Matthew Sinclair is a Senior Consultant at Europe Economics.
Commentator after commentator opined before this election that First Past the Post (FPTP) just could not work in the brave new multi-party world of the 21st century. That it could only work so long as the Conservatives and Labour dominated UK politics.
After the election, self-interested commentators are making the same charge today: Scots understandably upset at the dominant result produced by the SNP and Kippers disappointed that they have piled up loads of votes but gained few seats.
There are two attacks on our venerable electoral system: that it is unfair on those parties whose share of parliamentary seats is much lower than their share of the popular vote and that it does not always produce stable governments.
Of course, it is true that FPTP does not result in a distribution of seats in line with the distribution of votes. Neither do most proportional systems in use today, which almost all include minimum thresholds (almost universal) and/or winners’ bonuses (like in Italy). These rules are necessary to avoid endless fragmentation of the parties, which undermines accountability as voters are unable to work out who was responsible for what, but are far more crude than FPTP (their impact depends enormously on where entirely arbitrary cut-offs are set).
FPTP will not always produce a majority government either. It is always possible to have a result close enough that there is no clear winner. FPTP is very good at producing working majorities though. This is far better than proportional systems, which almost always rely on coalition horse-trading after the election and again limit accountability (a party can blame their coalition partner rather than defending their record). Despite all the projections of indefinite coalition politics, we are already back to a majority (albeit a thin one).
The most important function of FPTP is really to create a robust incentive to form a broad coalition before the election on which voters can then pass their judgement. That incentive is why the dismal failure of UKIP to translate their votes into seats is a feature, not a bug. I could form the Matt Sinclair Party and agree with all of its policies but if we all do that then striking compromises, which is – after all – the business of any political system, is done in a conference room after the election rather than out in the open beforehand (including, if you don’t like what’s on offer from the existing parties, with attempts to change that offering through non-party campaigns like the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Business for Britain).
Under PR, voters normally don’t get to directly decide which coalition they want in office. They vote for a party and can only hope it will join their preferred coalition. Afterwards they have to decide which of the many coalition participants was to blame when things go wrong, or deserves praise when they go right. Small parties are an absolute plague ruining the politics of too many other European countries. FPTP means that they rarely last here.
The SNP is different. The SNP has managed to unite a broad coalition of voters who either believe passionately in Scottish independence and are willing to compromise on other issues or are sufficiently left-wing or distrusting of the UK-wide parties that they think they’ll get a better deal by backing the SNP even if they don’t really want independence. None of the other Scottish parties has done that recently. They’re all minor parties catering only to minorities in the Scottish electorate. That can, should and probably will change.
FPTP is used by the largest and most stable democracies in the world and is right for the UK. We have a two party system in England and Wales: only the Conservatives and Labour made it to a double-figure number of seats. For now, we have a one party system in Scotland: no party but the SNP has got their act together, but the barriers to entry are not that high and the answer is enterprising Scottish Conservatives running excellent campaigns (as Ruth Davidson has done this time) and winning over Scottish voters, not importing a foreign electoral system.