People tend to think that First Past the Post (FPTP) is bad because it is less refined, less democratic than Proportional Representation (PR). It’s also seen as a bit dull, something political geeks like to speak about, hardly a priority for governments compared to topics such as health, education, etc. But emerging data (chart below) shows that since 1980, the mechanism is the core driver behind the long-term decline in UK quality of life compared to its mainland peers; it shows that FPTP is a trap which is driving the inequality gap ever wider.
Something happened 40 years ago that turned FPTP from being an adequate albeit clunky mechanism of democracy into a malfunctioning one, only able to cater for the wants of the ‘haves’, to the exclusion of the ‘have nots’, as indicated by the chart.
The post-war boom enjoyed by the West was coming to an end and the old Keynesian policies were failing, unable to cope with the consequences of ‘stagflation’. The challenge heralded the era now known as ‘neoliberal’ in which privatisation, deregulation, and marketisation emerged to topple the interventionist policies of Keynesianism. Their proponents held that the state should own less, regulate less, spend less. In the early 1980s these ideas quickly took root at the heart of centre-right economic policy development.
So why did this change at the end of the 70s affect FPTP countries so differently from the PRs ones? What put the FPTP ones on their precarious path?
It all starts with the absurd winner-takes-all element in the FPTP mechanism
Absurd indeed. It almost feels inappropriate that a term borrowed from the card game rooms of Las Vegas should apply in any way to our democracy. Yet it’s true; if you vote for the wrong party, that is, anyone other than the one with the most votes, your vote simply will not count. This is unlike PR systems where all votes have an impact and as long as a party gets more than the minimum threshold, your vote will influence who gets to parliament. But so what? Is it that unfair? How can this really make a difference, you might ask…
‘Winner-takes-all’ makes the FPTP election a ‘two-horse race’
Why are there only ever two parties involved in government power under FPTP systems like the UK, Canada, Australia, and the US? Because the voters have learned how the ‘winner-takes-all’ outcome works. They know if they want their votes to count, they need to anticipate who will win. That drives the race down in all cases to two horses – the lowest level to allow the voting strategy any chance of working. So, voters vote tactically between the two anticipated leading horses, eliminating all others from the contest. But again, what is wrong with this? Still democracy, right?
Two horses means there can only be two voter ‘coalitions’ under FPTP
If there are only two possible outcomes, there can be only two broad communities or coalitions of voters for the parties to appeal to. PR countries, on the other hand, offer a wide range of credible, electable options across at least four parties, offering six or more viable coalition propositions between them. That means parties can appeal to more focussed sections of the electorate, for example, the greens and the democrats could aim to attract poorer, lower and middle income voters with a coalition promise to raise taxes only for the upper middle and high income earners. But back in FPTP land, if you must appeal to all sections of the income spectrum, you can’t risk a policy like this! The UK is the one FPTP country to buck the two-horse trend in the last 40 years with the 2010 – 2015 coalition government involving the LibDems. Technically a coalition, true, but nothing like the norm of coalition govts of the PR world.
The ‘haves’ outnumber the ‘have-nots’ by more than two to one giving their horse an edge in the race
Over the last 50 years, the ‘haves’ – defined as those that enjoy higher than the median level of income – have represented around 70% of developed country electorates. They are obviously not an organised group of voters, but they all have one thing in common; something to lose. Many of them will not welcome a government that might raise taxes, spend money on things the ‘haves’ don’t think they need and otherwise meddle unhelpfully. Obviously, not all ‘haves’ will vote the same way, but their sheer numbers mean that the things they hold in common will be central to what policies are taken forward.
Most absurd of all, the FPTP mechanism rewards the ‘haves’ advantage with more seats than their votes merit
The Tories have achieved on average 42% of the vote in their 8 election victories since 1980. But if this large, albeit minority victory was the end of it, then the shape of policy would have been very different. They’d have had to negotiate with other parties, ensuring some progressive tempering of their agenda. But here’s where FPTP is properly bonkers; because Tory seat majorities are typically more evenly dispersed across the UK than Labour’s, the winner takes all mechanism allocates them many more seat than their overall vote share merits. As shown below, on average this results in 55% of all seats, a stonking 40+ seat average majority. This is what allows FPTP governments to achieve single party majorities. This is what ensures the dominance of the right under FPTP. This what has fanned the neoliberal flame in the FPTP countries.
Strident neoliberalism under FPTP has taken its toll not just on income equality but also health outcomes since 1980
So how does all this tie back to the ‘right-turn’ in the 1970s? The table below summarises this pretty starkly. The four FPTP countries are anchored, rock bottom, in income inequality and poverty rankings. Across the benefit and healthcare drivers, the radical, public thrift of the FPTP countries ranks them consistently in the bottom quartile. But the real proof in the pudding comes from what 40 years of hard-line neoliberalism has done for health outcomes, particularly for the US and the UK. Enough said. So what specifically are they doing so differently from their PR peers? The answer lies within what the progressive lobbies do under FPTP; or rather what they are unable to do.
FPTP electorates only trust progressive parties when they are sure there will be no spending ‘funny business’
In the pre-neoliberal word, higher public spending either by Tory or Labour govts was much more tolerated, but the years of Thatcherism normalised the country’s attitude to government thrift. Attacked mercilessly by a fanatical press and its new readership of homeowners and shareholders, it took almost two decades for Labour to convince voters it would not behave profligately with the public purse and win an election. But when this came in 1997, remaining in power for more than a decade, they weren’t able to act any more progressively than their Tory adversaries around benefits and health spending, as evidenced below. This is the price post-neoliberal FPTP regimes extracts from their progressive ‘wannabes’ for getting to power.
Four decades of government with little or no progressive influence have come at a cost
And so, it is no surprise that the ‘progressive’ period of power had very little impact on improving quality of life in the UK when compared against European peers; child mortality and life expectancy outcomes lagged European peers at the same levels before, during and after the stint of ‘progressive’ party power. To be fair to the labour party, they spent much more on benefits than the Tories and made a difference to child poverty while they were in power. But they were unable to lay down structural changes that would outlive their tenure. Having been out of power for so long, they were unwilling to take greater risks with their otherwise huge majorities for fear of ex-communication by the middle classes. Even if they had taken those risks and executed them successfully, it is doubtful they would have been able to roll back the previous two decades of unfettered, radical neoliberalism of the Tories.
After all that, somehow it’s groundhog day in the UK, with the Tories back in charge
Here we are, back where we were in 1980 with an even more extreme Tory government, unwittingly rewarded by its victims for decades of grinding inequality and now Brexit. If ever it was not obvious that FPTP was broken, then surely it is now.
Surely now the LibDems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, joined last year by the Labour party membership, can unite in their support for PR at the next General Election? There’s one crucial actor missing; the parliamentary labour party. It is not ready and it’s not clear it will ever be.
Kier Starmer, PM in waiting, wants a crack at total, majoritarian power, like Blair and Brown got. This is why he’s ruled out PR from the manifesto, despite the overwhelming support for it at their conference in 2022. But at least half of all Labour MPs wouldn’t support it anyway since many would fear losing their seats. On average, Labour secures at least 30 seats under FPTP in excess of their proportional entitlement even when they lose elections, this has been as much as 130 in the Blair govts. Get PR Done estimate that currently there are only 66 of the 201 Labour MPs in favour of PR; all 98 of the Labour MPs in ‘safe seats’ are against it despite 83% of Labour Party members supporting change. This lies in stark contrast to the 83% of Labour Party members that support PR. On top of this, they know there is a risk the old church fragments into new smaller parties in a PR world; they’re not going to support that either. Whether this happens or not, PR would remove Labour’s guaranteed status as ‘official opposition’. It’s a classic case of expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas.
So the outlook is grim; our cycle of doom seems set to spiral further out of control
Starmer’s Labour will get to power for one, maybe two terms. Unless there’s a coalition with the LibDems, there will be no talk of PR. As in the Blair years, the pace of increasing inequality may slow but the gap against our mainland peers will likely remain unchanged at best. And then normal, neoliberal, Tory service will be resumed for another generation. And so, it goes round, this precarious path, this cycle of FPTP doom.
Coming soon to follow on, ‘Labour’s PR dilemma: Tribal ambition v Social Justice’.
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