The majoritarian British electoral system of First
Past the Post is a Single-Member Plurality voting method used to elect members
of parliament to the House of Commons during five year fixed term general
elections. The system geographically divides the United Kingdom into 650
constituencies, each of which gain representation by one candidate which
receives the plurality of votes in its constituency (Electoral-reform.org.uk, 2018). This essay will accentuate that
the British electoral system is ‘broken’ by exploring the two foremost problems
of First Past the Post which are strategic voting and disproportionate
representation. In addition, the trade-off between parliamentary representation
and government accountability in almost all electoral systems, including the
British structure will be discussed. Finally, with the support of electoral
engineers Simon Hix and John Carey’s article on ‘The Electoral Sweet Spot’, the
essay will determine a means of ‘fixing’ First Past the Post’s disproportionate
representation whilst maintaining its government accountability through the establishment
small multimember districts of moderate magnitudes in order to soften the
trade-off (Carey and Hix, 2011).
on ‘Comparing Strategic Voting under FPTP and PR’ highlights the inevitability
of tactical voting under First Past the Post using two factors of Duverger’s
law (Abramson et al., 2009).
Primarily, the ‘mechanical factor’ of the procedure which allocates a
disproportionate share of legislative seats to larger parties and secondly, the
‘psychological factor’ which causes voters to select a candidate other than
their first preference in order to prevent theoretically wasting their vote on
the grounds that their preferred candidate and consequently party are unlikely
to win a plurality. However, Cox’s critique of Duverger’s law states that the theory
is only relevant on a constituency level in a two-party system thus any
geographical heterogeneity of preferences will distort the mechanisms of
tactical voting. Duverger’s law is nevertheless still applicable to the current
two-party system context of the UK in which labour and conservative received
84.3% of votes in the 2017 elections (The
indicating prominent strategic voting under First Past the Post due to
Duverger’s law is provided by the article ‘The Causes and Consequences of Tactical
Voting in the 1997 General Election’ which analyses the 1997 general elections
where a significant number of voters appeared to have voted for the main
opposition party – Labour, capable of defeating the local Conservative. Authors
Evans, Curtice and Norris used data analysis of individual level survey data
from the British Election Cross-section study to examine a random sample of
3,615 voters own reports of voting tactically, the survey found that 10% of
voters voted tactically and estimated that at least 25 to 35 seats were lost by
conservatives as a result of the tactical voting (Evans,
Curtice and Norris, 1998). Tactical
voting is unquestionably a predicament of the British electoral system in need
of ‘fixing’ as it distorts ballots and does not reflect true public attitudes
hence undermining the fundamentals of representative democracy. Although
British democracy gives everyone a vote, these votes are not all of equal
weight, the concept of ‘fairness’ within the criteria of ‘free, fair and regular
elections’ is impaired by First Past the Post.
An alternative indication of how the British
electoral system is ‘broken’ is the disproportionate representation the single-member
plurality practice produces. Disproportionality can be recognized through a
proportionality index which captures the difference in percentage of votes a
party won versus the percentage of seats it won (Gallagher,
1991). In 2015,
conservatives won 36.9% of votes and 50.9% of seats indicating they were 14%
over-represented, whereas, UKIP won 12.6% of votes and only 0.2% of seats revealing
they were 12.4% under-represented. The overall UK election of 2015 had a
proportionality index of 76.8% which according to the threshold of 85% or above
representing proportionality, revealed that the results were disproportionate
of electoral votes (Ukpolitical.info, 2018). During the 2017 general
elections, although the proportionality index increased to 90.5% due to the
increased two-party structure in which 82.2% of votes and 89.2% of seats in
total went to the Labour and Conservative party, the outcome was still
disproportionate of the body of voters as the Conservative party now dominate government
with a minority of 42.2% of votes which further undermines disciplines of
representative democracy whereby the government is not symbolic of even half
the electorate. First Past the Post undoubtedly penalises smaller parties such
as UKIP and rewards larger parties such as Labour and Conservatives.
First Past the Post also leads to regionalism
whereby geographically concentrated parties gain advantage in seats. For
example, in 2015, UKIP got 4 million votes and 1 seat whereas SNP got 1.5
million votes and 56 seats because of their intense support focused in Scottish
constituencies (BBC News, 2018). The bias of representation in First
Past the Post to smaller parties was further prominent in the 2015 election whereby
if the Greens 1.2 million votes were combined with UKIP’s votes, the collective
number of votes would be more than 5 million which was more than half the votes
won by labour, however labour won 232 seats and the Greens and UKIP between
them only gained two seats. Similarly, in 2010 labour won 29% of votes and 258
seats and liberal democrats only got 6% less votes but a disproportionate 201
fewer seats (Blogs.lse.ac.uk, 2018). The British electoral system is
undeniably ‘broken’ and in desperate need of fixing.
Debate over a
‘strong and stable’ government
According to certain scholars, First Past the
Post is not ‘broken’ nor in need of ‘fixing’. The article ‘debate over
electoral systems’ pertains to this idea as author André Blais accentuates that
due to single-member constituencies and disproportionate advantages to larger
parties, “the first past the post electoral system is usually successful in
manufacturing a parliamentary majority for one party” which is evident as
before May 2010, the last ‘hung’ parliament in the UK was in 1974 (Blais, 1991). This is supposedly favourable for two main
reasons: firstly, a one-party government creates cohesion and given that
representation expresses a desire for the exercise of unified power and participants
want to discover a way to proceed as a unit, cohesion and stability are of
critical importance. Secondly, a one-party government allows
for the successful enactment of manifesto promises without having to compromise
any ambitions, governments therefore have a clear mandate and intensified
André Blais’s interpretations of the desirability of a strong and stable
government created under First Past the Post, in practice such dominant
governments undermine representative democracy through the threat of ‘elective
dictatorships’. Government domination was evident for example all through
Blair’s 10-year term in parliament during which he only conceded 4 votes
comparable to Thatcher only lost 4 votes in her 11 years (Ucl.ac.uk, 2018). Correlations
between these two governments and their low failure rates were their evident
majorities giving them excessive control over the legislative process. Elective
dictatorships are detrimental as they lead to unaccountability to parliament
thus undermining principles of parliamentary sovereignty, as a government with
a majority in parliament can suppress parliament using party numbers (Aph.gov.au, 2018). This
occurred during UK parliamentary inquiry into the Westland helicopter affair
which led to an outcome disliked by Parliament.
theorist Robert Dahl states that proportional representation in nations such as
Israel is prone to creating coalition governments which threaten the existence
of democracy as “highly fragmented multiparty systems can lead to unstable or
weak coalitions that are unable to cope with major problems. These results in
turn may stimulate a loss of confidence in representative democracy” (Blais, 1991), regardless,
multiparty systems would ‘fix’ the problem of electoral dictatorship faced by
the UK as research professor Bogdanor emphasizes that “a coalition government
is likely to be less able to afford breaches of party discipline since
dissenting votes on the part of the backbenches may not only threaten the
governments majority, they also threaten the very basis upon which the
coalition has been set up”, this emphasizes the accountability of governments under
multiparty systems created by proportional representation.
Proportional representation system as an alternative
professor Bogdanor’s appraisal of proportional representation, the system could
indubitably be a viable alternative resolving the shortcoming of
disproportionate representation under First Past the Post. By definition,
proportional representation is more equitable as the formula intents to give
each party a share of seats equal to its share of votes. Subsequently the
government and parliament are more likely to be perceived as legitimate which
is a debateable feature of the political system under First Past the Post.
Moreover, Proportional representation leads to a heterogeneity of voters
represented in parliament where parliament is essentially a microcosm of
society, this diversity stimulating unity and instilling a spirit of
cooperation amongst parties leading to a more consensual model of democracy (Electoral-reform.org.uk, 2018).
proportional representation lacks the accountability (which First Past the Post
delivers) as a consequence of the likely coalition formation leading to
volatile governments providing low clarity of responsibility as observed in the
current German democratic model (www.dw.com),
proportional representation electoral system would therefore be ideal if a
countries objective is a highly representative parliament which exemplifies the
multiplicity of opinions in society, conversely, a majoritarian system such as
First Past the Post is superior if a country desires a strong and liable
on ‘Comparing Strategic Voting under FPTP and PR’ also concludes that patterns
of strategic voting strikingly are barely distinguishable between the two
voting systems (Abramson et al., 2009).
PR induces strategic voting as voter’s are incentivized to vote for parties
which are likely to be in the coalition, as well as voting for coalition
partners that are more extreme than they are themselves to ensure policy
outcomes are closer to their preferred policies. Strategic voting under First Past the Post is however
more unfavorable as
The Electoral Sweet Spot
Fortunately, according to Simon Hix and John
Carey, there is an approach which can surpass the trade-offs and achieve ‘the
best of both worlds’ generating the previously diverged parliamentary
representation and government accountability simultaneously (Carey and Hix, 2011). The model describes small multimember
districts of median district magnitudes between four and eight which increase
representation and moderate the number of parties in government.
The ‘The Electoral Sweet Spot’ asserts that
increasing district magnitude from one to five increases the number of
effective parties in parliament by around one and increases the number of
parties in government by half, as well as decreasing disproportionality by over
three quarters and reducing the ideological distance between the median citizen
and median governing party sharply. This is because with larger district magnitudes
there is an increased opportunity for median sized parties to win seats and a
new incentive for supporters of smaller parties who may have tactically voted
or thrown away their vote under single member districts such as First Past the
Post to coordinate into medium sized parties. There is also an increase in
representative accountability as under median magnitude open list systems,
individuals are less bewildered by choices than in large magnitude districts consequently
enabling voters to identify more easily with their candidate and thus hold them
to account. Decreasing district magnitude works best when it offers an array of
variable options but at the same time does not encourage niche parties or
overwhelm voters with a bewildering menu of alternatives, smaller magnitudes makes
it possible to combine candidate preference votes and individual accountability
with proportionality and partisan inclusiveness. A median magnitude at an
equilibrium between gaining the benefits of increasing magnitude size and
decreasing magnitude size therefore provides a good balance between representation
and accountability and transforms the polarized trade-offs into non-linear
The British electoral system is broken and in need of
fixing as First Past the Post generates detrimental strategic voting and critical
disproportionate representation, although alternative proportional
representation systems would rectify the issue of representation through
enhancing inclusiveness, it is not substantial at delivering accountability
which is probable under First Past the Post. The ideal system which gains the
advantages of both proportional representation thus ‘fixing’ the
disproportionate representation and accommodating governmental accountability through
the ‘electoral sweet spot’ is an electoral arrangement in which district
magnitudes are in the low to moderate range.
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