We must abandon FPTP to heal the political tribalism that is tearing our politics apart
On Tuesday, Ifan Morgan Jones said in his opinion article in nation.cymru that Remain is winning the battles but still losing the Brexit war.
He is right – particularly if Boris Johnson is to be judged by the likelihood of winning the next General Election.
For despite the Supreme Court ruling that he prorogued Parliament illegally, Johnson continues to maintain a substantial lead in the opinion polls – 15% ahead of Labour. This is enough to guarantee that the Tories are, once again, the largest party and probably give them a small majority.
Yet, the Tories are polling no more than 34%, only roughly one in three voters. This is largely due to the flaws in our First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system.
We have a similar problem with the Welsh Assembly elections. Unlike the Westminster FPTP system, it does have a proportional element which I will say more about later.
But it’s still not enough to eliminate the flaws from the FPTP element. The Assembly voting system has an in-built bias towards Labour because the last Assembly election delivered 50% representation for Labour on a vote share of just 35%.
This lack of proportionality is clearly unfair – particularly to smaller parties who get no representation at all. But the winner takes all ethos of FPTP, causes other problems that I believe has, indirectly, led to the Brexit constitutional crisis that is being played out every day.
In this article, I show that the FPTP system is helping to fuel a tribal divided approach to politics which is anathema to cooperation between parties.
Continuation of FPTP is unlikely to heal the wounds of Brexit and a change to a more proportional voting system is now essential in both the UK Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
There are many disadvantages of FPTP. First, FPTP often leads to a lack of fair representation of smaller parties – for example, in 2015, UKIP polled 12.5% of the vote share, yet go no seats at all in the UK Parliament. Whatever one thinks about UKIP, this is clearly unfair and likely to breed resentment.
Second, FPTP makes voting in many safe seats, such as in the Welsh Valleys, sometimes seem worthless, because in these seats, Labour stack up such big majorities, that many voters feel that voting for an alternative party is pointless.
This encourages voter apathy in safe seats and leaves us with a system where the outcome of an election is dependent on the voters in perhaps 60 marginal seats.
Third, tactical voting has evolved in the last 25 years in a way that many now vote, not for the candidate that they want but to choose a candidate that they don’t want to see winning.
In short, some vote negatively rather than positively for the candidate they really want.
Does FPTP still deliver stable government?
Advocates of FPTP say that it gives a stable government because it delivers majorities for single parties.
Yet, the last two out of three General Elections (GE) disprove this theory.
Furthermore, we have had two Tory PMs forced out of power in the last three years, and a new PM who has only become PM by appealing to his tribe – i.e., the Tory party membership.
Few would argue that our system is stable at the present time with the country now being forced into another GE – the third in the last four years.
What FPTP does is encourage tribalism and a reluctance to work together.
The Brexit crisis has been exacerbated by a reluctance for parties to work together but this is largely because of the political culture caused by FPTP.
After the EU referendum, PM Theresa May talked about the importance of implementing Brexit, but never did she ever seek any cross-party collaboration other than the DUP with whom she was forced to form a pact after failing to get a majority in the 2017 GE.
She only decided to open discussions with the official opposition after two years of failed negotiation to get her Bill through the House of Commons.
Her successor Johnson, despite lacking the authority of winning a GE, has never consulted the opposition or smaller parties, preferring instead to try illegal manoeuvres such as proroguing Parliament.
Labour too, has been reluctant to open discussions with other parties and only did so on the 11th hour when the threat of a no-deal Brexit was imminent.
This reluctance to talk to other parties is a consequence of the arrogance of two-party dominance of power that has been vested upon successive PMs in both main parties due to the FPTP system.
In a winner takes all system, why talk to the opposition? Both main parties want to keep FPTP because it gives them absolute power to achieve the goals in power with minimum resistance.
Yet, as we have seen, when parties work together they can achieve results. For example, when Plaid worked with the Lib Dems, in the Brecon & Radnor By-Election, they helped to deny Johnson a Parliamentary majority, and Corbyn’s belated meetings with other opposition parties led to stopping Johnson’s “sleight of hand” in sneaking through a no-deal Brexit during an election campaign.
For those who say we had a referendum on voting reform in 2011 and rejected an alternative system, remember that this was a sweetener to the Lib Dem’s when they formed the Coalition Government with the Tories in 2010.
But the Tories did not want it and offered only the Alternative Vote (AV) system. This system had very few supporters and that is why the Tories offered it – they were confident it would fail.
Even Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader at the time, described this as a “miserable little compromise”.
There are many alternatives to FPTP, and AV was seen by many as almost as disproportionate as FPTP, so it was soundly rejected.
However, there are plenty of good alternatives. One way to achieve fair representation is to use a List System – as is commonly used in European democracies – such as Denmark and Germany.
In this system, voters choose a party rather than individual candidates. A formula is then used to calculate the number of seats to be allocated to each party.
Another method is called the Single Transferable Vote (STV) that has been recommended by the Expert Panel that reported to the Welsh Assembly (see next section).
The Welsh Assembly semi-FPTP system is also flawed. It uses a system which is not quite pure FPTP in that 20 of the 60 seats are elected by the additional member system.
This means that four AMs are selected from each of the five electoral regions in Wales. Whilst this part is more proportional, it still leaves the remaining 40 seats voted by FPTP.
This has led to one party hegemony in Wales. Since the Assembly was created in 1998, Labour has been in continuous power.
And whilst the FPTP component is not enough to give Labour big majorities, it has always been enough to ensure that Labour is the largest party in the Welsh Assembly and governed constantly sometimes as a minority government.
However, the system here in Wales may be about to change because a cross-party group of Assembly Members will begin looking at expanding the size of the soon-to-be Welsh parliament and changing the voting system.
This group will form a committee that will look at recommendations made by the Expert Panel. They recommended a change in the voting system, to a proportional method called the Single Transferable Vote.
All voting systems have their advantages and disadvantages. But as the Brexit fiasco shows, FPTP is no longer fit for purpose.
In both the UK and Welsh Parliament, a new more proportionate voting system is long overdue.
We might then get what we deserve – parties putting tribal loyalties to one side to work in the interests of the electorate by cooperating with each other if necessary.
But don’t be surprised if the two-main parties resist – they both have a vested interest in the continuation of the present system.