Matthew Sinclair is a senior consultant at Europe Economics.
Waking up on a grey Monday morning after UKIP topped the polls and with seven different parties winning representation in the United Kingdom’s delegation to the European Parliament, it certainly felt like a grim day for First Past the Post. How can our electoral system, built for a contest between two parties, survive in this brave new multipolar world?
My contention is that we can and should continue to trust in the electoral system used in the world’s most stable and successful democracies: Britain, the United States, Canada and – the world’s largest democracy – India.
First, consider the alternatives.
We could decide that the voters’ rejection of the Alternative Vote was a mistake, or that they should be offered Proportional Representation instead in some fresh referendum.
On election night, pollster Peter Kelner put that view to Dan Hannan – a re-elected Conservative MEP – and Dan rightly replied that he did not believe we should change our electoral system just in order to suit the interests of one party. I think he could have added that we would not want to trade our problems for those of other countries with Proportional Representation. You might seriously dislike UKIP, but you have to concede that even the crankiest oddballs who sometimes find a place in that party are pretty harmless relative to the nasty racists in the fringe parties winning substantial shares of the vote in France or Greece.
I’m not convinced that the situation is really so sanguine in Germany either. Radical parties haven’t broken through there, just the mainstream Eurosceptics of the Alternative für Deutschland, but grand coalitions make electoral accountability a messy process.
If we can make it work, First Past the Post is still the right electoral system for Britain.
Another option might be to stumble along and hope these problems resolve themselves. There have been splits on the left before, when the Labour Party first emerged and challenged the old Liberal Party; when the Social Democrats split from the Labour Party; and when many Labour voters abandoned the party for the Liberal Democrats in anger at Britain taking part in the Iraq War. Each time the pattern has been the same: after some electoral set-backs the Labour Party has ultimately proved itself the best vehicle for voters of the centre left. They gained or regained their dominance of the left, as they have since the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition Government in 2010.
There have equally been splits on the right before. Old battles between Peel and Disraeli might not seem relevant to our situation today, but they were serious splits which did not last forever. In the same way, a split among Canadian conservatives ultimately resolved itself, though they lost elections badly before uniting again and winning under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Many of today’s problems will work themselves out eventually, but there is no reason we should wait for that to happen. That would mean accepting constant distortions in our elections introduced by third party insurgencies. It would mean more hung parliaments and more coalitions, instead of the relative clarity and accountability that comes with majority government. It would leave voters in safe seats unable to express themselves when they disagree with the positions taken by their elected representatives, unless they want to stop supporting the party that clearly best represents their views overall.
I think we can do better.
Matthew Goodwin – the foremost academic expert on the rise of the party – describes the typical UKIP core voter (the kind of people who might stay with the party at the General Election) as having three characteristics: they are very Eurosceptic; they are concerned about mass immigration; and they feel marginalised (“left behind”) economically and politically by the major parties. In the United States, I think many would find themselves a part of the Tea Party rank and file (like UKIP, its leaders are more libertarian).
Tea Party voters feel able to fight their corner within the Republican Party. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose (they recently failed to unseat a number of incumbents), but they stick to the party because they feel empowered to fight for what they believe in without leaving. Each side in these internal debates needs to make the case that their views are right and electable.
In the same way, voters for the Democratic Party who opposed the Iraq War had an alternative to leaving the party. They could – and did – launch primary challenges against its key cheerleaders within their party (Joe Lieberman, for example). In one way they succeeded, Senator Lieberman lost the Democrat nomination, but in another way they failed, he was re-elected as an independent. No one could reasonably complain they did not have a chance to fight their corner.
Internal democracy would not be some foreign import though. If you cannot remember a time when internal party democracy was a serious business in Britain, and more than a once-a-decade binary choice of leader, then ask your parents. Restoring that would fit with our traditions much better than importing some indecipherable new electoral system from the Continent.
We should require parties to hold primaries to select their candidates for each seat, at every election, with any party member able to challenge for their party’s nomination. That way even in the safest seats voters would be able to have their say. MPs would be able to win a much more emphatic democratic mandate to represent their constituents in Westminster.
Crucially, if people were angry about an issue, whether it was the Iraq War or gay marriage; immigration or bank bailouts; the European Union or high speed rail, they would be able to express that at the ballot box without joining a new party.
Primaries would not end the UKIP insurgency overnight. I don’t think there is any way to do that now and it would have been better to fix the roof while the sun was shining. But over time the logic of First Past the Post will reassert itself and we will return to two party politics. One of the centre right parties will prove itself a better vehicle for centre right voters to win elections and advance their views. With the right institutions, that process can unfold more quickly and not be set back by some new clash between party members and their leaders in Westminster.
I can imagine a few objections and questions about my proposal.
What about the smaller parties?
Just as we exempt smaller companies from some of the regulatory requirements that apply to big business, I do not think we should insist on primaries for smaller parties. We might require that any party winning more than a certain percentage of the vote at the last General Election in a given seat has to hold a primary, but exempt new parties or those which did not cross that bar.
What about the cost?
I can think of a few ways you could minimise the cost. You could hold the primaries on the same day as a round of local elections, for example, or we could ask the Estonians if they would be kind enough to set up online voting for us (while preserving the option to vote in person for those not comfortable voting over the Internet). If primary challengers were required to put down a deposit, it could defray the cost, though it might also change the character of challenges. Ultimately, I just think primaries would be worth the expense.
Why does this need to be a rule, why can’t we leave the parties to their own devices?
I used to think it might be possible to convince a party to introduce comprehensive primaries on their own initiative, but that seems increasingly unrealistic. The political parties have limited resources and those resources are naturally focused on the day-to-day work of making their case ahead of the next election. Organising and fighting primaries would feel like a distraction, which might handicap their chances, unless all the main players in each seat had to play by the same rules.
Are these going to be open or closed primaries?
I do not think we should insist that parties hold open primaries – where everyone can vote – instead of closed primaries – only open to party members. Closed primaries could be a perfectly reasonable choice in safe seats or those which lean towards a party already. They could be a great way to encourage more people to join (reversing the long term decline in party membership), particularly if they were combined with the cheap iMemberships recommended by Douglas Carswell. Open primaries, on the other hand, might work better in more marginal elections where the party needs to shake things up and engage with people who have not supported it in the past.
I am sure that people can raise other objections to this idea, or questions about how it might be implemented. I do not for a moment expect that I have all the answers. But I hope that fixing First Past the Post will appeal to a lot of different people: Conservative and Labour MPs sick of seeing votes leak away to third parties; trade unions who advised their members to reject the Alternative Vote because they believed a strong Labour Government was the best way to advance their goals, not mushy coalition politics; UKIP, Liberal Democrat or Green Party voters who are tired of being blamed for “letting in” Labour or the Conservatives and just want the major parties to listen; voters in safe seats sick to the back teeth of being taken for granted; and party leaders who want to respond in a credible way to the rise of UKIP.
The unique quality of First Past the Post is not that it makes coalitions less likely. All governments are ultimately coalitions of people with differing views and priorities. The glorious thing about it is that it requires people to form their coalitions within parties before the election, and put a platform they can unite behind before the voters, rather than stitching them up in grey meeting rooms away from the bright lights of democratic scrutiny afterwards.
First Past the Post is worth saving for its wonderful ability to reconcile principle with compromise and strong government with clear accountability. This crisis could be an exciting chance to restore our democracy to much better health; create vibrant debates in sleepy safe seats; and rebuild the major political parties after long years of atrophy.