#018 Distorted Democracy
Yanis Varoufakis, a well known and respected progressive Greek economist, politician and author, spoke in 2018, as part of a UK wide Festival of Debate, where he decided to directly challenge a Labour Party policy.
“We need Proportional Representation, it is remarkable to have a progressive movement that is supporting the First Past the Post system”.
In this article we will look at what Varoufakis found remarkable - a supposedly progressive political party tacitly supporting the seemingly uncontroversial ‘First Past the Post’ voting system, used by England in national and local elections, examining the problems and pitfalls that may have inspired Varoufakis to make such a statement.
The ‘First Past the Post’ (or single member plurality) voting system is easy to understand - at every national general election each political party in Britain (and individuals in the case of independents) is able to put up one candidate to represent voters that live in each pre-determined parliamentary constituency, with each individual being chosen by their respective party beforehand in some way. The voters of the constituency then go to the polls on voting day, normally once every four or five years, and vote for the candidate (and party) that most closely represents their political views by marking a box with an X. The candidate with the most votes wins, gaining the seat and becoming an Member of Parliament and constituency representative in the house of commons. Whichever party has the most seats at the end of the election can then try to form a government, by either combining together with other parties or governing as one political party alone.
At first glance this seems like a reasonable and fair system. The candidates who gain the most votes in each area win and the overall winner forms a government, with the party achieving the second highest number of seats forming the main opposition.
But why then do over 80% of countries around the world not use this system to elect representatives? And why are the most stable, prosperous and happy countries all among them?
The reason is when we look closer it’s clear ‘First Past the Post’ significantly distorts and skews democracy in a significant way, which in turn degrades the fundamentals of democracy in power representing the people’s will.
Below are five ways it does this.
First of all ‘First Past the Post’ is designed to deliver disproportional results, meaning the seats won by each political party fail to correspond to votes cast overall. For instance in the 2015 election the conservatives won 330 seats, obtaining over 50% of the available seats in the house of commons, out of 650, however they won only 37% of all votes cast across the country. This gave the conservatives a majority of seats and allowed them to form a government, deciding all policy for the entire country, on the basis of just over a third of all votes cast, meaning over 63%, a sizeable majority of all voters, cast votes for other political parties and ended up with a government made up solely of a political party they did not support.
This can even go as far as a political party receiving the most votes but having those votes distributed in such a way so as not to allow that political party to win the most seats and form a government, as happened in 1951 for instance where Labour under Clement Attlee gained over 230'000 more votes in total than Churchill’s Conservatives, almost 14 million - the highest Labour has ever achieved, but won 26 fewer seats and actually lost national power. A party like the SNP can win less than 1.5 million votes total, concentrated across a relatively small number of constituencies, and win 56 seats, whilst at the same time parties like the Green Party or UKIP can achieve millions of votes spread, or diluted, across the nation and achieve 1 or 0 seats in the house of commons. This effectively means some votes have more potential to affect the overall outcome than others, as a direct result of the voting system employed.
Huge numbers of votes cast under ‘First Past the Post’ have no bearing on the result of the election because they go to candidates that don’t win, leaving all those people dissatisfied and unrepresented in their constituencies. This leads inevitably to disengagement and division in British society as people feel politically deprived of any representation in parliament and often react, either by switching off from national politics, or by going to all kinds of lengths to bash and deride the winner, or the system as a whole, as effectively illegitimate.
Take a constituency like South Down in Northern Ireland, in 2017 only 39.9% voted for the Sinn Féin candidate, meaning the majority in this constituency oppose the party and/or the individual. As the opposition votes went to four other political parties in this constituency, under the FPTP system, the Sinn Féin candidate wins and takes all the power, becoming the sole representative of the people of South Down, leaving the large majority without any voice at all in parliament. This is particularly notable in the case of Sinn Féin as this political party has long refused to take their seats in the British House of Commons, with their central aim being pushing for a united Ireland. This means that majority who voted against Sinn Féin get literally nobody voting on issues in the British parliament on their behalf. Electoral geography plays way too strong a role in the ‘First Past the Post’ system, not least because there is no fixed post for candidates to pass, in this case the winner got merely a plurality and over 10% less than a majority in this constituency.
Secondly the ‘First Past the Post’ system combines party and candidate together. This is problematic because a voter may like what a political party stands for generally but oppose the decisions that particular candidate has made in the past, or vice versa.
The voter, under this system has no way of lending party support without also lending the single candidate support and equally no way of lending the candidate support without also supporting the party in question, as they have one simple vote only, they cannot separate the individual and party in any way and they cannot even vote preferentially by ranking candidates.
This system therefore largely disregards individual differences between candidates in a particular party.
Thirdly this system is easily susceptible to gerrymandering, changing electoral boundaries for the benefit of one party over others, often carried out by the party in government who have the power to change the boundaries.
This video explains this effectively,
Fourthly, over time this system tends toward two big, broad parties which have to encompass a range of significantly different political views, in kind of contained permanent coalitions or ‘broad churches’, to stay electorally competitive. The main reason for this is that voters remember past results in their constituency and therefore have an informed idea of which party is likely to do well before they vote, this then affects how they vote, a process known as ‘tactical voting’ - voting to prevent the subjective worst option getting elected. Political parties also often use this to their advantage, through voter shaming and similar, which further skews democracy.
This means people, as a direct result of the FPTP system, are often drawn away from voting for the candidate they most support, or expressing second, third and fourth preferences, and are reduced to a kind of fear based voting, where people recognise that smaller, less popular political parties in the area, or third parties as they are sometimes known, can have the effect of ‘splitting the vote’ and allowing the candidate the individual most opposes, to win in their area. For example, an individual may live in an area that history shows is likely to go either labour or conservative, this person may support the policies of the Green Party or the SNP but as a result of the voting system feel afraid of voting for the party they most support because to do so would contribute to splitting the progressive vote and allowing the regressive conservative candidate to get elected, which the individual feels would be much worse for their constituency than the Labour candidate winning. The voting system forces them to play it safe and vote Labour to ensure this doesn’t happen but as a result democracy is distorted because by the time the overall results are recorded, the Green Party or the SNP actually look less popular than they really are because of all the tactical votes that have occurred across the country. This in itself also impacts the future state of British politics.
This becomes a vicious circle as the less people risk splitting the vote, the more dominant the two largest political parties become in the constituency over time, and the less choice the voter effectively has at getting a candidate they support most, elected at each subsequent election.
Additionally big broad church political parties often result in internal battles for control, direction and dominance, which can confuse and annoy the voter and strip out clarity on what a political party stands for.
Finally, the ‘First Past the Post’ system means voters in marginal constituencies, or more divided constituencies that are more likely to change party & candidate, will naturally be targeted more by the big political parties than those in predictable or ‘safe’ seats, because these results could sway the overall general election result. This mean some voters get more attention paid to them and get listened to significantly more than others. In a democratic system every vote should matter equally, and social media in the 21st century, compounds this issue through ‘marginal micro targeting’.
This also leaves the entire election more vulnerable to shady interference from other entities, such as foreign state powers or corporate vested interests for instance, and the very idea a political party can win via targeting a relatively tiny portion of voters in marginal constituencies obviously impacts the policies, political parties propose and the manifestos they offer, shortly before an election.
Now the most common counter arguments are that the ‘First Past the Post’ system generates stable, one party governments and avoids the (slight) complexities of a proportional system for the voter and the people that count the votes and work out the winners.
In response to this there are several counter points to be made, firstly, clearly it is not always true FPTP leads to stable, one party governments as the 2010 coalition and the 2017 supply and confidence pact, between the conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, have shown, there is no evidence to show collaborations between parties are any more stable than big one party governments and surely are closer to autocracy than a pluralist government, which is surely more desirable for the majority of people. Large political parties all towing one top down collective line is surely less desirable and less democratic than two or more political parties working together pragmatically to deliver on the what the people voted in the true majority - dictatorships can also be very stable but nobody would use this as a way of arguing for dictatorships and against representative democracy.
Secondly, the complexities are not an issue for the voter, all the most proportional voting systems require is the voter can count, in order to rank their candidates in order of preference. The people and technology tasked to counting ballots can easily do so under proper guidance, with almost any established voting system.
Also the idea we need FPTP to keep out smaller, possibly extreme, political parties is both anti democratic in essence (rigging the system rather than looking at why people are voting for these parties) and also not accurate on its own terms, as FPTP only prevents smaller parties when their votes are spread and diluted across country, unlike the nationalist parties for instance that concentrate their vote in a particular section of United Kingdom and as a result do quite well under FPTP, despite a relatively small vote share.
Another argument often put forward in favour of ‘First Past the Post’ is it allows for the voter to maintain a local constituency link by having a clear representative for their area, they can easily go and speak with or follow locally. This is a false argument as whilst this is certainly true of the FPTP system, it is also true of several other proportional voting systems in existence today and therefore is by no means something that can only be achieved through FPTP alone, as proponents often imply.
To sum up then, looking objectively at the ‘First Past the Post’ voting system it is clear Yanis Varoufakis makes a wholly legitimate point, ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) is a voting system with considerable flaws that clearly detrimentally impacts on British democracy as a whole. The problem exists at every level ‘First Past the Post’ is used, whether it be a national level, as discussed here, or at English local election level, highlighted in this tweet by the Electoral Reform Society.
So is there a better alternative?
Yes, one notable option being a proportional voting system, Single Transferable Vote (STV), used in the Republic of Ireland and the Scottish local elections, and another being Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), also known as Additional Member System (AMS), used in Germany, the London Assembly elections and the Scottish Parliament.
Currently in Britain, several political parties formally advocate moving away from ‘First Past the Post’ - the Green Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Reform Party and the Liberal Democrat party, alongside the Scottish and Welsh nationalists (Plaid Cymru & the SNP). Even the majority of Labour Party members overwhelmingly support a move to proportional representation.
In 1997 one of the two largest parties even put an explicit commitment for a referendum on this issue - the Labour Party, under the leadership of Tony Blair, who later reneged on this promise, once elected into power under ‘First Past the Post’…
Obstacles that need to be traversed to in the move to proportional representation are the irrational fear of ‘hung parliaments’ & coalitions and the irrational fear of constituencies having more than one representative (multi member).
UPDATE 2021: The government are considering moving backwards and extending FPTP to all Combined Authority Mayors, the Mayor of London and all police and crime commissioners. This is a move to try to bend democracy in the interests of the conservative party, rather than in favour of doing democracy better.