Why first-past-the-post steals elections for right-wing parties – and how to stop it

Given a fair chance at the ballot box, British voters would elect more progressive governments.

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There was great news for electoral reform campaigners in the Spectator last week. Nick Tyrone, the former director of the liberal CentreForum think tank, claimed proportional representation would “hand the Tories power for the rest of the century”.

Those at Conservative HQ must be kicking themselves for defending the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system all these years. Now that they know why they’ve only been in government for two-thirds of the last 70 years (not bad, given they've never received a majority of the popular vote), we can expect next month’s Queen’s Speech to announce that electoral reform is on its way. The government will bring in proportional representation (PR), and so remain in power “forever”.

This, of course, is not going to happen. Priti Patel’s recent announcement that the government intends to bring in FPTP for local mayoral elections made this clear. The reason is simple: the Conservatives know the current undemocratic voting system works to their advantage, and that PR would not.

The relationship between types of voting systems and right-wing bias has been the subject of serious academic study – and evidence suggests that a fair, proportional voting system would give the UK more progressive governments. Proportional democracies elect more left-leaning governments than those with FPTP or other winner-takes-all – or “majoritarian” – systems. 

In 2015 Holger Döring and Philip Manow found countries with majoritarian systems end up with right-wing governments 63 per cent of the time, while those with PR do so 44 per cent of the time. Using a slightly different methodology, David Soskice and Torben Iversen found in 2006 that majoritarian democracies have right-leaning governments three-quarters of the time, while proportional democracies have left-leaning governments three-quarters of the time.

In Why Cities Lose (2019), the Stanford professor Jonathan Rodden goes beyond counting the frequency of left- or right-wing governments under different voting systems, instead comparing the political leaning of countries’ electorates with the political leaning of their parliaments. Essentially, this measures system bias. His book should become required reading for all progressives:

“...the European experience suggests that proportional representation creates no systematic bias in favour of either the right or the left. This may seem unremarkable on its own, but the contrast with majoritarian democracies is striking. In every industrialised parliamentary democracy with majoritarian electoral institutions, averaging over the postwar period, the legislature has been well to the right of the voters, and in most cases, the cabinet has been even further to the right.”

Not only do countries with FPTP get more right-wing governments in absolute terms than those with PR, they also consistently get governments and parliaments that are more right-wing than their own voters. 

This consistent partisan bias is partly a result of demographic geography. As Rodden explains, progressive parties across the world tend to pile up mountains of votes in urban areas. With PR this would not be a problem. Under FPTP, it means winning city seats by huge and effectively redundant margins of victory but losing across most of the country to a right-wing party whose vote is more evenly distributed. 

It is also, as Soskice and Iversen explain, because, broadly speaking, PR allows for low- and mid-income workers to vote for separate parties that then work together in coalition. With FPTP, both sets of voters need to rally behind a single party to avoid right-wing governments – which is extremely difficult to achieve. Döring and Manow endorse both of these explanations.

Across the world, PR shows no bias and consequently produces more progressive governments than FPTP, which consistently favours the right. Given that most people in the UK have voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives in 19 of the last 20 general elections, it is extremely likely that the UK under PR would conform to – rather than buck – this trend.

It is true, of course, that people vote differently under different voting systems. Many supporters of FPTP, including Tyrone, claim that by removing the need for tactical voting, PR would in fact result in more right-wing governments winning elections in the UK. 

However, while tactical voting undoubtedly suppressed individual right-wing parties’ votes in the 2019 general election (most notably, the votes of the Brexit Party), the perfect symmetry in pre-election opinion polling shows that these voters uniformly made their tactical switch to the Tories. A Johnson-Farage majority could not have come about simply by shuffling Conservative votes to the Brexit Party. That result would have required around 1.5 million voters to cross the divide from either Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens or SNPs to either the Brexit Party or the Tories.

There is no reason to expect PR to bring about such a swing. On the contrary, the European elections of the same year, even with the disarray and volatility caused by Brexit, resulted in a majority voting for progressive parties, just as in the general election. Thanks to the proportional voting system, those parties won 53 per cent of the seats in the European Parliament. 

Asked in 1995 whether the Conservative Party might benefit from a period in opposition, Margaret Thatcher replied: “That’s crazy… they might change the voting system.” It is time those on the left understood what the Conservatives have long known: that the UK electorate is consistently to the left of the Tories, that the status quo entrenches their power and that, given a fair chance at the ballot box, British voters would elect many more progressive governments.

Joe Sousek is a Labour For A New Democracy organiser and co-founder of Make Votes Matter. Laura Parker works for Labour For A New Democracy and was formally national coordinator of Momentum.

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