Reform elections before the timebomb explodes

November 6, 1998

First-past-the-post must go or British politics becomes farce, write Patrick Dunleavy and Helen Margetts

This week's Congressional mid-term elections will remind us all that first-past-the-post elections can deliver proportional results time after time. Only 7 per cent of the House of Representatives are elected for parties which are not entitled to that seat in terms of their share of the national vote (the best European systems of proportional representation hit between 4 and 8 per cent on the same "deviation from proportionality" score). And virtually all US representatives enjoy clear majority support in their districts.

But America is the only large country where first-past-the-post elections work in this way because it is the only perfect two-party system in the world. In every other liberal democracy, party support is fragmenting over time and first-past-the-post elections cannot cope. In Canada the system is now dangerously erratic, projecting the conservatives at the last election from a parliamentary majority to just three seats. In India, first-past-the-post has encouraged corruption by insulating MPs and means party seat shares yo-yo dramatically with small shifts in votes. In Malaysia, the system supports a regime where executive power has become unstable and civil rights are in jeopardy.

In Britain the disproportionality score is commonly three times higher than in the USA. More than 21 per cent of MPs occupy seats to which they are not entitled in terms of their party's share of the vote. Just 53 per cent of MPs enjoy majority support from their constituents.

Since 1972, opinion polls, municipal elections, Euro elections and general elections have shown one fifth or more of the vote going to third and fourth parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. In 1997, a record-breaking 4.4 per cent of the vote went to fifth and sixth parties such as the Referendum Party and UK Independence Party.

First-past-the-post treats all these votes with contempt. A 21 per cent disproportionality score means, in effect, that more than a fifth of ballot papers are extracted from the ballot box and simply thrown away for the purposes of allocating seats in the Commons.

If the Westminster electoral system is left unreformed, then British democracy will simply get sicker and more out of date. The consistent voting patterns and trends of the last 28 years will not suddenly go into reverse.

Indeed, political fracturing will be worse if voting reform is delayed. If the electoral system stays unchanged, it can only be a matter of a few years after 2001 before the proportionally elected Scottish Parliament will so dominate electoral legitimacy in Scotland that the Commons is reduced to a farce in Scottish eyes, and the ratchet for Scottish independence takes a further powerful turn.

And the "turnout timebomb" that has been exploding unnoticed under British politics will surely burst as well - perhaps carrying away Labour's misplaced over-confidence in a second term as early as the middle of next year. In the past 15 years, Britain has become a more middle-class society. Years in school have lengthened and the numbers of graduates have soared - all factors that used to predict greater election turnout. But overall turnout in the 1997 general election and 1998 municipal elections plunged to new lows.

Next May, turnout will be reasonably good in the new proportional systems of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh National Assembly. But fragmentation of the vote in both elections will again surely increase, mainly at Labour's expense. In the simultaneous municipal elections in England, turnout under first-past-the-post will slump again. And just five weeks later, in June 1999, the European elections (with a defective "closed list" proportional representation system requiring voters to support slates of party appointees) could well drop to as low as 25 per cent of voters.

These are the structural reasons why Lord Jenkins' schema for reform of the House of Commons is so appropriately timed and presents such a powerful and original solution. The central task of all academic research in the social sciences should be to find new ways for the key interactive systems of modern society - markets, networks and the political system - to represent choices of ordinary people as fairly, accurately, comprehensively and effectively as possible. Political scientists should be telling MPs, who are simply protecting their own electoral insulation, that first-past-the-post has had its day. Voters have changed, and parties and MPs must adapt to survive.

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of government at the London School of Economics and Helen Margetts is lecturer in public policy at Birkbeck College. They advised the Jenkins commission on the design of its recommended voting system, drawing on data about how 21,000 UK voters reacted to alternative ballot paper in surveys carried out between 1991 and 1998.

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