First Past The Post Has Hollowed Out Our Politics
By turning politics into a strategic game, the FPTP system is destructive of real democratic politics & stands in the way of change
Even in his great landslide election victory of 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party only won the support of 47.7% of the voting public and support for Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party never rose above 43.9%. Whilst Blair’s Labour Party managed to win an election in 2005 with only 35.2% of the vote — the smallest percentage of the vote for a single party to ever produce a working majority in the Commons.
In truth, winning a general election in the United Kingdom is not about gaining popular support from a majority of the people. In fact, it might be that a majority of the public are opposed you. What is required to win is that you can keep together a fragile coalition of voters that is sufficient to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons (typically something slightly in excess of 40% will do).
The 2019 election is an excellent example of this feature of the UK political system. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party secured 43.6% of the vote, which is the party’s best result on this measure since 1979. But, even in this landslide election, a majority of the public supported parties that would have offered the public a second referendum on our membership of the European Union.
What is plain from the above is that the First Past The Post (FPTP) system used in the UK for General Elections sacrifices fair representation in order to provide single-party government. Supporters of the system argue that this is justified on the basis that majority governments are strong and stable, providing governments that have the ability to use their majority in Parliament to enact the policies contained in their manifestos. But this justification rings hollow when one considers that governments elected without majority support often push through policies that the majority (or a significant minority) oppose. This was certainly the case with Thatcherism in the 80s and 90s, but the Conservative Party kept their electoral coalition together for 18 years, aided by a divided left from 1981 — totally transforming Britain in the process.
Given that the system rewards parties with the support of broad coalitions, the FPTP system usually rewards parties that are themselves broad churches and are therefore able to appeal to a diverse group of voters. This means that political divisions tend to manifest themselves within parties, who are motivated to manage or suppress their extreme wings. Some would see this as a good thing, as (in theory) it means that parties aiming to win a majority must chart a path to the centre ground of politics in order to appeal to the ‘median voter.’ However, this tendency towards centrism precludes the possibility of radical change because parties that might appeal to a smaller portion of the electorate are punished by a system that requires concentrated support to exist in a particular constituency to win a seat. A good example of this on the right is the support for UKIP in 2015, who won 12.6% of the vote but only one vote. Or, to put it another way, 3.9 million UKIP voters were represented by one Member of Parliament.
When a political system fails to represent a range of views, this disenfranchisement leads to apathy and resentment, which goes some way to explaining why 1 in 4 people in the UK think that democracy in the UK isn’t working, over a third say they feel they have little or no say in how the UK is run and a plurality (40% vs 38%) agree that the voting system is unfair.
Compounding these issues is that the voting system values some votes far more than others. If you are a young person, for example, your vote matters less because you’re less likely to vote. Or if you live in a ‘safe seat’ your vote matters less because the outcome in your neck of the woods has already been factored in. For this reason, the FPTP system has a tendency to reduce the business of politics to a strategic game, where the object is to win, even if that means having to take positions politically that are at odds with the values of your party or of your most loyal supporters.
This is why political journalists whose job it is to report about the serious business of politics pay such attention to the opinions of a small demographic of voters in a few marginal seats. It’s also why, for the rest of us, political coverage lacks the seriousness it ought to have in a well-functioning democratic culture, with the up-and-down movements of opinion polls scrutinised more closely than detailed policy announcements. Almost by design, FPTP creates an unserious political culture, where politics is reduced to a soap opera. As one person succinctly put it: it’s ‘show business for ugly people.’
Given the above tendencies, the business of mainstream politics is hollowed out so that government is a largely technocratic enterprise and elections are strategic games fought by an increasingly narrow elite of establishment politicians. Absent a real ideological divide, politicians engage in performative gestures to signal their ideological credentials, whilst attempting to demonstrate competence by projecting themselves as serious political actors, to be judged by a small cadre of professional political commentators — almost all of whom essentially agree with each other about the circumscribed limits of what counts as ‘sensible’ or ‘mainstream.’
In such a culture, those whose political views don’t fall within the confines of this narrow political consensus are, almost by definition, not serious. Their views are ostracised or ignored and they either become disaffected non-voters or they express themselves politically by protesting or engaging in direct action. As they’re denied political representation in mainstream politics, they’re forced to engage in politics in the only other way that is available to them — on the streets.
To say that this political culture is unhealthy is a understatement. Even leaving aside the fact that the system is plainly undemocratic, it reduces politics to a strategic game played between a small elite on a narrow ideological terrain. It disenfranchised and alienates voters and it makes radical political change almost impossible.