The results of last weeks general election might look at first glance like the return of a two-party system. It follows two elections in 2010 and 2015 that did not provide the decisive majority that is supposed to be the hallmark of First Past the Post. But the ‘two party’ narrative conceals as much as it reveals.
The Assembly election earlier this year demonstrated the diversity of views held by voters in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin’s surge notwithstanding. That diversity is reflected most clearly by the fact that South Belfast elected representatives from no fewer than five different parties.
This was possible because voters were given an opportunity to rank the candidates in order of preference – using the Single Transferable Vote – thereby producing a broadly proportional result in which the diversity of opinion in that area was reflected. In contrast, the recent general election has led to the election of a Eurosceptic MP in the most anti-Brexit constituency in Northern Ireland – South Belfast.
There are two closely-related factors behind all this. The first is that under First Past the Post a simple plurality of votes is needed to successfully elect a candidate. This meant that in 2015, South Belfast elected an MP with just 24.5% of the vote.
The second point is that this electoral system, rather than echoing the nuanced and diverse views of constituents, seeks to shoehorn them into a binary contest under which all other differences are subsumed. This in turn leads voters to second-guess the outcome to help to choose the candidate they think is best placed to beat the candidate they like least.
A common result of this second guessing is that the contest becomes reduced to a decision as to which of the major parties is likely to defeat the other major party (or, in Northern Ireland, which unionist/nationalist is most likely to defeat the most popular candidate from the other camp). This in turn supports and increases the dominance of the two biggest political parties, polarising around one or two divides.
The fact that this election has seen the biggest combined vote between the Conservative and Labour parties since 1970 is not then the result of lost voters returning to their respective political homes, but rather the result of an electoral system that shuts out political diversity in favour of a binary choice.
This effect is also being seen in Northern Ireland with the emergence of the DUP and Sinn Féin as the two biggest parties. Although there are a range of historical, social and political reasons for the dominance of these two parties in particular, the electoral system significantly contributes to this trend.
Consider this – almost a third of electors (over 250,000 people) in Northern Ireland cast a vote for political parties that received no representation whatsoever at Westminster. This is just above the total number of votes cast for Sinn Féin (238,915) and just under the total votes for the DUP (292,316).
Considering that the average electorate of a constituency in Northern Ireland is about 67,000, there is a huge discrepancy here. This is especially the case if we compare it to the broadly proportional results yielded by the recent Assembly election.
The fact is that First Past the Post is no longer fit for purpose: it can neither deliver stability nor reflect the wishes of our increasingly diverse society. It is time for it to be replaced by a system that can reflect the many different issues and ideas that people feel are important to them.
Dr Edward Molloy is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society