For all its flaws, 'first past the post' voting system works for Britain

Richard Harris says it has produced a moderate, stable UK government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 May, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 May, 2015, 6:00am

It's so unfair!", cry the losing parties. At the end of every UK election, the finger is pointed at the difference between the "first past the post" system that is used to win parliamentary seats in elections, and the "proportional representation" method.

This time is no different, and the issue will also surface as a bone of contention in the US elections next year. The "first past the post" system means that the person who gets the most votes in a parliamentary constituency is the outright winner. No prizes for coming second.

It means that, in its extreme form, a party can get 49.9 per cent of the vote across the country and still not be represented in Parliament. Proportional representation, by contrast, allows small voting percentages to be fully represented.

As an example of the unfairness, the UK election ended with the Conservative Party leading a government composed of 51 per cent of the Members of Parliament even though they received only 36.9 per cent of the vote.

Their key opponents, the Labour Party, landed 36 per cent of the seats but convinced only 30.4 per cent of the population.

The Scottish National Party won 9 per cent of the seats on a mere 4.7 per cent of the vote, while the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that won 12.6 per cent of the ballot ended up with a paltry one seat - the same as the Greens, who polled only a third of UKIP.

It is not a surprise that the losers are crying foul.

Under proportional representation, the Tories would still be the largest party, with 37 per cent of the seats. Labour would languish in second place at 30 per cent, followed by UKIP at 13 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats at 7.9 per cent.

The name of the game, however, is to form a government and the only realistic grouping would have been that of the Conservatives and UKIP. No one else would share the same cabinet table with the firmly right-wing UKIP. Governing with a minority is possible but it is unlikely to be sustainable for long.

What it means is the United Kingdom would have voted to be ruled by a combination of a moderate right-of-centre party and a strong right-wing party. The country would have moved more to the right than it has for the past 50 years.

Almost no supporters of proportional representation, let alone the people of Britain, would have welcomed a government that far to the right.

Proportional representation would have delivered an unstable right-wing government with some extreme tendencies. Such an administration would have soon become divisive and unpopular, and would have started to lose the middle ground.

People may be right of centre in their thoughts but they like their governments balanced. "First past the post" may be unfair for some but it has actually produced a moderate, stable government that is better for the country.

Regardless of its stability, a government that misuses its power will not last long - it will be voted out at the end of its term.

The name of the game of political process is to remain in power and, in a democracy, this means trying to stay popular by governing responsibly.

One of the key statistics in the UK campaign was that David Cameron's popularity ran at 40 per cent, as opposed to Ed Miliband's 22 per cent. In a political system that is replacing ideology with a more US-style appeal of management competence, popularity is paramount.

"First past the post" may appear to be an unfair system but it works - and it is safe for a while. Those who were voted into power by the system are unlikely to want to change it.

Richard Harris, chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management, is a former Conservative Party candidate, 1996-97