Dream of multiparty politics fails to materialise

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There were several clear winners in the political world of 2015, including David Cameron, Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn.

But another was the “first-past-the-post” electoral process, which has outlived many of those who had predicted its demise.

Nick Clegg began the year as deputy prime minister, vowing to “break the two-party system”. The former Lib Dem leader ended it on the backbenches as one of the party’s eight surviving MPs as its vote plunged from 23 per cent in 2010 to just 8 per cent.

Both Labour and the Conservatives enjoyed small increases in their share of the total vote.

And while Ukip increased its share to 13 per cent — overtaking the Lib Dems — it ended up with just one MP: the former Tory Douglas Carswell in Clacton.

A glum Nigel Farage, who failed to get elected, blamed first-past-the-post for the “totally negative” campaign. “I do think the system is bust and I do think there’ll be great demand for it to change,” he complained.

There has been an even more pronounced move away from multilateral politics north of the border.

Scotland has taken on the appearance of a one-party state with 56 out of 59 of its Westminster seats won by the Scottish National Party in May, although two of those MPs have since lost the SNP whip.

That perception is set to harden next May if, as expected, the SNP tightens its grip on the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, which uses a proportional representation system.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said the dominance of the SNP was “extraordinary”. “There are very, very few examples of PR systems producing majority governments around the world,” he said.

In Wales the majority of MPs — 36 out of 40 — are either Labour or Tory.

Only in Northern Ireland, arguably, is there real multilateral representation among MPs: 8 from the DUP, 4 from Sinn Féin, 3 from the SDLP and 2 from the UUP.

British voters had been invited in 2011 to throw out Westminster’s old voting system in favour of an “alternative vote” method — but voted firmly against any change.

Campaigners for reform have not abandoned their quest for a more representative system.

Critics seized on the result of the general election — the least proportional in history — as further ammunition for their cause. Out of 31m people who voted, 19m did so for losing candidates.

Meanwhile, Ukip received 3.86m votes for its one MP while the Lib Dems received 299,000 votes per MP. That compares with an average of 26,000 votes per SNP member, 34,000 for each Tory and 40,000 for every Labour.

Chuka Umunna, former shadow business secretary, has also called for an end to first past the post.

“It’s simple, but it leads to absurdities — on three occasions in British history, the party with the most votes nationally has actually lost the election,” the Labour MP said.

“It creates false electoral deserts where whole regions of the country are dominated by one party despite their opponents recording substantial numbers of votes.”

2015 was not meant to play out this way. Instead it seemed that the May election would be the latest milestone in a historic trend away from the Tory-Labour duopoly.

In 1951 those two parties shared 96 per cent of the vote, comprehensively squeezing out their rivals. By 2010 this had fallen to 66 per cent amid the rise of parties such as the Lib Dems, Ukip and the Greens.

After the success of Ukip in the 2014 European elections — beating the mainstream parties — it seemed that change was coming.

Instead, when the votes were counted last May, Tories and Labour increased their vote share slightly compared with 2010: Labour was up 1.5 percentage points and the Tories were up 0.8 percentage points.

Together they accounted for 67.3 per cent of the total.

Prof Bale said first-past-the-post was “doing what it was supposed to do” by maintaining the dominance of a couple of large parties.

The case for FPTP is that it is more likely to deliver a clear majority — and thus a functional government — than a PR system giving more seats to a diffuse number of smaller parties.

However, Prof Bale said it had been over a decade since either of the big parties had been able to get past the “magic” figure of 40 per cent, a level at that guarantees a huge majority.

“I would say that people who think we’re out of the woods in terms of not heading towards another hung parliament again are probably being a bit premature,” he said.

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