How people elect parliaments
English Tory politicians may rue the fact that decades of devotion to the first-part-the-post system leaves them untrained in the art of multi-party compromise.
After Thursday’s shock election result, a gutted UK Conservative government and its diminished leader, Prime Minister Therese May, must now negotiate with hardline conservative Irish unionist politicians to keep their administration afloat.
The Democratic Unionist Party has years of experience in a regional political culture based on multi-party negotiations, out of which longer term relationships are more important than short-term transactional policy victories.
The Tory party by contrast has a deep intellectual commitment to the notion that FPTP – plurality voting in single-member electoral divisions (SMD) – creates ‘strong and stable’ governments.
SMD plurality usually creates temporarily secure governments, by artificially inflating the number of seats in parliament that go to the largest political party. With a majority in parliament, won on 40% or even less of the vote, the winner can dominate politics for an electoral cycle without respecting other points of view.
At least, that’s the usual result from FPTP. Yet two of the last three UK elections have now failed to deliver it.
Another FPTP claim is that the electoral system leads to better government policy and performance including – through strong control of the policy agenda – better economic outcomes.
But renowned political scientist Arendt Lijphart and others gathered the evidence years ago to prove that the economic and fiscal achievements of more politically balanced national governments are at least as good, or better, than those of FPTP.
Conversely, there has never been any body of evidence to support the claims that FPTP as an electoral system might be associated with better national economic management.
Dominant, plurality-based governments can also affect social policy debates. Marginal seat contests tend to empower conservative viewpoints by creating a ‘don’t-make-any-enemies’ election dynamic that is easier for opponents of change to play in than social reformers.
By contrast multiple parties representing distinct political agendas creates political space for positive social issue reform debates to eventually work their way past such targeted veto politics.
Elections in the Republic of Ireland have been based the single-transferable vote (STV) electoral system for nearly a century. During the mid-20th century Irish voters twice specifically defeated referendums in which a governing party tried to remove the guarantee of STV voting from the Irish Constitution.
In Éire there are two major parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, as well as a mid-sized Labour party and the nationalist party Sinn Féin. This diversity, coupled with a strong tradition of backbench vigour and the regular election of independents, has meant that Irish politicians learn their craft in a more vigorous political culture than that in which major party MPs in FPTP-based systems do. Such representatives and leaders learn to be less reliant on authoritarian dominance as a style of political management.
A compromise approach to negotiation needs to be ongoing. Multi-party system party negotiators tend to think less of zero-sum, one-off deals, but more in terms of long-term reputation and capacity to return in the future and make new compromises. The result over time is more balanced and stable politics and policy development.
The FPTP school of thought, which is typically promoted by right-wing media, argues that any alternative to one-party rule makes for ‘coalitions of chaos’. But actual political chaos seems to ensue only when the one-party-dominance philosophy is forced to bargain for its life.
But even Britain is politically evolving. The creation of the devolved governments in Britain in the late 1990s has now given rise to a generation of regional British politicians who understand multi-party cultures.
The modern assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London are being elected using the British ‘additional member’ electoral system, a composite of local constituencies with party-nominated ‘top-up’ MPs appointed to achieve proportionality between party vote shares and seats.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is elected using STV voting, similar to Éire.
This means national Prime Minister May and her fellow leading Conservatives will abruptly need to learn to deal with a crop of modern political leaders trained in multi-party negotiations.
In Scotland there are SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.
Wales has Labour leader and First Minister Carwyn Jones, Conservative leader Andrew Davies and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood.
Northern Ireland has DUP leader and former First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill – who together would be joint First Ministers if they can agree on a power-sharing deal – as well as several others.
The Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan – who seems to have got deeply under the skin of US President Donald Trump – is another political figure that might vex the new minority government.
One of the unwanted surprises of the Conservative Party’s recent election manifesto was a proposal to change the electoral system for the position of London Mayor from a preferential system to one using first-past-the-post, no doubt hoping to advantage Conservative Party candidates in future elections.
Presumably, since that manifesto can claim no public mandate, that anti-democratic idea will now have little prospect of advancing. (On which, update: see these comments by Constitutional academic Mark Elliott on the ‘Salisbury Convention’).