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Farrell, Chapter 2
Farrell, Chapter 2
Figure 2.1 A British first past the post ballot paper
In the jargon of the electoral systems literature the fact that the voter has only one choice means that the FPTP ballot structure is 'categorical' (an either/or choice), not 'ordinal' (where a preference can be declared for more than one candidate on the ballot paper).
Number Per cent of votes of vote Johnston, Sir Russell (Liberal Democrat) 13258 26 Stewart, D. (Labour) 12800 25.1 Ewing, F. S. (SNP) 12562 24.7 Scott, J. (Conservative) 11517 22.6 Martin, J. (Green) 766 1.5 Total Vote Turnout 73.3
Johnston, Sir Russell (Liberal Democrat)
Stewart, D. (Labour)
Ewing, F. S. (SNP)
Scott, J. (Conservative)
Martin, J. (Green)
Table 2.2 BrItish MPs elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote, 1918-92
MPs elected with MINORITY MPs as % of minority of votes all MPs 1918 97 14.5 1922 173 30 1923 203 35.2 1924 124 21.5 1929 310 53.8 1931 34 5.9 1935 58 10.1 1945 174 29 1950 187 29.9 1951 39 6.2 1955 37 5.9 1959 80 12.7 1964 232 36.8 1966 185 29.4 1970 124 19.7 February 1974 408 64.3 October 1974 380 59.8 1979 207 32.6 1983 334 51.4 1987 283 43.5 1992 258 39.6
MPs elected with
MINORITY MPs as % of
minority of votes
When the figures are aggregated across the country as a whole, it is possible to see the levels of distortion which can be produced under FPTP. Table 2.3 gives the percentage votes and seats for the three main parties in post-war British elections. The trend to follow is the percentage difference between the share of votes received and the share of seats won by each of the parties. A plus sign implies the party gained a greater share of seats than its share of the vote; a minus sign implies it received a lesser share of seats.
The other point to note about the trend in vote-seat per cent differences in Table 2.3 is that the differences have become larger in recent elections. This reflects the fact that the Liberal surge in votes has coincided with a decline in the total vote for the two larger parties. This trend is clearly shown in Figure 2.2 which traces the decline in the Conservative and Labour vote and the rise in the level of vote-seat per cent differences for the Liberals/Liberal Democrats. What this demonstrates is that FPTP works best in a two-party system. In a multi-party system-- as the 1983 results indicate-- there are bound to be some gross anomalies (see also Dunleavy, 1991; Dunleavy et al., 1993; Dunleavy and Margetts, 1995; Norris, 1995).
The second push for PR came with the accession of Britain (together with Denmark and Ireland) to the European Community, which coincided with discussions about the introduction of uniform electoral procedures in the first direct elections to the European Parliament. To date, the issue of uniform electoral procedures has yet to be resolved and as a result there are a range of different electoral systems being applied in the fifteen member states (Bowler and Farrell, 1993). For a while, in the mid-1970s, it looked as if the matter would be resolved in favour of some form of PR and therefore the issue attracted much attention in the House of Commons. In 1976 a free vote was held on Britain's system for European Parliament elections, in which MPs were asked to decide between adopting a regional list system (referred to in the debates as the 'Finnish system') or FPTP (Bogdanor, 1981: 163-8). The list system was proposed because STY was too closely associated with the Liberal Party and therefore it was believed that Labour MPs would not support it. In the event, Labour MPs divided roughly in half and the Conservatives under their new leader, Margaret Thatcher (who was stridently against PR), voted overwhelmingly against. The motion was lost and FPTP became the chosen system.
The British electoral system remains on the agenda, especially after Labour's fourth successive electoral defeat in 1992. Obviously it is impossible to tell, at this stage, where it will all lead, but there is little evidence that the issue of electoral reform will simply 'go away'. It is, therefore, useful to examine the main arguments that are generally made by the protagonists.
Despite the evident demise of the 'cube rule', it can be argued that the record of post-war British electoral politics speaks for itself. British governments have tended to be long-lasting and stable, in contrast to the record of other European countries. Here attention is paid to the instability of coalitions, and the dangers that can hold for political system stability. The common examples cited are Fourth Republic France (1946-58), Weimar Germany (1919-33) and contemporary Italy. More recently, there have been references to the frequency of elections in Ireland since the early 1 980s, especially the three elections held over an eighteen-month period in 1981-2. Here stability' is taken to mean 'longevity': that is, the length of time governments remain in office. While it is easy to refer to unstable cases like Italy-- which has tended to change government virtually every year-- it is also quite easy to find examples of countries, like Luxembourg or Sweden, where coalition governments are the norm and yet where governments enjoy long lives. We will return to this issue in chapter 7 when dealing with international comparisons and other meanings of the word 'stability'.
The Dunleavy et al. and Kellner studies share an approach in which voters are asked, in varying degrees of abstraction, what they think about alternatives to the British electoral system. Ultimately it is difficult to tell to what extent the respondents fully understand the differences between electoral systems. Indeed, in both studies, as we have seen, there is some evidence that voters' attitudes towards electoral reform become more qualified whenever the distinctions are clarified in any way. A better way to get a true picture of voter attitudes to alternative electoral systems is to have them first use another system and then ask them what they think about it. This approach was followed in an Electoral Reform Society/MORI exit poll of London voters during the 1994 European Parliament elections (see Bowler and Farrell, 1994; 1996). The respondents were invited to complete a STY ballot paper which included the names of the main party candidates. They were then asked what they thought of this electoral system as opposed to the usual FPTP system. The results, in Table 2.5, offer some support for both Kellner's and Dunleavy's perspectives. On the one hand, opinion among all voters (in column 1) was equally divided between status quo (45 per cent) and change (44 per cent)-- there was no tendency either way. On the other hand, when the sample is broken down it is possible to see clear pockets of support for electoral reform among younger voters (51 per cent of 18-34 year olds were in favour of electoral reform) and middle-class voters (50 per cent in favour); among Liberal Democrat supporters (65 per cent in favour); and also, to a degree, among Labour voters (48 per cent in favour). As Dunleavy et al. found, the most distinctive grouping of opposition to electoral reform was among Conservative voters (65 per cent against).
Electoral reform has been mooted before in certain Canadian circles. In the 1970s, William Irvine (1979) proposed a switch towards the German two-vote system. For a long time, however, the political elite tended not to pay much attention to the issue. For instance, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, set up in 1979 to carry out a root-and-branch survey of the Canadian electoral process and how it might be reformed, was specifically excluded from examining the nature of the electoral system. In the early 1990s, this changed and as part of the negotia tions over constitutional and regional reform in Canada, there was some consideration given to the issue of the electoral system and whether it should be changed, at least for elections to the upper chamber. With the failure of this constitutional talks process, electoral reform was left on the back burner. It will be of interest to see how the dramatic electoral results of 1993 might affect this debate in the longer run.