Time to Reform First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) for Westminster Elections?

In the 2019 Westminster general election in Northern Ireland, the 18 successful candidates gained 359,000 votes out of a valid poll of 799,034. This represents only 44.9% of the electorate. A clear majority of voters are not represented in Westminster. Unionist voters in border areas are not represented; nationalist voters from North Antrim to Upper Bann to Strangford are not represented. Twice as many Alliance voters are unrepresented as are represented. 

The DUP garnered 30.6% of the vote and won 44.4% of the seats (a bonus (+) of 13.8%). For the other parties, the figures are: SF (22.8% / 38.9% / +16.1%); Alliance (16.8% / 5.6% / deficit (-) of 11.2%); SDLP (14.9% / 11.1% / -3.8%); UUP (11.7% / 0% / -11.7%); Others (3.2% / 0% / -3.2%). Four of the five major parties have either an excess or deficit of more than 10%. 

It is ironic that in the 1920s the Unionist Party abolished PR for NI Parliamentary elections to both copper-fasten its hegemony over nationalists and to stifle the emergence of labour and radical voices within working-class unionist areas, yet it now finds itself unrepresented in Westminster, despite gaining 11.7% of the vote.

FPTP gives huge electoral advantage to larger parties. The DUP and SF combined vote was 53.4%, yet their combined share of the seats is 83.3%. The big losers are the three more moderate parties, particularly Alliance and the UUP.

The yawning chasm between vote percentage and seat percentage is an intrinsic element of FPTP. Moreover, in constituencies where there is parity between two of the three blocs – Fermanagh & South Tyrone by-election in 1981 or North Belfast in 2019, for example – pressure is put on the more moderate party within a bloc to withdraw (SDLP and UUP, respectively, in the above examples). Such pressure does not happen in Assembly and local elections when the Proportional Representation – Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) electoral system is used. Thus, FPTP can be seen to deform the electoral process: in a free and fair election, no candidate or party should come under pressure or intimidation to withdraw from the electoral race, and voters should not have to resort to tactical voting.

What difference would PR-STV make to Westminster elections? NI voters are used to PR-STV, so there would be no learning curve. Three six-seater constituencies could be drawn, each one including six current seats. The map below shows three possible constituencies whose boundaries were chosen to give recognition to the geography of identity within Northern Ireland, but any contiguous configuration of boundaries should give broadly similar results in a proportional election.

Belfast Lough comprises the four Belfast constituencies, plus North Down and East Antrim. Border consists of the five Border constituencies plus Mid-Ulster; with the remaining six constituencies in Central.

Assuming the same party votes as in 2019, it is likely that about 85% of voters (six-sevenths) would now be represented, about twice as many as under FPTP.

Belfast Lough would return three DUP, one Alliance, one SF and one SDLP MP. Central would return three DUP, one UUP, one Alliance and one SF MP. Border would return two SF, two SDLP, one DUP and one UUP MP.

The DUP would now have a bonus (+) of 8.3% in terms of seats. For the other parties: SF would have a deficit (-) of 0.6%; Alliance (-5.7%); SDLP (+1.8%); UUP (-0.6%); Others (-3.2%). No party would have an excess or deficit of more than 10% between votes and seats. As each of the 18 seats is worth 5.6%, no party would have more than a one seat bonus or deficit.

The two big losers in such a new electoral system are the DUP and SF. Why would they agree to a reform that appears to be against their electoral interests? It depends on whether they see their interests in the short-term or long-term. Both parties, despite their overwhelming success within their own bloc, have essentially failed in their core aim of convincing as many people as possible of the merits of their respective visions of unionism or unity. Could FPTP-influenced politics be to blame for these failures? I believe so.

There is a tension in both parties between the fundamentalist base and the pragmatic leadership. While both parties have avoided a split in the past twenty-five years of peace process, proroguing and power-sharing, it is evident that this tension stops both parties from being brave, from breaking out of their tribal straitjacket and from attracting post-GFA voters, who are more interested in living with the synergies and complexities of a Northern Irish identity than in the integrity of ancient quarrels from a murky past. Despite a rising Catholic share of the electorate, a smaller percentage of voters is now voting nationalist than twenty years ago. And the DUP has shed many unionist voters to Alliance. FPTP is cruel to losers: if the middle-ground bloc vote continues to increase, it is possible in the longer term that both SF and DUP could lose many seats overnight and end up with huge seat deficits rather than the big bonuses they now have. Redrawing of FPTP constituency boundaries could have a catastrophic effect on the number of seats won by a party even if their overall vote stayed constant.

FPTP embodies electoral segregation: candidates and parties are encouraged to energise their base by denigrating the other side. PR-STV embodies reconciliation: candidates and parties are encouraged to reach out to all voters for transfers. Could one imagine the two Civil War parties going into a grand coalition in Dublin after a FPTP election rather than a PR-STV election? I think not.

Getting rid of the FPTP electoral system would be the coup de grâce for those who wish to keep politics stuck in the zero-sum-where-do-you-stand-on-the-border rut. It would result in the election of politicians who would be dependent for the most part on transfers, knowing that if they resort to the ancient bile-dripping verities of sectarian purity, their attractiveness – and transfers – will continue to decline among middle-ground voters, who are the new kingmakers in a majorityless polity. It would finally consign to history winner-take-all electoral politics. No longer in the baleful shadows of Westminster zero-sum elections, the fragile acorn that is the Assembly may yet grow into a mighty oak.

Photo by mounsey is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA