The results of the 2005 general election are an indictment of the First Past the Post system – the Labour Party won an overall majority of 66 seats (55.1%) on only 35.2% of the vote.
No majority government in British history has ever rested on a flimsier base of public support – or, more accurately, none has since the extension of the franchise in 1918. In terms of active public consent for government, Britain is almost back in the pre-reform era of rotten boroughs.
No election since 1970 has produced a government with 45 per cent of the vote, but the trend in the most recent elections has been to produce significant majorities with ever lower shares of the popular vote. A Commons majority has enormous power, and this power has now been awarded on the basis of only 35.2 per cent of the vote. The case for electoral reform becomes stronger with each successive election.
The government’s level of support among voters is therefore small. But taking the electorate as a whole, the proportion of eligible people who cast a vote to return the government is extremely small – only 21.6 per cent, or 9.6 million out of an electorate of 44.4 million. In terms of votes actually cast for Labour, this is the lowest total of any post-1945 election with the single exception of 1983.
Turnout, at 61.3 per cent, recovered a little from the depths it had reached in 2001. But there is small consolation in this being the second-worst since 1918. In historical terms, 2005 is clearly in the relegation zone of the turnout league table of elections in the last century. The problem of public disengagement from politics has clearly not been solved.
Labour’s control of the 2005 parliament is somewhat less lopsided than its dominance in the parliaments elected in 1997 and 2001. But parliament is still a grossly distorted version of what Britain’s voters chose in 2005.
Labour (and, in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists) were the most successful at translating votes into seats – the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system gave a large ‘winner’s bonus’ to the largest single party. Once again, the principal victims of the system were smaller parties with evenly spread support, namely the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Ulster Unionists.
Small parties with relatively evenly spread support are penalised under FPTP. UKIP was clearly the fourth party in terms of votes, but it failed to win or even come close in a single seat. Seven parties with fewer votes than UKIP, and two Independents, elected members of parliament. The Green Party stood many fewer candidates, conscious that the system was unfair to them, and many voters were deprived of the chance of choosing them. Small parties with concentrated support, like the SNP and Plaid Cymru, did better. The failure to represent small but significant points of view contrasts the Westminster Parliament with the more proportional bodies in Northern Ireland and Scotland where minorities have a voice.
FPTP means that a huge number of votes end up being wasted, in that they do not affect who is elected to Parliament either because they are cast for losing candidates or serve simply to swell the majority of the winning candidate. A majority of the votes in 2005 went to losing candidates, while a narrow majority went to the winners in 2001. The 2005 election saw a slight increase in wasted votes compared to 2001.Over 70% of votes were either for a losing candidate or were surplus to the winner’s requirements. This accounts for over 19 million votes.
Only 34% of MPs were elected with over half the vote in their own constituencies, the lowest proportion in British history. This represents a marked decline since 2001, when half of MPs could claim support from a majority of their local voters. It is actually the lowest proportion of MPs with majority support ever, exceeding the previous record set in February 1974. At 55, the number of MPs elected with less than 40% of the vote was also substantially up on 2001 (21 MPs).
The general election of 2005 was a particularly dramatic illustration of the flaws in First Past the Post:
- It awarded the immense powers of a government with a majority in the House of Commons to a party which enjoyed the support of scarcely one in three of those voting and a little over one in five of the total electorate. These figures are the worst ever.
- It resulted in only one in three MPs having majority support among their local voters, and no MP commanding a majority of the local electorate. This is the lowest proportion of majority mandates ever.
- The British people remain disengaged from electoral politics, as demonstrated by the very low turnout – the second or third worst in history.
- First Past the Post short changes voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in Westminster elections compared to the fairer representation given to them by the more proportional systems used for their devolved institutions.
The case for electoral reform is stronger than ever. That the outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion in at least two-thirds of the seats did not give many a sense of involvement in the choice of a government. When 71% of the votes were ‘wasted’, and when the major parties felt able to focus their campaigns on just 2% of the electorate, it is hardly surprising that many felt little incentive to vote.
A more proportional and fairer system is the only answer to the major defects of First Past the Post.
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