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Farrell, Chapter 2

Election Systems

Farrell, Chapter 2
David M. Farrell, Comparing Electoral Systems,
Chapter 2


Depending on which author one reads the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system is known by a number of titles such as 'plurality', 'relative majority', 'simple majority' or 'single member simple plurality'. Technically speaking, the most accurate title is plurality; here we will follow the more common practice of referring to it as FPTP. Under this system all a candidate needs to win a seat is more votes than any of the other candidates, but not necessarily an overall majority of all the votes cast in the constituency. It is used for elections in Britain (and for Westminster elections in Northern Ireland), the USA, Canada, India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Zambia, Nepal, Thailand and Chile. Historically the trend has been away from FPTP and towards proportional systems (as will be evident in later. chapters). Most recently, FPTP has been replaced by the two-vote system in New Zealand, and by list proportional representation (PR) in South Africa. In this context, it is also worth noting that none of the newly emerging democracies, in Mediterranean Europe (i.e. in Greece, Portugal and Spain) in the 1970s or in eastern and central Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, adopted FPTP as the new electoral system. Without exception they have all opted for list systems or the two-vote variant (more on this in later chapters). This chapter focuses primarily on the operation of FPTP and the debate on its possible reform in the British context. In section 2.5 some attention is paid to the debates in other FPTP countries.

In the discussions about the British electoral system and its possible reform, three main themes resonate: simplicity, stability and constituency representation. First, the system is easy to understand: it is simple and straightforward. In the polling booth, all the voter has to do is mark an 'X' next to his or her preferred candidate. The result is also simple to understand: whoever gets the most votes-- i.e. whoever gets a plurality of the votes or is, as they say, 'first past the post'-- wins. This point about simplicity is particularly apt when, as we see later, comparisons are drawn with the ordinal ballots used in STV elections, or the 'Droop quota', or the concepts of largest remainders or highest averages.

Second, the argument is usually made that FPTP produces stable government and, by extension, a stable political system. British governments generally enjoy large parliamentary majorities. Indeed, for some time, this distortive tendency in FPTP was said to have law- like status, referred to as the 'cube law' on how votes are translated into seats. Coalition government is virtually unknown, unlike the rest of western Europe where the norm is coalition governments. The government, so the argument goes, is not hostage to the vagaries of relying on small (often extremist) parties for legislative support. The voters know that the party with the most seats forms the next government, unlike the situation common in the rest of western Europe where governments are formed as a result of agreements struck between party leaders in smoke-filled rooms after the election. The 'result', i.e. the determination of who forms the government, is both more democratic and fair.

Third, a central feature of British political life is constituency representation. (Note that here 'representation' is taken in its 'principal-agent' conception rather than the 'microcosmic' conception.) Each member of parliament represents a constituency. Each voter has a constituency MP who can be approached. This is in stark contrast to the situation in, say, Israel where the entire country is one vast constituency, where there may be a concentration of MPs from certain parts of the country, and where certain areas (especially rural, underpopulated areas) are essentially 'unrepresented' (in the sense that there is no single recognizable MP serving the area).

These themes of simplicity, stability and constituency representation will emerge repeatedly throughout this chapter. We start, in section 2.1, with a description of how FPTP works and of the kind of results it produces in British elections. Section 2.2 gives a brief history of the debate on electoral reform in Britain over the past century. Section 2.3 deals with the contemporary debate and assesses the prospects for change, while section 2.4 analyses the views of British voters on the issue of electoral reform. Section 2.5 briefly reviews the debates on electoral reform in three other FPTP countries, the USA, Canada and New Zealand.

2.1 The British electoral system in practice

FPTP is such an easy system to understand that it requires little explanation-- and certainly nothing like the detailed explanations required for the other systems in later chapters. To aid comparison with the other systems dealt with in this book, FPTP's main points will be described according to three main features of electoral systems: district magnitude, ballot structure and electoral formula. These terms may sound grandiose and confusing, but in fact they refer to very simple concepts.

First, under FPTP, the UK is divided into a number of constituencies (651 in 1992; this is set to rise to 659 after boundary revisions), each electing one MP. In terms of the electoral systems' literature this is referred to as a district magnitude of one. This is the central feature distinguishing proportional and non-proportional systems. Single-seat constituencies do not produce proportional results because large numbers of voters do not support the winning candidate. Proportional results require multi-seat constituencies. Basically-- as we see in later chapters-- the larger the district magnitude (i.e. the more seats, or MPs, per constituency), the more proportional the result. (It is important to note that this rule only applies in PR systems. In FP'I'P and majoritarian electoral systems the relationship is actually reversed: the more seats per constituency the less proportional the result.)

Second, the election contest in each constituency is between candidates, not (as happens in list systems) between parties. The voting act consists of a voter placing an 'X' next to the name of his or her preferred candidate (usually representing his or her preferred party). The voter can place only one 'X', declaring a preference for just one candidate. In Figure 2.1 we see an example of a British ballot paper. The act of voting is short and sweet. The voter marks 'X' next to the appropriate candidate and then drops the ballot paper into the ballot box. The whole exercise requires barely a minute to complete.


Theresa Griffin of 16 Dovedale Road
Liverpool L18 1DW
Labour Party


Richard James Morris of 46 Croxteth Road,
Liverpool L8 3SQ Liverpool
Green Party


Gabriel Muies of 26 Loudon Grove,
Liverpool L8 8AT


Hulbert Liewelyn Priddie of 10 LesseVs Road,
Liverpool U ORD
Liberal Democrat

Carol Ann Zsigmond of 43 Rodney Skeet,
Liverpool Ll 9EW
Conservative Party Candidate

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).

Third, the successful candidate is the one who receives most votes. Note that the candidate does not have to win an overall majority of votes, he or she must only have more votes than anybody else, or a plurality of support. Therefore the electoral formula is a plurality election. It is for this reason that FPTP is often referred to as a plurality system. The 1992 election provides an interesting example of the difference between 'plurality' and 'majority'. As Table 2.1 shows, in the constituency of Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, Sir Russell Johnston was elected despite having only 26 per cent of the total vote in the constituency (when we allow for those who did not vote, this represents just 19 per cent of the electorate). He had a plurality of support, but not by any means an overall majority. In fact, he had just 458 votes (0.9 per cent) more than his nearest rival. To look at this from another angle, 74 per cent of those who voted in Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber did not vote for the 'winning' candidate; 81 per cent of the electorate (i.e. including those who did not vote) did not show support for him. In the 1992 British general election as a whole, 40 per cent of MPs were elected without having an overall majority of the votes in their constituency. Such an outcome is quite normal under FPTP, as evidenced by the trends over time shown in Table 2.2. Here we see that the most striking results were in the two 1974 elections when almost two-thirds of MPs were elected with less than half the total vote in their constituencies.

 Table 2.1 An FPTP election result Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber in 1992


Per cent

of votes

of vote

Johnston, Sir Russell (Liberal Democrat)



Stewart, D. (Labour)



Ewing, F. S. (SNP)



Scott, J. (Conservative)



Martin, J. (Green)




Total Vote




Source: Wood and Wood (1992: 143).

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














































February 1974



October 1974















Sources: Punnett (1991); Wood and Wood (1992).

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.
Table 2.3 British election results, 1945-92: vote and seat percentages.

Liberals/Liberal Democrats


Oct. 1974
Notes: Percentages do not add up to 100 because not all parties are included. In the diff. columns a positive sign implies that the party gained a greater share of seats than its share of the vote, a negative sign implies it received a lesser share of seats. Includes the Social Democratic Party in 1983 and 1987. Sources: Mackie and Rose (1991); 1992 election results.

Clearly the most striking trend is that for the Liberals/Liberal Democrats. This party has consistently won fewer seats relative to its total vote. The starkest example was in the supposedly 'mould breaking' election of 1983, when despite having almost as many votes as Labour (25.4 per cent compared with 27.6 per cent), the LiberallSocial Democrat Alliance won a far smaller share of seats (3.5 per cent compared with 32.2 per cent): a vote-seat difference of 21.9 per cent. To show this discrepancy in another way, in 1983 on average each Conservative MP represented 32,777 voters; each Labour MP represented 40,464 voters; while each Alliance MP represented a grand total of 338,302 voters.

The large discrepancy in Liberal Democrat seats and votes is caused by the fact that the party's support is spread thinly across the country; it does not have the same levels of concentrated support in particular parts of the country which the two larger parties enjoy. The Conservative Party's electoral base is in the South of England; Labour's electoral base is in the North, and in Scotland and Wales. Similarly the small regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a strong local focus in support and, on the whole, they tend to win an appropriate share of seats relative to their share of the vote. In a recent detailed analysis of geographical trends in voting behaviour, Pattie et al. (1992: 142) conclude that the regional divide 'has been a feature of British politics since the 1974 elections, and has widened appreciably during the 1980s' (though, in 1992, they find evidence to suggest that the growth in the regional divide was halted (Pattie et al., 1993)). This conclusion is supported by an analysis of regional trends in electoral disproportionality by Patrick Dunleavy and his colleagues (1993). They find that, in the 1955-92 period, the Conservative Party benefited greatly by winning more seats than its vote warranted in the South-East, the South-West and East Anglia. Labour benefited-- though less markedly-- in the North, Scotland and Wales.

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).

Figure 2.2 British two-party support and levels of vote-seat differences for
the 'third' party.

A third point to be noted about the figures in Table 2.3 is that the system can also produce unusual election results in terms of who 'wins' office. In 1951 the Conservative Party won more seats than Labour despite having fewer votes. In February 1974 it was Labour's turn to benefit, winning more seats than the Conservatives despite having fewer votes. As for the point about strong government, the only example of a 'hung' parliament (where no single party had an overall majority) was in February 1974. We have to go back to before the Second World War to find other examples (1929, 1923, twice in 1910). However, there have been a number of governments with very small majorities, where the practice of 'strong' government has been somewhat curtailed. The most prominent example was as a result of the October 1974 election when Labour had only a majority of three.

By April 1976, due to resignations and by-election losses, the government had lost majority status and for the remainder of its term it relied on the support of smaller parties, especially the Liberals. (This was the period of the 'Lib-Lab pact'.) Among the other close election results are those in 1950 (when Labour had a majority of five seats) and 1964 (when Labour's majority was four). The current Conservative government was elected in 1992 with a majority of just twenty-one seats, leaving the government vulnerable to backbench revolts. Due to a process of attrition (primarily death and subsequent loss of by-elections, and in some cases desertion to other parties) the government's majority was gradually whittled away. By early 1996 it was close to losing its majority.

2.2 Debates about electoral reform in the UK

The question of electoral reform has gained a certain prominence in recent years, though not for the first time. As an examination of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British history shows, the electoral system was a major issue in parliamentary debates relating to the development of democracy (Bogdanor, 1981; Butler, 1963; Hart, 1992). Indeed, on one occasion-- in 1918-- the single transferable vote (STV) was very nearly adopted as the method of election for a third of constituencies. Furthermore it is interesting to note how the main themes of the debate have not changed a great deal over time.

Because the issue of electoral reform in Britain has been so closely bound up with the process of democratization, much attention has been focused on areas of electoral law which are unrelated to voting rules. In particular, attention has focused on the process of en franchisement-- on the gradual extension of voting rights to men and later to women-- and on constituency boundaries and their revision (Butler, 1963). These issues are not dealt with in this section; here we are more concerned with the electoral system itself, i.e. the voting rules used in British elections.

The main period of debate was from the mid-nineteenth century through to the early 1930s. A series of attempts-- most notably in 1884, 1910, 1916-17, and 1931-- were made to change the voting rules for election to the House of Commons. This coincided with the development of democracy, mass enfranchisement and the origins of the existing party system. Three electoral systems featured in these debates: the limited vote, the alternative vote and the STy. It was the latter of these which attracted the most attention, particularly among those pushing for change. STV originated in the writings of Thomas Hare from the 1 850s onwards. His work-- particularly his Treatise on the Election of Representatives, Parliamentary and Municipal (1859)-- greatly affected people like the philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who at the time was a member of parliament (Hart, 1992). Mill sought unsuccessfully to have Hare's STV system ('hare-brained' as it was dubbed by critics) introduced in the 1 860s. Later, in the 1 880s, the PR Society was formed with the principal aim of lobbying for STV.

Looked at from today's perspective, there is something quite familiar about a number of the aspects of these early debates. First, there is a close similarity in the nature of the people calling for electoral reform. In the 1 880s and early 1 900s the PR Society featured prominently, working in coalition with minority groupings in the major parties. Similar coalitions between groups within the main parties and the Electoral Reform Society (the successor to the PR Society) are prominent in the current debate. Second-- and seemingly in stark contrast to the 'founding fathers' of the USA (McLean, 1992)-- there is not a lot of evidence that British politicians took much trouble to study electoral systems and to understand them. Jennifer Hart's (1992) study of the earlier debates shows how little critics of electoral reform seemed to know about the workings of electoral systems. Similar observations are not uncommon in the contemporary debate.

Finally, there are evident similarities in the themes which featured in both debates. In both cases the principal theme has been strong government. However, in the earlier debates whereas there was a concern to protect minority interests, this was not in the sense we would understand today, where PR is often proposed to facilitate the representation of ethnic minorities, but rather in the sense that the position of the minority elite was seen as endangered by the process of mass enfranchisement. The elite faced the prospect of losing power to the masses, and in this sense 'strong government' was under threat. There was also a desire to limit the power of parties, to control the dangers to democracy of factions and caucuses (particularly as, it was felt, these have a tendency to encourage extremes).

These questions were behind one significant change in the electoral system (in 1867) and several more ambitious proposals for change which were all defeated in the Commons. The change was the adoption of what was called the limited vote for thirteen three-seat constituencies and one four-seat constituency introduced by the Reform Act of that year.' Prior to the Reform Act, most of the parliamentary constituencies elected two members, which tended to exaggerate the bias in favour of larger parties inherent in FPIFP. Under the limited vote system, electors were given three votes in a four-seat constituency and two votes in a three-seat constituency. As Bogdanor (1981: 101) observes, its intention was to 'allow [a] minority to be represented on as little as one-third of the vote'. While there is some evidence that the system did help to protect minority interests, it did not do so consistently (Lakeman, 1970: 81-2). Furthermore, it 'encouraged the development of a party machine whose purpose it was to ensure that only majorities were represented' via elaborate vote management strategies (Bogdanor, 1981: 104).

The Third Reform Act of 1884-5 abolished the limited vote and with it went most of Britain's multi-seat constituencies. The single- seat constituencies date from this period. One main consequence of the experiment with the limited vote was that it weakened the case for further attempts at electoral reform. There was little appetite for another experiment. This reluctance was clear in each of the sub sequent pushes for electoral reform in 1884, 1910, 1916-17 and 1931. Each of these episodes is dealt with in detail in the available histories (Bogdanor, 1981; Butler, 1964; Hart, 1992). It is worthwhile spend ing a moment on the 1916-17 Speaker's Conference proposals as this was the one occasion when the electoral reformers came enticingly close to getting their way. In 1916 a Speaker's Conference was established to come up with proposals relating to franchise extension and its consequences. Its 1917 report proposed STV for borough constituencies-- about a third of the constituencies-- and the alternative vote (used in Australia, and discussed in chapter 3) for the remaining (predominantly rural) constituencies. It was the STV proposal which -attracted the bulk of attention. Here was a clear attempt to protect the minority elite from the dangers of mass enfranchisement, particularly in urban areas where the Labour Party stood to make great gains. The proposal attracted widespread support in the subsequent parliamentary debate, particularly among those members not affected by it. Ultimately, it was rejected, but only after a series of votes in the Commons and in the Lords in which the proposal was repeatedly rejected and re-introduced. Indeed, its initial rejection, in the first Commons vote, was by only a narrow margin. Just eight votes prevented the adoption of STV for one-third of constituencies. The result could not have been closer. With the rejection of the proposal, and 'as a rather picturesque anomaly' (Bogdanor, 1981: 129), STV was introduced in only four of the seven university seats (representing university graduates; see Blackburn, 1995: 70-1). Otherwise the electoral system remained unchanged.

With the exception of one more push for electoral reform in 1931-- when the alternative vote was the system being promoted-- nothing much was heard on the question until the early 1970s. Then a number of factors coincided to drive electoral reform back onto the agenda. The most significant of these was the growing instability of the British voter as revealed by the 1974 election results (see Denver, 1994; Farrell et al., 1994). As was discussed above when examining Table 2.3, the evidently unfair result for the Liberal Party in that year, whose large votes in both elections were not translated into large numbers of seats, and the disproportionate benefit in seats for Labour in February 1974 (when the party received more seats than the Conservatives despite having fewer votes), once again raised ques tions about the electoral system. By the mid- 1 970s, the advocates of electoral reform were no longer being dismissed as 'harmless and rather amusing cranks, like nudists or the eaters of nut-cutlets' (Lord Avebury cited in Hart, 1992: 279). Indeed, they received a further fillip from three more developments in the 1970s: the collapse of the Stormont political system in Northern Ireland, Britain's accession to the European Community, and the devolution debate.

It was the outbreak of the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland which was to see the first real move towards PR in the UK. As part of its effort to reduce communal tensions in Northern Ireland (which was now under direct rule from London for the first time since 1920), the British government re-introduced the single transferable vote in the province for all elections other than Westminster elections. In the original Government of Ireland Act of 1920 STV had been proposed for the newly created Northern Ireland state, but in the 1920s the Stormont government replaced it by FPTP. At least partially in consequence, the electoral history of Northern Ireland from the 1920s to the 1960s was one of consistent electoral dominance by the Unionist majority, in large part facilitated by the electoral system. In 1973 5TV was re-introduced for local elections and for elections to the new Assembly established as a result of Anglo-Irish talks at Sunningdale. Subsequently in 1979 STV was further extended to European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland.

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 third and most significant push for PR was associated with the debates over Scottish and Welsh devolution. The 1973 report of the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution had recommended STY, together with the alternative vote for sparsely populated parts of Scotland, but these proposals were not incorporated in the subsequent 1977 devolution bill. The regional parties and the Liberals favoured STY; the Labour government-- understandably, given that both Scotland and Wales are Labour strongholds-- did not. This lack of consensus between the two sides ensured the failure of the devolution bill.

The coincidence of electoral instability, and the regional and EC debates, meant that electoral reform was high on the political agenda. In 1976 the Hansard Society established a Commission on Electoral Reform, chatred by the historian and Conservative peer, Lord Blake. Its report in the same year proposed a version of the additional member system (i.e. the system used in Germany, referred to in chapter 5 as the 'two-vote' system), with three-quarters of the Commons elected in single-seat constituencies and the remainder elected on regional lists (for an assessment of this proposal, see chapter 5 below). The fact that this Commission was self-appointed, that its membership was not seen as representative of the different political groupings and that it was financed by industry, affected the reception of its report, but it managed to attract considerable attention none the less. Coinciding with the report, an all-party National Committee for Electoral Reform was established, chaired by Lord Harlech. This was designed to coordinate the various organizations calling for reform, and it too attracted a great deal of attention. After several years of appearing neutral as to which PR system to promote, it eventually came down firmly in favour of STY.

Largely as a result of the activities of the National Committee and its influential backers, electoral reform remained on the agenda of British politics into the 1980s. However, the fact remained that, for the most part, electoral reform was the concern of smaller parties and small minorities within the larger parties. Neither the Conservative nor Labour hierarchies were prepared to embrace electoral reform, fearing that this would endanger their chances of forming single-party majority governments. By the end of the I 980s, however-- and after having lost three elections in succession-- the Labour Party began to show signs of a new emphasis. The view was being expressed more frequently within party ranks that it could no longer hope to defeat the Conservatives by itself, that some form of coalition was inevit able. Given the long-held view of the Liberals (now Liberal Demo crats) in favour of PR, this meant that any future coalition arrangement with them would be likely to have to include an agreement on electoral reform. In 1990 the Labour Party established a working party on electoral reform, chaired by the academic, Raymond Plant (who was subsequently elevated to a peerage). This met over a period of two years, during which time it produced two interim reports. Its final report, published in 1993, proposed a majoritarian electoral system for elections to the House of Commons (Labour Party, 1993). As we shall see in chapter 3, this 'supplement ary vote system is very similar to the alternative vote system used in Australia. In the subsequent party conference, in a move led by the Labour leader, John Smith, the party voted in favour of a referendum on election reform, effectively shelving that part of the Plant Report which related to national level elections and once again raising the possibility of a shift towards a PR system (Norris, 1995).

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.
2.3 Does Britain need a new electoral system?

To provide an informed answer to this question we first have to consider the alternatives, which is the function of the rest of this book. In chapter 7, having examined the main electoral systems in use in other countries, we will return to this question. There is, however, another perspective to consider based on what we know of the British electoral system and British politics, and that is the extent to which FPTP performs to expectations. In particular, to what extent does it meet the requirements of simplicity, stability and constituency repres entation which were introduced at the start of the chapter? Indeed, to what extent are these requirements all relevant?

It cannot be disputed that FP'rP is simple, both to use and to understand, and this fact will be ever more evident as we examine the other main systems in use, but is simplicity really the issue? It is all very well being able to understand what is going on, but what is actually gained if a voter's preferred candidate (and preferred party) is resoundingly defeated election after election, perhaps, because the voter happens to live in a non-marginal constituency? In other words, the benefit of simplicity can be (and is often) at the cost of fairness to smaller parties, to the supporters of smaller parties and to those voters 'trapped' in seats which are safely held by parties they do not support.

Why should the question of simplicity be any more important for British voters than for any other voters? It clearly has not been seen as a relevant factor by those countries which have recently adopted PR systems: in Mediterranean, central and eastern Europe; Japan, or New Zealand-- the latter replacing FPTP by a variant of the two-vote (or additional member) system. Indeed, it is hard to find any evidence of higher levels of voter confusion in other countries. For instance, there are no perceptible differences in the numbers of spoiled or invalid votes. For that matter, when Northern Ireland voters moved towards STY for local elections in the 1970s, 'the system (did not] prove complicated for voters': the numbers of invalid votes did not rise (Bogdanor, 1981: 147).

There are a number of issues to consider under the rubric of government 'stability', and we will be returning to this, in far more detail, in chapter 7. For the moment, let us deal with one aspect which is prominent in the British debate, namely the argument that FPTP has a built-in mechanism to produce single-party parliamentary majorities and hence 'strong' government. Over the years this has been formalized as a 'cube rule' of FPTP systems (Butler, 1963; Kendall and Stuart, 1950), which can be summarized as follows: if the ratio of votes that two parties receive is A: B, then this will result in the following ratio of seats, A3 : B3. In other words, FPTP is said to exaggerate the winning party's lead, making it easier to win a clear majority of the seats, and hence promoting greater parliamentary stability. Writing in the 1960s, the leading British psephologist, David Butler (1963: 194) concluded: 'The British electoral system is not a gamble... The theoretical possibility of quite haphazard results arising from any given division of votes is undeniable; the practical improbability is so great under present conditions that it need not be considered.'

The cube rule has attracted great interest in the academic literature, and in recent years it has been argued that the post-war British record suggests that rather than the power index being three, it would be more accurate to set it at 2.5 (Laakso, 1979) or 2.6 (Taagepera and Shugart, 1989). More critically, however, is the point that, since Butler, British electoral results have become far less predictable. Voter volatility and the electoral rise of the Liberals/Liberal Demo crats have made it more difficult to predict the relationship between votes and seats, leading Vernon Bogdanor (1981: 180; also Butler, 1983; Curtice and Steed, 1982; for an alternative perspective, see Norris and Crewe, 1994) to conclude that 'the cube law has ceased to hold in Britain'. This is confirmed by analysis of the 1992 election result which shows no perceptible evidence of vote seat distortion (Curtice, 1992). If the system can no longer guarantee a parliament ary majority for the party winning the most votes (as evidenced by the 1974 results), then this raises doubts about the utility of the argument that FPTP promotes stable government.

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 third requirement of an electoral system, according to the British debate, is that it should incorporate constituency representa tion. Just like the legend of the 'Bobby on the beat', there tends to be a certain nostalgic imagery attached to the idea of the constituency politician-- to the idea that voters throughout the land have con stituency representatives promoting their special interests and needs. For instance, this was a major factor behind the decision of the Labour Party's Plant Commission to propose the 'supplementary vote' electoral system for Britain, where the country would retain the tradition of single-seat constituencies (see chapter 3 below). Equally this is why, as we saw, the debates about electoral reform over the years have always focused on the alternative vote (used in Australia), STV (used in Ireland) or the two-vote system (used in Germany) as alternatives for parliamentary elections. A central feature of all these systems, as we shall see in later chapters, is constituency representa tion. In other words, there are other systems available which incor porate constituency representation; FPTP is not the only system to do so.

The question remains, how significant a factor is constituency representation? For instance, to what extent can one argue that Sir Russell Johnston had a proper mandate to represent his constituency, when only 19 per cent of the electorate actually voted for him? Similar questions can be raised about those 40 per cent of MPs elected in 1992 without an overall majority of support in their constituency. Furthermore, what significance has constituency repres entation in a parliamentary party system which discourages independ ent action; where MPs are whipped into the voting lobbies? There is not exactly great scope for individual constituency representation in the legislature when MPs are expected to toe the party line. This is not to deny the fact that constituent contact with MPs is significant and increasing, that MPs are making greater use of parliamentary question time to promote constituency concerns (Cain et al., 1987; Franklin and Norton, 1993), and that such activities clearly affect the personal vote of MPs (Norton and Wood, 1990). However, parlia mentary questions represent only a part of the work of the Commons; it is in the area of the legislative role of MPs that questions could perhaps be raised. A politician who pays attention to constituency concerns may not have quite so much time to devote to legislative details (Bowler and Farrell, 1993).

There are other questions worth raising concerning the issue of constituency representation. For instance, there is a question mark over the representation of those voters who backed a losing candidate (e.g. to what extent are the interests of a Tory supporter being served by a sitting Labour MP?). Finally, there is the issue of whether, in fact, constituency representation is compatible with stable govern ment. Almost by definition a good constituency MP (particularly if from the governing party) is not necessarily a good team player in parliament. In cases in which specific constituency interests conflict with party policy an MP may be unwilling or unable to toe the party line. Given the right circumstances, this could threaten government stability.

2.4 Does Britain want a new electoral system?

Whether or not we can arrive at a theoretical conclusion in favour of, or against, electoral reform, there is still the question of public opinion. Regardless of the issue of whether FPTP actually achieves its objectives of simplicity, stability and constituency representation, what levels of support are there for maintaining it as Britain's electoral system? The on-going debate on electoral reform has in recent years provoked some attention to public attitudes towards the electoral system (for a review, see Weir, 1992). As Table 2.4 indicates, the evidence is not conclusive either way. According to Peter Kellner' s reading (1992: 10) of the evidence (based on columns 1 and 2 of Table 2.4), 'reform is less popular with the public than its advocates supposed'. Both the NOP/BBC and the Harris/ITN exit polls of voters in the 1992 general election indicated that a plurality of voters were against changing the electoral system. This is in contrast to evidence from polls earlier in 1992 where there were far greater levels of support for electoral reform.

Table 2.4 Levels of support for electoral reform in Britain in 1992-95

Rowntree/ICM 1992
Joseph Rowntree
Reform Trust/MORI 1995


In favour of electoral reform


Against electoral reform



Notes: The precise questions on which the figures are based are as follows: NOP/BBC: 'Do you think we should scrap the present first past the post system for electing MPs and introduce proportional representation? Yes, introduce propor tional representation; No, keep present system; Don't know. Harris/ITN: 'Do you believe that the system of electing MPs should be changed from the present first past the post method to a form of proportional representation? Change from proportional representation; Keep the present system; Not stated.' RowntreellCM and Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust/MORI: 'This country should adopt a new voting system that would give parties seats in parliament in proportion to their share of the votes. Agree; Disagree; Neutral or don't know.' Sources: Dunleavy et al. (1993); Kellner (1992); Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust] MORI State of the Nation poll, April-May 1995.

In part, these differences obviously reflected variations in question wording, but, according to Kellner, they also evidenced a shift in public mood. Kellner suggests that the earlier support for electoral reform was, to an extent, due to the hypothetical nature of the question, and that this changed closer to polling day as voters became aware of the real possibility of electoral reform depending on the electoral result. He continues (1992: 11): 'If people are asked about something they seldom think about, the prospect of change has a vague, grass-is-greener, appeal. But when the same issue grows in importance and change becomes a real possibility, then suddenly the status quo, with its comforting familiarity, looks less dreadful.'

According to the perspective of Dunleavy et al. (1993: 179), Kellner's approach to this question is inadequate, particularly as it is based on 'crude or overly complex single questions'. They argue that a better strategy for assessing public attitudes towards electoral reform is to use a number of different questions and to check for consistency in the responses. Making use of a large sample survey Dunleavy et al. produce findings which are strikingly different from Kellner's. The third column of Table 2.4 breaks the Dunleavy rule by presenting the responses to just one of the questions posed on electoral reform. (The final column provides the most recent (1995) data, which show little sign of change.) When account is taken of the other questions, Dunleavy et al. (1993: 180) find that: '43 per cent of respondents consistently backed PR while 32 per cent consistently preferred plurality rule'-- a striking reversal of the proportions presented by Kellner. Furthermore, support for the current electoral system is 'concentrated increasingly among Conservative voters alone' (ibid.: 190); and there is evidence of a growing preference for electoral change among younger voters. Overall, Dunleavy et al. conclude that, contrary to Kellner, there is no evidence of a shift in public opinion against electoral reform; if anything the reverse seems to be happening. However they qualify this (and thereby offer some support for Kellner' s position) by pointing out that support for the status quo increased when voters were reminded that it was more likely to produce single-party government. In other words, when electoral reform and its consequences were presented in a more concrete (less hypothetical) fashion, attitudes were somewhat more ambivalent.

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).

In general the survey evidence does not suggest a groundswell of opinion in favour of electoral reform in Britain. There are pockets of support for change-- particularly among younger voters, middle-class voters and Liberal Democrat supporters-- but equally (and, crucially, where it matters, among Conservative supporters) there is support for the status quo. It could be argued, however, that such agnosticism is understandable, especially given the absence of an extensive public education programme detailing the pros and cons of different elec toral systems (such as occurred in New Zealand in the lead-up to its electoral reform referendums of 1992-3, see Vowles, 1995).

Thus far we have been dealing with the debate over FPTP solely in the British context. As was pointed out at the beginning of the chapter, however, there are a number of other countries which use FP'I'P. It is worthwhile examining the debates in some of these cases.

2.5 The electoral reform debate in other FPTP countries

Much of the literature on electoral systems focuses on the US case, however, very little of this actually deals with the voting system used in the USA. For the mostp~ the attention is on issues of redistricting and voting rights. As Douglas Amy has recently pointed out: 'the American voting system is the aberration. Ours is one of the few developed countries that continues to cling to a plurality system, and among those few, ours is the only one in which no public debate over the desirability of this system is occurring' (Amy, 1993: 4; also Dunleavy and Margetts, 1995). It is important to stress this point. In other words, the USA represents one of the few FPTP systems in operation where there has been little sustained call for reform. As Amy's comprehensive study points out, in those instances where electoral reform is raised there is the standard battery of objections to reject it: other systems are said to be too complex, promoting the dangers of unstable government, fringe parties and the loss of constituency representation, and giving too much power to the party elites. However, the most significant reason why electoral reform does not appear on the American political agenda seems to be a basic lack of interest on the part of the voters (and presumably by implication, the elite). In other words while people may think there are problems with the system-- as shown most particularly by the low levels of esteem for politicians generally and, perhaps, by very low turnout-- there is no great interest in electoral reform as one possible means of changing things. Another factor which undoubtedly contrib utes to the lack of concern about the electoral system is the fact that the US government tends to be 'divided', in the sense that it is common for one party to control the presidency while another controls Congress. This is quite different from the British case where one party can control all of government for extended periods, due, in part, to the distorting effects of the electoral system. Finally, the nature of the US party system is an important factor in explaining the lack of concern about electoral reform in the USA. This is revealed both by the weakness of US parties (Wattenberg, 1994), which ensures little attention to national vote trends, and also by the fact that the USA 'now stands alone in the world as the homeland of a system that is almost perfectly two-party ... [and] if only two parties run candidates then even a plurality rule system may operate quite proportionally' (Dunleavy and Margetts, 1995: 24).

Of course, the USA has not been entirely devoid of any attention to other electoral systems. Indeed in the earlier part of this century there were notable efforts to adopt STY at local government level, with some success. As Leon Weaver (1986: 140) notes: 'PR systems have been used in approximately two dozen cities (for city councils and school boards). These cases might conceivably be counted as five dozen if one wishes to count the school communities in Massachu setts PR cities and in the New York City community school boards as separate cases.' Lest we take this to mean that STY was on a dramatic growth curve in this period, it is well to note Weaver's important qualifier that 'PR systems have constituted a very small sample-- a fraction of 1 per cent-- when compared with the total number of electoral systems in this country' (ibid.). As we move into the second half of this century the use of STY in American local government is on a steep decline. Today it is used only in Cambridge, Massachusetts (for city council and school committee elections) and in New York City (for community school board elections). The USA also makes relatively widespread use of the second ballot system (such as used in France, see chapter 3). In some southern states (notably Louisiana) the second ballot system is even used in congressional elections.

Citizens and politicians of the USA may not be countenancing electoral system reform, but their neighbours in Canada must be giving it some thought in the light of the 1993 electoral result which saw the governing Progressive Conservative Party's number of par liamentary seats reduced from 169 (and an overall majority) to just two! As Table 2.6 shows, the Progressive Conservatives were not the only ones to receive a nasty shock from the Canadian electorate in 1993. The New Democratic Party's vote also plummeted, leaving the party with less than a quarter of the seats it had in 1988. It is no exaggeration to state that '[flor Canada's national party system, the results of the 35th general election held on 25 October 1993 were of earthquake proportions' (Erickson, 1995: 133).

Table 2.6 The Canadian electoral earthquake of 1993

Percentage of vote
Number of Seats


Bloc Qudbecois


Liberal Party


New Democratic Party


Progressive Conservative Party


Reform Party

52 0

Note: * The party was first established in 1990. Source: Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.
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.

If the Canadians are looking for ideas on how to go about changing their electoral system from FP'rP, one obvious place to look is New Zealand whose electors voted in 1993 to replace their FPTP system with a version of the German two-vote system (for details on this new system, see chapter 5). This vote was the product of a long process of national debate which dates from the end of the 1 970s when the parliament established a Select Committee on Electoral Law whose main purpose was to assess the operation of the existing electoral system. The Committee's scope also included the right to assess the question of electoral reform. Its report in 1980 did not favour replacing FPTP with PR, but significantly this conclusion was not supported by the Labour minority on the Committee, who called for the establishment of a wide-ranging Royal Commission on electoral reform. When next in government, in 1985, the Labour Party went ahead and established such a Commission, and in its report in December 1986, the Commission recommended the replacement of FPTP with what it called a 'mixed member proportional' system, in essence the two-vote system.

It was not until 1990 when, in a 'highly disproportionate' election, Labour was flung out of office and the new National government (with 48 per cent of the vote, but 69 per cent of the seats), elected on a manifesto of reform and change, had little choice but to take on the question of electoral reform (Yowles, 1995). In 1992 an 'indicative', or non-binding, referendum was held. This consisted of two parts. In part A, voters were asked whether the current FPTP system should be retained, or replaced by another electoral system. If they rejected FPTP, in part B, they were offered a choice of four other electoral systems to choose between: a 'supplementary member system' (somewhat akin to the British Hansard's proposals of the mid-1970s, in this case with about one-quarter of seats being farmed out among the parties on the basis of their vote proportions); STY; the two-vote system, and the alternative vote system as used in Australia.

Given the general levels of disquiet about the political system (as revealed in the opinion polls) and the close attention which had been paid to the two-vote system (not least by the 1986 Royal Commission report), the results of the 1992 referendum were not that surprising in the sense that voters showed a clear desire to change towards the two- vote system. What was surprising was the size of the vote for change. Just short of 85 per cent of voters rejected the FPTP system and two- thirds of voters (65 per cent) were in favour of the two-vote system (Harris, 1992).

This result was non-binding. It triggered another referendum campaign, with the voters being offered a clear choice between the existing FPTP system and the favoured alternative of the two vote system. This time the result would be binding. After a long, inform ative and somewhat heated debate, the referendum on 6 November 1993 produced a result which, while not exactly overwhelming, was certainly conclusive enough to ensure that the system would be changed. On a turnout of 83 per cent, 53.9 per cent voted for the two- vote system and 46.1 per cent voted for FPTP. Another country had moved towards PR (Harris, 1993; Vowles, 1995).

2.6 Conclusion

There is no such thing as the perfect electoral system, though some systems have certain advantages over others. The disadvantages of FPTP are clear: it produces disproportional results; smaller parties are underrepresented, and supporters of smaller parties waste their votes. FPTP does, however, also have a number of apparent advantages, particularly in terms of its promotion of single-party, stable govern ment; the central role of constituency representation, and its much trumpeted simplicity. Yet when each of these factors is examined more closely, there is a need to attach some qualification to them. This, in turn, raises doubts about FPTP as an appropriate system. The only way to arrive at some definitive answers to the question of whether the system should be changed is to examine the available alternatives, which is the function of the following chapters.

The limited vote-- first proposed in parliamentary debates in the early 1830s-- was designed for multi member constituencies, where the voter was given one less vote than the number of seats to be filled. This is similar to the single non-transferable vote system which Japan used until 1994, where each voter was given one vote to elect MPs in multi-seat con stituencies. The electoral systems literature generally refers to both these systems as 'semi-proportional' because there is some success in the representation of minorities.