Voters have been squeezed into two camps – but there are bigger factors at play

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

  • Skibo

    I believe this was put to the people already and rejected across the UK completely. The North was the only area where the vote was not a massive rejection. I believe here it was 56-44, similar to Brexit but in reverse.

  • Skibo

    What should be looked at closer is the discrepancies within the constituencies cross the North with larger electorates in Nationalist constituencies. When this is rectified, we will see the true view of the North.

  • Neonlights

    I think that an electoral system which better represents the viewpoints of the voting people in Northern Ireland can only be a good thing, but then I am foolish enough to believe in democracy.

  • Korhomme

    There was a referendum about the Alternative Vote. AV isn’t a real PR system.

    It was a condition of entry into the coalition for the LibDems. The Tories did what they could to scupper the vote.

  • Skibo

    The two major parties in GB will not agree to ant alternative of FPTP as it would result in constant coalitions. I have always believed that coalitions give a more balanced outlook for a country but as can be seen from the last one and similar examples in the South, the minor party normally takes the blame and none of the credit for what went before.

  • chrisjones2

    Is democracy appointing the brother of the person elected MP to be an MLA and another person whose organisation was just hammered in a Tribunal for discrimination.

    The voters have no say and its a direct outworking of the PR system

  • chrisjones2

    The point is still the same – voters dont want it. Only the political class are interested because any PR system increases the control of the Party

  • Andrew Gallagher

    AV was put to a referendum quite recently, and pretty much universally rejected, even in NI[1]. But then AV is not a proportional system. In many circumstances it is even less proportional than FPTP, which is why top up members are used in the Scottish Parliament. And top up members introduce their own anomalies.

    There is no fundamental reason why all seats in Westminster should be filled using the same electoral system though – this has only been the case since 1950 when the last multi-member constituencies were abolished[2]. So there is nothing in principle from preventing STV being introduced for NI seats, even while the rest of the UK remains undecided. And there is nothing in practice either, because (current events notwithtanding) the exact allocation of NI MPs rarely has a significant effect on government formation.

    To do this, the easiest method would be to combine constituencies into electoral districts returning the same number of members in total – this is the method used for local electoral districts of multiple wards. The constituencies would need to remain defined so that Assembly elections would be unaffected.

    The main question then would be how to group the constituencies. Starting from a likely guess at the 17 new constituencies [3], we are immediately presented with a problem. Seventeen is a prime number so they would have to be unequally sized, but for many reasons we should probably keep them as close to equal as possible. Since STV only approximates proportionality in the large limit, there would ideally be only two or three districts with (8+9) or (5+6+6) members respectively – however we may also wish to consider four- (5+4+4+4) and five-district (4+4+3+3+3) options.

    It should be noted at this point that the Assembly uses five-member districts (recently reduced from six) and the Dail a mixture of three-, four- and five-member districts, although three-member districts are currently disfavoured. Current best practice would therefore appear to be (5+4+4+4). With this in mind, and keeping Belfast as a unit, one possible arrangement could be:

    1st district: Belfast (x3), North Down, Strangford
    2nd district: South Down, Lagan Valley, Upper Bann, Newry and Armagh
    3rd district: Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster, Foyle
    4th district: Causeway Coast, Mid Antrim, East Antrim, South Antrim

    In the above scenario, I have chosen the anomalous five-seater district to be the one containing Belfast, i.e. the one with the largest population density. The main justification for this is compactness – if the five-seater were instead to be located west of the Bann, it would have to stretch the full distance from Belcoo to Bushmills and cover over 50% of the land area of NI.

    Needless to say, the 17 new constituencies have not been finalised, and the practicalities of the electoral districts would have to take account of the exact boundaries. One recent proposal by the Electoral Commission splits Portadown between three constituencies, an arrangement I’m not at all impressed with.

    The main thing preventing this from happening is political will – and with the DUP in particular doing quite well out of the current system there’s no chance of change during this parliament. In fact there is probably little chance of FPTP ever being replaced in NI, for the same reason it probably won’t be replaced in GB.

    Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.


  • Korhomme

    The UK and Ireland have adversarial politics and law; in such binary systems only one side can ‘win’. Further, the GB Tories regard themselves as the natural party of government and, as we saw, essentially used the LibDems to promote their own policies. Only in the exceptional circumstances of WW2 did the parties work together in a constructive way. So often in the UK, when party A is succeeded by party B, then much of what A did is repealed — only for this to be reestablished when A return to power. Surely, this is wasteful.

    On the continent, law is investigatory and seems to be more interested in getting at a reasonable version of the ‘truth’; law is usually codified.

    In many countries there are coalitions which are more or less permanent. In some, such as Italy, where there is constant factional infighting, the result, in the past, was chaos. In others, where coalitions mean a working together with common aims and objectives — something the recent UK coalition never achieved — the result can be stability. The outstanding example of this is Switzerland where there has been a stable coalition at federal level for decades. No surprise that it is one of the richest countries in Europe.

  • Korhomme

    The replacement of members doesn’t have to be like this.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Deputation isn’t a direct outworking of PR. In the Republic, vacancies are filled using by-elections.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    List systems empower party hierarchies. STV doesn’t.

  • scepticacademic

    although they said the same of the AMS used for the Scottish Parliament, them the SNP won an outright majority

  • scepticacademic

    Indeed. One of the many strategic errors made by the LibDems during the ill-fated coalition was acceptance of AV for the referendum (an even worse system than FPTP imo) rather than STV (which had been party preference since the 1980s).

  • scepticacademic

    This article hits the nail on the head for me. When any party that gets 36% of the popular vote captures 56% of the seats, something is wrong. The FPTP system should have been dumped years ago.

  • Skibo

    I will always judge a government on how wealth is divided across the community. So far, both the new labour and the Tories have resulted in the majority of the wealth of the country being transferred to a minority elite.

  • Korhomme

    The Tories have a reputation, not just as the ‘nasty’ party, but for being utterly ruthless.

    Supermac, after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ was mocked by Jeremy Thorpe, who said:

    “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”

  • Korhomme

    And that is because both have embraced neo-liberalism.

  • Korhomme

    John Prescott revealed a while back that the AMS system used in Scotland was chosen in the belief and expectation that it would prevent the Scottish Nationalist Party ever gaining a majority in the Scottish Parliament. That ploy didn’t work.

  • mac tire

    So your answer to a poster wanting a different electoral system is “Here, let’s just get stuck into Sinn Féin”?

    Get up the yard, ye chancer.

  • Pang

    Thanks Andrew for a well researched response. Another alternative would be a party list system with all 17 seats being assigned that way. I suppose legislation for this would be from Westminster rather than the wee assembly.

  • chrisjones2

    No ,…its the same for all the parties …its part of the PR shambles that gives the power of patronage to the party machine and stuff the voters and we had two examples of it from SF this week

  • chrisjones2

    Its the outworking of what we have

  • chrisjones2

    No …but it is and in many PR systems it is

  • chrisjones2

    No in this case the PUNTERS wont vote for it

  • chrisjones2

    “I will always judge a government on how wealth is divided across the community.”

    Your choice and view……………others may differ

  • chrisjones2

    Labour? Gerrymandering?

    This is the same party that selectively placed immigrants into Labour Marginals to boost their vote. That maintained huge disparities where Tory MPs represented far more constituents than Labour ones do in many many seats giving Labour a 30 – 40 seat advantage

    Perhaps England needs a civil rights movement

  • Andrew Gallagher

    That’s being fixed with the current boundary review. See my earlier comment.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    I was considering my own post on this topic, but was beaten to it! So I performed a brain dump in the comments instead.

    Party list systems give a lot of power to the party hierarchies. If members are allocated from the lists in an order determined by the parties themselves, they can choose to put their senior people at the top and effectively prevent any Portillo moments.

    Some list systems allow voters to choose between individual candidates and allocate them according to which ones got the most votes, but this adds further complications. On the other hand, STV is well understood in NI and already does the job reasonably well.

    Yes, legislation for Westminster elections is entirely a matter for Westminster. Perhaps the smaller NI parties could raise it in their manifestos at the next general election? It might not be that far away…

  • epg_ie

    37% of the vote and 3 out of 4 seats in Belfast. Nor is that representative of other parties who would back them – the Ulster Unionists got 2% of the vote.

  • Reader

    Andrew Gallagher: List systems empower party hierarchies. STV doesn’t.
    When I take a bit of time to support PR online, I keep stumbling across those who think that PR systems are all based on a Party List. (Think it, or maybe just say it). The party list systems are unpopular with voters, who usually need to be reminded that there are non-list systems.
    1) I wonder if the Electoral Reform Society is paying enough attention to the distinction. They may be losing public support over what is basically a misunderstanding.
    2) Chris is a little bit right. Multi member seats do give power to the party hierarchy during co-option, and a by election makes no sense for multi member seats. Maybe there could be restrictions about co-option? Or one of the remaining successful candidates could have an additional proxy vote in the Assembly?

  • Reader

    Korhomme: And that is because both have embraced neo-liberalism.
    So have developed economies across the world.

  • Korhomme

    Are you suggesting that neoliberalism is a ‘good thing’?

  • Reader

    Korhomme: Are you suggesting that neoliberalism is a ‘good thing’?
    Compared with existing alternatives, yes. (There are of course, multiple definitions, which makes things more complicated.)

  • Skibo

    My only concern would be any control that DUP would have on when this will happen. If the house does not reduce to 600, will it ever happen?