Will 2015 be the year First-Past-the-Post finally breaks?

It’s the time of year when it’s traditional to make predictions about the year ahead. So here’s one from me: the upcoming General Election will leave Britain’s electoral system looking decidedly inadequate.

Its supporters will tell you that First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) gives voters a clear choice between two parties that are then able to form stable majority governments. Applying this description to any of the likely outcomes of the next General Election is a stretch.

If you like your politics orderly and binary then 2015 is going to come as a shock. Two party politics is in unmistakable retreat. UK Polling Report’s poll of polls has their combined share at 65%. Sixty years ago that figure was 97%. As recently as 1997 it hovered around 75%. This is all the more remarkable given that the traditional repository for voters opposed to the two-party system, the Liberal Democrats, has taken such a battering.

This may or may not result in a hung parliament. If it does then in time 2015 rather than 2010 may well seem like the aberration. Unless the two main parties can improve their standing well above their current levels then parliaments in which no party has a majority are likely to be the norm. And even if by some fluke one of them is able to command a majority is that really healthy: do we want a situation where 65-70% of voters supported someone other than the party that wound up in power?

The settled mood of the electorate is sufficiently disenchanted that they will likely resist being corralled by the electoral system into supporting one of two parties. So if on this basis we assume that multi-party politics is here to stay, we have to ask which electoral system best deals with it?

Not FPTP would be my answer. I think a new problem with it is becoming apparent. It penalises parties for having their support geographically spread out. The SDP/Liberal Alliance discovered this in 1983, when it won 25% of the vote but less than 5% of MPs. Its problem? Speaking in very broad terms what it managed to do was win 25% in most seats, while Labour and Tory support fluctuated wildly from seat and seat. This meant they cratered in some but came top in plenty more.

Something similar is likely to happen to UKIP in 2015. It looks very likely to comfortably outpoll both the Lib Dems and the SNP yet end up with fewer MPS than either. The reason? Those two parties have through deliberate electoral strategising in the Lib Dem case and the nature of their party in the SNP’s concentrated their support in a small number of seats. This gives parties like the Greens and UKIP a great incentive to start focussing only on specific kinds of seats.

My fear is that this tendency within FPTP will wind up giving us a politics a lot like India’s: a succession of regional contests which have to be strung together to produce a national government following an election. In such a situation, majority governments are rare and regional bigwigs can hold national governments to ransom.

I would rather have a form of proportional representation that allowed parties to win seats across the country and thus think in terms of the interests of the country as a whole. And I would really regret it if FPTP leaves us with a politics in which political parties are generally talking past each other to reach their geographically separate bases.

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