In the United Kingdom, the first-past-the-post system may have delivered strong majorities in the 1950s, when 97 per cent of those who voted did so for one of the two main parties, but it is no longer fit for purpose in the emerging era of multiparty democracy. Today, with the rise of nationalist and populist insurgent parties, an electoral system designed for two-party politics is inexorably breaking down. After the creation of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, the argument that the British electoral system delivers fairness has seemed less and less legitimate; and it is becoming ever harder to argue that it ensures stability.
Since the 2010 election, when together the Tories and Labour won just 65 per cent of the vote, the case for electoral reform has grown stronger, not weaker. In England, on 7 May, at least one in ten votes will be cast for the UK Independence Party. At best, Ukip will win less than 1 per cent of all parliamentary seats and might end up with none at all. You do not need to support Ukip’s reactionary programme to concede that the present system is unfair to the smaller parties. However much you disagree with the party, more than four million British citizens will have voted for it and their wishes should be represented in the House of Commons.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party is on course to win as many as 50 seats. If it wins all 59 of Scotland’s Westminster seats, it will likely have done so with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Last September, the Scottish people voted convincingly against independence. Yet, less than eight months later, first-past-the-post will deliver the SNP a hegemony that it has not earned and does not deserve. Indeed, under a fully proportional system, the Conservatives would win as many as ten seats in Scotland, an outcome that would weaken the accusation, made repeatedly by Labour and the SNP, that the party has no legitimacy north of the border.
The central argument in favour of our present system – that it guarantees strong and decisive government – was undermined in the 2010 election and will be shattered in this one. The rise of the smaller parties and the accompanying decline in the vote share of the big two are not just the results of the failings of David Cameron or Ed Miliband. They are symptomatic of a constitution in crisis. As with last year’s Scottish referendum (as the historian Tom Holland writes on page 38), so with this year’s general election: the great theme is the future of Great Britain as a united kingdom.
But electoral reform at Westminster must be the beginning, not the end, of political reform in the UK. Britain’s unelected second chamber, a constitutional anachronism, must be reformed and replaced. An increase in the number of directly elected mayors and the granting of more power to local government would ensure that power no longer remained concentrated in Whitehall. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 should be repealed. Beyond this, the UK should move towards becoming a fully federal state. And what of the enduring English Question? After all, England is the largest nation in Europe without its own political institutions.
For the first time, no party has a vested interest in defending the status quo. The Conservatives may well be locked out of a majority government for the foreseeable future by Labour and the SNP and an anti-Tory majority could emerge as a permanent feature of the first-past-the-post system.
Yet the status quo offers little cheer for Labour. The best that Ed Miliband can hope for is to lead a weak minority administration dependent on the vote-by-vote support of a nationalist bloc. Whatever the outcome of the 2015 election, all parties must work together to address the crisis of the constitution.
Without far-reaching reform, the next prime minister is likely to be remembered as the UK’s last.