First past the post (FPP) is the voting system that is used in the United Kingdom to elect representatives to its lower house, the House of Commons. Due to FPP's winner-takes-all setup, voters have little real choice when voting. A constituency may already have a clear leading candidate. If a voter is in the lucky 10–15 % of constituencies that are marginal, there would be competition between normally two candidates. So those voters at least have the chance to make their vote count.
If voters want to bring about change, they have to hope that the official opposition party supports that change, as the party that leads government will inevitably be either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. But what if neither of the two dominating parties supports the change that the electorate want? When it comes to replacing FPP with a proportional representation (PR) voting system, neither party supports this. From the self-interests of these two parties, they have no desire to support changing a system that benefits them.
So what can the electorate do? I've come up with the following plan:
Register a political party that has the following two pledges:
a. Hold a referendum on voting reform, giving the electorate a choice of four alternative voting systems to FPP.
b. Trigger a snap general election using the new voting system.
Stand candidates in all 650 constituencies at the next UK general election.
If the party wins a majority of seats and votes, deliver on its two pledges. If the party wins a majority of seats but not a majority of votes, add to the referendum the question of whether a change from FPP is wanted at all.
If the party wins a minority of seats, work with other parties to try to deliver the two pledges anyway.
For any MPs unable to deliver on the pledges, have them vacate their seats.
Thanks everyone for your responses so far. Here are my responses to some of it.
“There is no need to found a new party. There are plenty of parties that already support a form of PR.”
It’s certainly true that there are already plenty of parties that support a form of PR. But would a new party that only stood for voting reform, and one that pledged a snap election, be a more effective strategy? Some points come to mind:
When voters vote for existing parties, they have to vote for a bunch of other policies that they might not agree with. Might they then have to put up with policies that they did not agree with for up to five years?
Is there a chance that any party that wins a majority of seats then has a change of heart on voting reform, on the back of their first-past-the-post success? Would a new party that only stood for voting reform struggle to find excuses to abandon voting reform if elected?
Is trust important in politics? Would any mistrust that voters might have in mainstream parties deter voters? Would a new party benefit from starting from scratch? Sure, they would have to build trust from nothing, but would this progressive movement be a better strategy than trying to undo the past?
Would the Conservative and Labour parties have a much harder time trying to compete with a party that only stood for improved democracy, without coming across as anti-democratic?
‘You state that "the party that leads government will inevitably be either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party". There is nothing inevitable about this.’
I used the word ‘inevitably’ in the context of voting reform in the UK. And, since the UK is a democracy, I also wrote it in the context of the UK electorate being able to bring about voting reform soon after the next general election.
In this context, are you saying that it is not inevitable that either the Conservative party or the Labour party leads government? If so, perhaps you could give some examples of how that might happen? The Labour party was hugely divided under Corbyn, yet the party has not split. The Conservative party clearly has internal divisions, yet it holds together. Based on the 2014 EU UK election results, and the 2016 EU referendum, there was much support for leaving the EU. But even with the level of support for leaving the EU that existed in 2015, UKIP only managed to win one seat at the 2015 general election. Sure, the Conservatives had pledged a referendum, but would UKIP have won enough seats to lead the 2015-2020 government otherwise? These questions relate to membership of the EU, but could similar questions be asked of voting reform?
“There are plenty of examples of previously dominant parties collapsing in support. Look at the Liberals in the 1920s and 1930s, the Canadian Conservative Party, The communists in France in the 1950s...”
From what I have read, it seems like the Liberals were the cause of their own downfall. Did they allow internal party issues to dominate their party? Did they fail to adjust to the needs of the electorate with the enfranchisement of working class males towards the end of the 19th century? So I accept that the Conservative or Labour parties could move from a position of 1st or 2nd to 3rd, but they would have to make blunders for this to happen—and, crucially, bigger blunders than they have already made that have had little meaningful impact on their 1st/2nd dominance. I would be interested to know of any theories on how one of these two parties might blunder in this way by the next general election.
Canadian Conservative party
I could do more research on this, but there appears to be one crucial difference between the UK and Canadian political landscapes: the former has had two parties dominate for decades, whereas the latter has not. So when you write “previously dominant parties”, I don’t agree that the Canadian Conservative party was previously dominant, and I also wouldn’t describe support for the party as having collapsed. The party was founded in 2003 and has since led one majority government. And their vote share at the 2015 federal election was 32 %.
Once two big parties can establish themselves, first past the post then does its job of entrenching those parties into power by discouraging politicians joining other parties, and by discouraging voters to vote for other parties. The Canadian political landscape might become more like that in the UK if two parties held their ground at both the centre-left and centre-right positions, and merged with any other parties that were close to them. Thankfully for Canada and democracy, Canada does not appear to have progressed to this steady, two-party state, as it has done in the UK.
Communists in France in the 1950s
As I understand it, France was not using the first-past-the-post voting system at the time, but I would be keen to know if you thought that this informed the discussion in some way.
“If the British Electorate wished to have a form of PR all they need to do is elect one of these parties.”
You seem to imply that this would be a straightforward undertaking. The EU referendum result is proof that the majority of the UK electorate wanted to leave the EU. So, had the Conservative and Labour parties refused to pledge an EU referendum, are you implying that all the electorate needed to do to achieve this was to elect UKIP? Of course, in theory, all this is possible, but I am interested in a practical strategy, not a theoretical one. The practical nature of first past the post means that the odds of smaller mainstream parties being awarded power are stacked against them, irrespective of how popular their policies are.
“Your question seems to suppose that there is a large amount of support for PR among voters. There is no evidence for this.”
Considering that the choice of voting system to the most powerful legislature in the country is of fundamental importance to the very fabric of society, I believe that, if there is anything close to a majority of the electorate in favour of changing the voting system, whether that be to PR or not, then the question must be put to the electorate. I believe that there is, at the very least, a level of support for PR that is close to a majority—I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise! In fact, I believe that, if all those who do not normally vote at UK general elections are included, the level of support for PR amongst the electorate far surpasses 50 %.
As for evidence, how much weight do the following hold?
“I think the share of seats a party wins should closely match the share of the vote it receives.” – 67 %
“57 per cent of the public agree with the principle that “the number of seats a party gets should broadly reflect its proportion of the total votes cast”
“The electorate rejected the proposal [in 2011, to replace FPP with AV] by a large majority.”
Yes they did, and the result should be respected just as much now as it was then. But was that a rejection of PR? And have the electorate's views on voting reform changed since then?
“In your proposal, you could found a party. If you had enough money to put down the 650 deposits (@£500 each that's £325000) you could stand in all 650 constituencies. You would almost certainly lose 650 elections.”
Firstly, you seem to be confusing losing an election with losing a deposit: in this context, a deposit would be lost with 5 % or fewer votes, whereas an election could be lost (i.e. 2nd place or worse) with anything up to 50 % of the votes.
When you write “you would almost certainly lose 650 elections”, if the evidence for support of PR is accurate, and if you still stand by your assertion that “all they would need to do is elect one of these parties”, is it your view that PR-supporting parties would then almost certainly win 650 elections?
As for raising £325,000, this sum would, indeed, be needed (if the deposit remained unchanged). But if we think of it in terms of raising £500 at a time, perhaps it doesn’t seem quite so much. And if we think of this in terms of each candidate raising the £500, either from their own resources, or from support from elsewhere, does it seem yet more plausible? And if we think that many people across the country are passionate about voting reform, does it seem plausible to be able to find one person in each constituency who would be prepared to do this? And, bearing in mind that the £500 would be retunred if the candidate won more than 5 % of the votes, does it seem less of a financial risk? In summary, if this discussion is confined purely to finances, could one person be found in each constituency who believes in voting reform enough to raise money for the cause, stand for it, and win more than 5 % of the votes (or risk losing £500 trying)?
“True enough, but AV tends to produce a party distribution that is closer to proportional than FPtP”
I would be interested to know if these voting systems have been modelled as evidence either way. As I see it, AV puts pressure on parties to have a broader appeal. However, due to the way votes are aggregated within each constituency, does that not mean that the bigger parties would benefit? Is this effect similar to that of merging constituencies when gerrymandering? To counteract this, however, fewer voters would vote tactically, but my suspicion is that AV still produces less proportional results, on average, than FPP. Any research on this, either way, would be welcome.
"The voters have been pretty consistent in voting against such measures."
2011 AV referendum – same questions as above.
As for general elections, you seem to be implying that, because smaller parties have not been handed power, the electorate has rejected all their policies. Is it possible that a voter chooses not to vote for a party because he/she only rejects, say, 60 % of a party’s policies? Also, is it possible that voters might support 100 % of a party’s policies but choose to vote for another party (or not vote at all) because his/her vote would otherwise go to waste?