The Rules Matter

The United Kingdom is crying out for a multi-party democracy. No matter how the majority of voters feel, the UK’s First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system—similar to how we vote in 47 states for our US House— is trying its best to still be a two-party system.


On May 7th, elections were held for the UK’s House of Commons. This was an extraordinary election because it glaringly shows how the UK’s voting system fails to express the realities of modern British politics. I will briefly look at the election result. I also mention the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum and its implications with the 2015 election. My point is that the rules matter with who wins and who losses. British electoral rules are terribly skewed.

The voices in the media for switching from the UK’s First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system to proportional representation are many. Here is link to a recent story in The Guardian. Here is another in The Independent. There are so many more articles — check them out!

There is plenty for the losers in the election to be dissatisfied about. The Conservative Party won a slim majority of seats in parliament with only one-third of the popular vote. Since it is a parliament, unlike here in the US—there will be no separation of powers, filibusters, or minorities within one of the major parties shutting down government. The only thing the UK political opposition can do for now is to huff, moan and guffaw at Prime Minster’s question time. Not only is every party representing two-thirds of voters shut out of governing, they got a raw deal in the election result.

For example, the upstart United Kingdom Independence Party won 12.5 percent of the vote but only got one seat in the House of Commons. On the other hand, the Scottish National Party won 5 percent of the popular vote but gets 56 seats. There are more distortions with the other parties. The reason for this is the premium FPTP puts on geographic representation. It’s more about where you live than what you think. There were basically 650 elections on Thursday that produced 650 seat winners — and way many more defeated voters. This is the result of a two-party system that cannot handle the multitude of parties that have become prominent in UK politics.


Vote No, Vote Tory

This election was certainly not the UK’s first multiparty election. I’ve done an analysis of the 2010 election which produced a coalition government. Unlike Thursday’s Conservative domination, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition partners tended to pull the Tories to the political center.

One product of the last coalition was a referendum on changing the election system. The LDP has been a longtime advocate for proportional representation. As you can see in last week’s election, FPTP punishes them horribly; so no wonder they want this change. However, their Tory coalition partners support the status quo and, as last week’s result shows, for good reason. The referendum was not on proportional representation, it was about the Alternative Vote [1] system. This proposal would have kept 650 single member districts. It is different as ballots allow voters to rank candidates. This ranking dynamic tends to produce majority winners.

In a simulated AV election using the 2010 election data, the LDP could have won 89 seats in that election. That said, the researchers state, “Unlike other electoral reforms, AV fails to produce anything approaching genuine proportional representation in national assembly elections” (Sanders, Clarke, Stewart, Whiteley 2011, p. 19). Under FPTP in 2010, the LDP won 57 seats, so at least the Alternative Vote would have been better for them.

It would be interesting to read an AV simulation for the 2015 election. France also uses single member districts for its National Assembly elections. The difference with the UK is that France uses a top-two runoff when there are no majority winners. How do French minor parties fare in their government under this system?


Even though they were coalition partners in 2011, Tories came out against the AV referendum. As you can see, I have collected some of the campaign materials from the NO on AV campaign. I added in the caption what I think the real message of this shameless propaganda is. The opposition campaign’s subterfuge is plain as day—First-Past-The-Post benefits Conservatives. This party’s opposition to any change in electoral systems has paid off for the time being.

In my next post, I compare differences with the UK and US parties and how state rules tend to perpetuate the American two-party system— and keep the same old parties in power. I hope to shed light on why all parties, as grassroots organizations, are so weak in the US. It is here where we Open Source Party people need to pay attention, because as I said, THE RULES MATTER.

1. This is know as preferential voting, ranked choice voting and instant runoff voting in the United States.

Sanders, D., Clarke, H.D., Stewart, M.C., Whiteley, P. (2011) Simulating the Effects of the Alternative Vote in the 2010 UK General Election. Parliamentary Affairs, 64 (1) 5-23