Britain is heading for without a shred of doubt the most uncertain General Election in at least a generation, perhaps even a century. This is because rather than a seemingly straightforward choice between the Conservatives and Labour, as much as they would like it to be, there are now several other subplots and therefore parties to cater for the United Kingdom and its electorate.
In this country, the voting system of choice is unfortunately still First Past The Post, at both national and local level, yet not for the European Election which is based on Proportional Representation, and thus explains the breakthroughs seen by smaller parties such as UKIP’s earthquake last May. One simple example of FPTP is as follows; three candidates (A, B and C) – A and B gain 33% each of the vote, yet because C gained the remaining 34%, he wins outright and the other 66% are simply not accounted for – second place really is no place, and minority rule, here 34%, is the outcome. It is particularly worth noting Labour and their “35% strategy” here, with respect to FPTP and how one of the two biggest parties deliberately plays it as an electoral system, plausibly gaining overall power with barely a third of the overall vote.
However, minority rule is only the beginning of FPTP. By nature, the system will inherently at some point both lead to and reinforce a two party system – ‘Duverger’s Law’- seen in America and until more recent times, Britain too. Because voters will typically wish for a stable, majority government as opposed to the fractured coalition seen today with Cameron and Clegg, they will be inclined to vote for those parties able to achieve outright majority, and therefore smaller parties will eventually fade into obscurity.
In the event that a particularly appealing third choice comes along, such as Nigel Farage’s UKIP or Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, there is a hidden but nevertheless quite real danger of hindering the original party one would have voted for. Consider UKIP for instance; whilst now able to damage Labour’s vote nearly as much as the Conservatives’, UKIP will undoubtedly cost Cameron dearly in key marginal seats against Labour, yet many voting for UKIP will have originally voted Tory – the so called theory of “splitting the right”.
This would not be as big an issue if there was an effective second choice for those identifying with left wing voting intention, however the Lib Dems appear to have lost most of their credibility whilst the Greens are heavily concentrated in very few seats, in the manner of Ashdown’s Lib Dems decades ago. Indeed, whatever one’s opinion of Margaret Thatcher and her undoubted charisma, there is a credible school of thought that a significant part of her success lay in a significant fracture on the left, seen by the Labour-SDP chasm at the time.
However, this could potentially work both ways, particularly if Conservative voters in the north of the country were to choose to tactically vote in areas where their party simply doesn’t have a chance. For example, in the Heywood & Middleton by-election, UKIP came a very near second, at 617 shy. Had they been able to secure this victory in Labour’s Greater Manchester heartland, Douglas Carswell’s landslide on the same day in Clacton would have paled in comparison. The Conservative vote count in Heywood & Middleton stood at 3,496; had even half that amount chosen to tactically vote UKIP, their real opponents capable of governing alone would be a seat short in an area that was beforehand practically guaranteed. The reason this point is relevant is because if we accept UKIP as a party falls on the right on the political spectrum, then clearly a true right wing voter would want a Conservative government at the helm. Voting UKIP in an area unassailable for the Conservatives would aid this cause, thereby unifying the right and defying the issue of undemocratic FPTP in the process.
In contemporary Britain, we now have a total of 8 parties with representation in Westminster, as such the televised debates being discussed right now with all of those potentially participating are nothing short of a façade. Whilst 3 of those are strictly regional (SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and DUP in Northern Ireland) they are by no means disinterested in affairs in Westminster. Furthermore, we still have the scenario that the remaining 5 have differing levels of claim to be kingmakers; yet a claim nonetheless. That said, the public perception of coalition since 2010 along with the evidence present from key personnel has considerably altered the mood towards a minority government; still a scenario where the smaller parties will obviously have a significant say in the direction taken.
Another key issue with First Past The Post is that it has definitely forced the two biggest parties to abandon their original philosophies and grounding on the political spectrum, in order to gain the centre ground necessary for an outright majority. The best example of this was Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’, which bounced back from perennial losers under Neil Kinnock and beyond, to gain an unprecedented 418 Parliamentary seats out of a then 659. In doing so Blair is viewed by many as ultimately having betrayed and dismissed the true left-wing, Labour ethos that John Brown would have theoretically continued. In doing so, he also significantly contributed to the ever enduring voter perception of “they’re all the same”, whether it is policy based or indeed other factors such as background; something insurgent parties are only too happy to exploit.
The elimination of FPTP and subsequent replacement would enable both Labour and the Conservatives, along with the other parties to come out and truly pledge their real policies and ideas to the electorate, as opposed to pandering to the majority and in the end ending up all very similar with very few notable differences in truly key policy areas. It is therefore in a twisted and counter-productive way of viewing the matter that whilst FPTP keeps the two biggest parties as they are and therefore the status quo, that they also hinder themselves in gaining an outright majority – whether it is UKIP with outright EU withdrawal or the Greens with their energy policy, it is human nature that an argument against the status quo is one that captures the imagination, and crucially so for the insurgent parties. This will in the end only lead to the haemorrhage of disillusioned votes elsewhere, and not a single recent poll has pointed to an outright majority for either Labour or the Tories – it is time they accepted their unquestioned dominance is at an end, and steps are taken to introduce a far more reflective method of British democracy.
By Nicholas Godleman, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.