Representational democracy is at the heart of the UK’s political constitution, and the electoral system is central to achieving it. But is the first-past-the-post system used to elect the UK parliament truly representative? To answer that question requires an understanding of several factors: debates over the nature of representation; the evolution of the current electoral system; how first-past-the-post distorts electoral politics; and how else elections might be conducted. Running through all these debates are issues over the representation not only of people but also of places. The book examines all of these issues and focuses on the effect of geography on the operation of the electoral system.
capricious first-past-the-post (FPTP) can be (twice as many Labour as
Liberal Democrat votes, a quarter as many MPs).
The failure of the Labour Party overall, however, could not reasonably
JOHNSTON 9781526139894 PRINT.indd 1
be laid at the door of the electoral system. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s
leadership it had increased its support at the 2017 election, but in 2019
it went backwards in terms of both votes and seats. As one of the two
main parties it consistently gets a higher level of representation than
Does it have to be this way?
As discussed in previous chapters, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system used for elections to the UK’s Westminster Parliament
has evolved considerably over the years. Compared to contests before
the passage of the 1832 Great Reform Act (and even to elections in
the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), Britain’s elections
are now much fairer, much more transparent, and much better run.
What has not really changed is the basic electoral system used
for Westminster elections: contests are still fought on
Northern Ireland to protect the nationalist minority. And a proportional system was deployed for the new Scottish
Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1999 to try and ensure that
nationalists never won power– a stratagem that failed in Scotland
in 2011 given the SNP’s popularity then. But for general elections
neither Labour nor the Conservatives is prepared to consider seriously any alternative to first-past-the-post: they are content to allow
the geographies that underpin the translation of votes into seats to
influence election outcomes– until it becomes clear to
At present, the UK uses the ‘firstpastthepost’ system to elect MPS to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?
Should Scotland be an independent country?
Source: The Electoral Commission
Whether it was for this reason or others, there were no referendums in the years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher (1979–90) and John Major (1990–97). This changed when Labour won the 1997 election.
After Tony Blair’s New Labour government
what he called ‘queasy rides on the ideological big-dipper’, a process exacerbated by the first-past-the-post electoral system. 5 What was needed, therefore, Jenkins argued, within the British political system as a whole was, paradoxically, ‘more change accompanied by more stability of direction’. To that end, he called for a fairer electoral system, based on proportional representation, and a ‘strengthening of the radical centre’, 6 with a new grouping committed to a programme of political, constitutional and social reform and to a political approach through which
form a government but, if that proved impossible, that he would be willing to ‘work with any person of moderate or progressive views to get this country back on the rails’. 63 The 517 Liberal candidates in the field resulted in far greater media coverage than in the past, which in turn increased the impact of the national campaign.
Its outcome, on 28 February, was that the Liberals polled over six million votes, with 19.3 per cent of the national poll, yet won only 14 seats – a vivid and cruel illustration of the way in which the first-past-the-post
Under first-past-the-post rules, election results are the outcome of an interaction between the geography of party support and the geography of parliamentary constituencies. But in translating votes into seats, first-past-the-post elections can be inconsistent and arbitrary in their operation. Results are generally disproportional (with some parties receiving a higher share of the seats, and others a lower share, than their vote shares might suggest). And they are often biased (consistently favouring one party more than another). The chapter examines both features of first-past-the-post elections and shows how they have changed over time to affect how representative the UK's electoral system really is.
government in multiple checks and balances or simply curtail it in the name of
Name any issue you like – creating publicly owned companies, a national
identity card system (allowing us to know who is in Britain and which would
have done much to lower the hysteria over immigration), offering Scotland a
federal settlement, deciding on a voting system to replace first-past-the-post,
accepting a role for the European Court of Human Rights over press regulation,
or just the daily business of politics – the same fissures appear. With the left
unable to coalesce, power
previous five years.
Candidates had to be over twenty-one until the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but now have to be only eighteen or over. Civil servants, members of the armed forces and ordained members of the Church of England are not eligible to stand for Parliament.
Traditionally, the British electoral system has been perceived as simple ‘firstpastthepost’. However, even though the ‘against’ camp has been seen to have the upper hand for most of the time, several electoral aspects of Britain’s democratic system have been reformed