A report by the Electoral Reform Society claims that the outcome of the 2017 UK general election adds weight to the argument that British democracy needs a dramatic overhaul.
The report offers a damning analysis on the first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP), concluding that it is archaic, ineffective and undemocratic. It argues that an electoral system created in the early 1800s at a time of two-party politics during the UK’s democratic formation cannot cope with the dynamics of a modern, multi-party political system.
This is not a sudden or new phenomenon. The report notes that the system has been creaking under the strains of the UK’s party-political dynamics for some time. Indeed, it cites the 2017 result as the “third strike” in quick succession for the Westminster electoral system. Its failings were evident in the elections held in 2010 and 2015 before the latest vote resulted in a hung parliament.
All three votes, it argues, have significantly undermined the traditional claim that FPTP provides stable, single-party government and generally prevents the perceived negativity and instability of coalition or minority administrations.
Indeed, in 2010 the system produced the first coalition government since 1945. In 2015 it led to the most disproportionate result ever, with a majority government achieved on only 37% of the national vote.
In 2017 a minority Conservative government was the outcome. Somewhat curiously, this was despite a surge in support for the two biggest parties to the highest levels since 1970. Even the revival of two-party politics in terms of vote share (to a collective 82.4%) failed to translate into a decisive outcome.
Tactics and waste
The report claims that the reasons for this are varied and complex. A key factor is that the UK is increasingly multi-party in nature, and specifically so in certain parts of the country. A multitude of smaller parties generate significant votes in specific regions or areas but generally struggle to translate that support into MPs.
The report also finds that tactical voting – a longstanding trend under FPTP – was more significant than ever in 2017. This went alongside formalised vote-swapping deals promoted via social media. It also highlights how many small parties such as the Greens and UKIP withdrew their candidates to assist a bigger party of their preference in some key marginal seats.
The conclusion, therefore, is that the surge for the two major parties was often linked to people using their vote tactically rather than strongly supporting either.
“Wasted votes” were also calculated to be a staggering 68% of all those cast. Too many citizens turn up on polling day only to see their decision have no impact whatsoever on the final outcome.
Marginal and safe seats are highlighted as recurring failings of FPTP. Disproportionate campaigning efforts are poured into a relatively small number of seats because so many of the results are predictable. Only 70 of 650 seats changed hands between the parties in 2017.
That said, the numbers of marginal seats increased in 2017. There are now 11 “hyper-marginal” seats, which were won with majorities of fewer than 100 votes.
The Conservatives could in fact have won an overall majority if they had gained a further 533 votes in the nine most marginal seats, such are the narrow margins that determine the electoral outcome under first past the post. How a party targets and uses its national vote is therefore crucial under this system – and at times this appears almost random in nature.
As a further example, the report also highlights that, despite increasing its national vote by almost 10%, Labour ultimately failed to target seats effectively and instead built up huge majorities in safe seats. The party now holds 34 of the 35 safest seats in the UK – representing an inefficient spread of its overall support.
The UK is now the only democracy in Europe to use the FPTP electoral system. According to the Electoral Reform Society, this only exacerbates the sense that “politics is failing people”. As a reflection of this, the report also claims that 2017 was the most “volatile” result ever, with huge swings in support between a range of parties recorded in some seats.
For these reasons, the society is calling for an alternative electoral system to be considered for future general elections, and the single transferable vote is highlighted as the most proportional option. However, time will tell whether the political will exists to embrace such reform, particularly in the wake of the failed alternative vote referendum in 2011.