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Two levels of compromise, and the current dysfunction of British party politics

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 20.11.51I’ve lost track of the number of times people have defended the British First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system with the argument that because the system generally produces a clear winner (a majority for one party), the system hence avoids the need for the complicated coalition negotiations and trade-offs necessary in systems where coalition governments are the norm.

This is correct as far as it goes, but it is only half the picture. A consequence of FPTP is that the major parties of centre left (Labour) and centre right (Conservative) are themselves coalitions of more points of view than their equivalent parties in other European countries. The compromise to make the UK governable is hence within the political parties, rather than in coalition negotiations after an election.

This in turn makes parties in systems where coalitions are the norm (Germany for example) narrower from an ideological point of view, and inclined to look both ways – towards the left and the right (unless of course your party is of the extreme left or extreme right), rather than the UK tendency that is always to look for the electoral middle ground. This in turn, in non-FPTP countries, contributes to the feeling that membership of a political party might actually mean something to the party members, and may help to explain Britain’s extraordinarily low party political membership (when compared to other EU countries).

Add onto this the additional complication of British politics, namely a coalition government for the first time since 1945, and British politics currently has a double whammy – a grubby compromise within each of the parties, and a grubby compromise between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

So much for FPTP being a good thing for British politics, eh?

Photo: "Nick Clegg Q&A 1" by Liberal Democrats on March 13, 2010 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

7 Comments

  • Martin Keegan |

    Tosh.

    Most countries have more than one electoral system, and the UK is no exception (elections for Westminster, EU, Holyrood, Stormont, etc); the same parties compete under different systems, so even if the electoral system had the effect you claim, you’re unlikely to be able to control for the rest of the noise. Why do you get to choose the Westminster electoral system as a greater influence on the internal coalitions within British political parties than, say, the Scottish electoral system, which surely has a major impact on Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems?

    In Australia, there are about fifteen legislative chambers with at the very least three electoral systems (AV, STV, OPV). The conservative coaltion is two parties in one of the OPV states, and a single party in the other. The size of the party memberships is completely dominated by past membership drives and branch stacking, not by whether preference exhaustion causes OPV to degenerate to FPTP! The very idea is barking.

  • Martin Keegan |

    Let’s just leave aside the whole “FPTP effect on size of party membership” thing. It’s howling-at-the-moon crazy.

    Here’s a proposition supported by no evidence for you instead: some leftwingers in the UK are obsessed with changing the voting system out of pure self interest, as they perceive FPTP to disadvantage their cause.

  • Jon |

    So, to summarise, because my argument does not hold for Australia, it is therefore invalid. A country that has compulsory voting for federal and state elections. You need to do better.

    And actually Scotland rather does prove my point, in that which party is it in the UK, other than UKIP, that has seen growth in membership: the SNP.

    When you’ve spent some time looking at how party politics works from the inside in some more EU countries then come back with further comments. Until then your argument is just tosh.

  • Ken Adams |

    Interesting post Jon, I have always supported FPTP because any other system puts power in the hands of the party leaders.

    For me the political parties set out their stall and we join or vote for them or not according to our preferences, you are suggesting that policy is formed after the election by people who have not offered enough of what voter want to gain a mandate. Thus the parties do not have to appeal to majority of voters, all then need do is to get enough votes to gain a seat at the table for the real negotiations that will follow the elections. Of course then no government would ever have a mandate from the British people for their actions and the British people would have lost any control over government.

    I am however tempted by your point that a different system would possibly create a break up of the present parties, thus we would have even more parties at the negotiating table but at least then we would know that they represented cleaner votes.

    There is a great deal wrong with our system of government at the moment, I feel a lot of that is caused by the parties, the rise of a political elite class and the triangulation created by our membership of the EU. I do not think giving them more power is the answer, we need to gain control of our so called representatives and make it clear to them that they work for us not their parties or its leaders.

    We need to break the strangle hold political parties have over our democracy, ideas such as having the power of recall, separating the government from the parliament that is supposed to control it, mandated referenda, ect this is the direction we need to be going in rather than making a bad situation worse by moving in the direction that will only enhance the power of the political parties.

  • Martin Keegan |

    I seem to have flown off the handle on this a bit earlier, sorry.

    I think it’s valid to cite just a single counter-example, as your claim needs to be right for all cases. Otherwise it’s a considerably weaker claim.

    What I’m really trying to say is that the effect of FPTP on party size is going to be practically impossible to isolate, but also that it’s likely to be dominated by other factors. In the 1950s, the Tory party effectively doubled as a dating agency; nowadays that vertical integration has broken down and there’s a separate Telegraph Dating for horny rightwingers.

    FPTP doesn’t inevitably lead to a two party system (e.g., in Canada at federal level), and some constitutional setups favour minority government over coalitions, so there are going to be lots of confounding factors.

  • Joe Thorpe |

    Debating FPTP is pointless we have had a referendum & emphatically chose to keep it. You cant get much more democratic than to have a straight forward yes no referendum can you? I’m just waiting for the next referendum :-)

  • Rlemkin |

    First of all @Jon Thorpe, the AV referendum was just that, a referendum on AV. Look up the New Zealand referendum on MMP (Q1 MMP Yes/NO, then Q2 FPTP, AV, STV, SV only to be counted if a majority said no to MMP), if we had a poll similar to that your point would be valid.

    Jon, I want to agree with you and it’s true that membership of political parties is lower in the UK than the EU, but the decline in party membership is being repeated all over Europe and there are far too many social factors that may have an influence. Have a wee look at the table here (http://www.eui.eu/Projects/EUDO/Documents/2011/05-19-europeanjournalofpoliticalresearchabstract.pdf) Plenty of countries near the bottom have some form of proportional representation, yet there are still massive variations between them.

So, what do you think ?