largely involved straight run-offs between Labour and Conservative, and the vast majority of MPs were elected with more than 50% of the vote. In 2010 however, two-thirds of MPs were elected without majority support from local voters, something even more damning in the context of declining voter turnout. Given that the proliferation of smaller parties has increased since 2010, it’s likely that the number of MPs elected with majority support in the upcoming election will hit a record low. Can an MP without majority support be said to truly represent their constituents? And can a system that produces so few MPs with convincing mandates be said to protect the constituency link?
First-past-the-post is broken. In a multi-party democracy like Britain in 2015, it doesn’t produce the stability that it once did. It’s becoming less effective at providing a link between voters and representatives, and it’s likely to produce a government that is tenuously legitimate at best. The justification for not counting every vote equally is no longer there, and it’s time we had an electoral system that didn’t require vote swapping to properly represent the wishes of the electorate.