First Past the Post (FPTP) is a ridiculous method of selecting a government. It produces results that are neither fair nor predictable. All too frequently, it has produced governments that only attracted a minority of the votes cast and yet are given a comfortable majority of the seats at Parliament. One of the worst such cases was the infamous election of 2005 – the worst so far and one which many of us are old enough to remember.
Blair’s star had fallen after Iraq
In 2005, Tony Blair called an election at a time when his popularity, among Labour supporters as well as the general public, was on the wane because of the Iraq war which was fought in 2003. Many believed the war to have been illegal and that, furthermore, Blair had deceived the country when he claimed that the war was necessary because Iraq had acquired weapons of mass destruction.
So how did the election go?
In the previous election, in 2001, Blair achieved 40.7% of the vote, a minority of the votes cast, yet, thanks to the inherent unfairness of the FPTP system, he was rewarded with a massive overall majority of the seats in parliament. His majority was an unassailable 167. The unpopularity of the Iraq war changed things in 2005. Labour’s share of the popular vote fell to an even smaller minority of 35.2% – not much more than one third of those who turned out to vote. The swing against Labour was 5.5% and yet, in spite of this, FPTP rewarded Labour with 55% of the seats in parliament – a clear, comfortable majority of 66 seats.
Labour won only 35.2% of the votes cast but FPTP gave them 55% of the seats!
It was one of the most disproportionate results that FPTP has produced in all the time this bizarre system has been used in the UK.
But it gets worse!
The result is worse than it appears when you think about the context of this election. The fall in Labour’s support was mainly due to its own supporters staying at home. The Tories, under Michael Howard, were, if anything, even more zealous about supporting Bush Junior’s war against Iraq than Labour. Those who opposed the war had no where else to go and Blair knew he could ignore them. The biggest swing (+3.8%) was to the LibDems, presumably due to the unhappiness of erstwhile Labour voters with the war. However the LibDems only gained an extra 16 seats giving them a total of 61 which was 9.6% of the seats.This illustrates how FPTP renders protest votes ineffective.
So How Much Support Did Labour Actually Have?
Labour won 35.2% of the popular vote. However, that does not mean it won the support of 35.2% of those eligible to vote. Far from it. The turnout in 2005 was only 61.4% of those registered to vote. In other words, more than a third of those registered to vote in 2005 thought it a waste of time. This known as voter apathy and, if FPTP achieves anything, it certainly achieves voter apathy because it so frequently ensures that there is little to choose from.
It also ensures that protest votes are almost always wasted unless voters are prepared to vote for a duopoly party they are normally most opposed to.
FPTP takes power away from the electorate and places it fairly and squarely in the pockets of the only two parties that are allowed to govern.
So, when turnout is taken into account we can see that the reality of what happened in 2005 was worse than first appears.
Labour won only 21.6% (not much more than a fifth) of the votes of the registered electorate but FPTP gave them 55% of the seats.
…but its worse still!
In 2005, only 94% of those eligible to vote actually registered. There are many reasons why people do not put their names on the electoral register but one must be that many see no point in voting under a rigged system like FPTP which, in effect, dictates which two parties are the only ones worth voting for. Because voter registration was only 94%, it can be said that:
Labour won only 20.3% of the votes of those eligible to vote but FPTP gave them 55% of the seats.
Footnote: was 2005 a one-off?
OK 2005 was a shocker for democracy but wasn’t it just a one off? – Er No! It was par for the course as far as FPTP IS CONCERNED.
There have been at least two occasions when FPTP actually allowed a party with fewer votes to win more seats than its rival:
Thanks to the unfairness of FPTP, the Conservatives ‘won’ this election with a comfortable majority of 26 seats – in spite of the fact that the Labour party won more votes. The results were:
|Party||Votes Won||Seats Gained|
Thanks to the unfairness of FPTP, Labour ‘won’ this election with a majority of 4 seats – in spite of the fact that, this time, the Conservative party won more votes. The results were:
|Party||Votes Won||Seats Gained|
A system that promotes voter apathy is a system that denies democracy.
The mathematics of the FPTP system ensures that the results of general elections will be grossly disproportionate and therefore quite plainly unfair. The disproportionality is then exaggerated by the voter apathy that the FPTP system has generated since turnouts at general elections peaked in 1950. Since then, turnouts have declined steadily and now it is rare for more than two thirds of the registered electorate to bother turning out and we are left with a system that gives big working majorities in parliament to one or other of the duopoly parties when they only have the support of about one fifth of those eligible to vote. What this means is that we are constantly ruled by governments that do not have the support of the majority of voters.
Born in Derby, Robert Hercliffe is a retired FE lecturer now living on the south coast (because he likes to sail). His experiences in the FE sector and also his work as an orderly in geriatric care in the ’70s made him see the effects of deliberate underfunding at first hand: “It seems to me that, amongst other things, our undemocratic electoral system is responsible for this neglect. First past the post ensures that those who suffer are under-represented. On retiring, I decided to join the struggle for reform.”
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