A Guide to Politics for Law Students – Electoral Systems

A Guide to Politics for Law Students – Electoral Systems

The United Kingdom’s Westminster system is one which has been the basis for many constitutional and parliamentary systems. It is revered worldwide, looked upon as the model of governance but it not without its criticism. This week’s article looks at the electoral system First Past The Post (FPTP) that is used to elect our MPs to the House of Commons. If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth reading our introduction article outlining the topics covered in this series.

Generally, every five years (or, within five years as previously was the case) the country would take to the voting booths and elect one person who they wanted to represent them in the House of Commons, the lower chamber which makes up Parliament. FPTP has been the chosen voting system for hundreds of years. It generally produces strong governments with a large enough majority to pass its proposed legislation through the Commons. The system works by each person picking only one candidate and no more than one, unless they intend to spoil their ballot in an act of protest. The candidate with the highest number of votes wins; it is the first person to pass the post of having the most votes. Simple. Afterwards, we have a winner.

Throughout the 20th century, the UK usually saw strong, single party government as a result of FPTP with the only coalition being that during World War Two for political reasons. Under FPTP parties have been able to consecutively win elections and often improve their majorities; this is what the UK saw with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. In such cases, the term ‘landslide victory’ is how this type of result is described. The upside of the system is that everyone gets one vote and the person with the majority of seats forms the government which is generally stable.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case when set in practice. In 1974 Harold Wilson led a minority labour government as a result of a hung parliament and incumbent Edward Heath not being able to secure a coalition to give him more seats than Labour. In 2010 we saw a coalition as a result of FPTP not producing a party which had gained an absolutely majority of seats in the Commons. The result was the the Conservative Party went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to secure enough seats in the Commons to govern with a majority. Even prior to this, governments were being formed under FPTP with only 30-40% of the electorate actually voting for them. The irony of FPTP is that in terms of seats, one party may get an overall majority but in reality, less than 50% of people actually voted for them. This could be altered by more people not being apathetic to voting as this would increase the number of people voting for parties and increase their percentage of the votes gained. Aside from this, whilst single party, strong government is favoured by many, the danger is that the party who is in power can effectively push through anything that it wishes as they command the majority of the seats in the Commons. FPTP leads many to conclude that any vote which is not for the majority party is a wasted vote, which in reality is not totally representative of the situation.

IN the 2015 election, many are predicting another coalition. Party leaders, notable Nick Clegg, has said that the era of single party government is gone and coalition governments are here to stay. Whilst he may be a tad optimistic and probably ignores the fact that we have only had one coalition government in peace time Britain, there is a mood amongst the electorate that they do not want a single party government. They feel it is far better to have a government where yes, there may be a party who commands more seats but short of a majority, who can be kept in control by a minority party working in coalition with them. This is the view of the SNP, the Green and Plaid Cymru. Support for a change in electoral system has peaked and dwindled and it is not seen as a key change for the time being. In 2011 there was a referendum to change the voting system in the UK but the outcome was not to change this, unfortunately apathy was at play and only 42% of people turned out to vote.

When voting in this election, remember that each vote does count. Yes it may not be for the party who will end up winning the election, but it can aid with the allocation of seats for opposition parties. FPTP, whilst it tends to produce single party governments, we can see that there is a change in people’s voting and it is more likely that general elections will see an increase use of coalition power. In any case, it might make sense to listen to a country who is leaning to coalition governance and shifting away from much of the same old single party politics.

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