In Modern Britain, with so many parties, our electoral system is no longer fit for purposeby Vernon Bogdanor / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Who governs Britain? That is the question being put to the voters on 7th May. But in the background lurk other constitutional questions—a Scottish question, an English question, a European Union question and a human rights question. All require answers. The constitution, which many politicians hoped might have been disposed of as an issue after the Scottish referendum, has returned to the agenda with a vengeance.
But perhaps the most fundamental of the constitutional questions is how Britain is to be governed in an era of party fragmentation in which the electoral system either fails to yield a single-party majority government or yields one enjoying barely more than a third of the popular vote.
This question arises because of the social changes that have transformed the two-party system of the 1950s into the multi-party system of today. Such a system undermines the case for “first past the post,” an electoral mechanism designed for a two-party age, which works erratically when more than two parties enjoy substantial electoral support.
Britain in the 1950s was certainly a two-party system. Over 90 per cent of us voted Conservative or Labour. To adapt the famous couplet of WS Gilbert: “Every little boy or girl born alive/Was born a little Labourite or a little Conservat-ive.” In 1951, there were just six MPs—all Liberals—who did not belong to the Labour and Conservative parties. By 2005, there were 92, of whom 62 were Liberal Democrats. In 2010, there were 85 MPs who did not belong to the Labour or Conservative parties. Fifty-seven of these were Liberal Democrats.
Today opinion polls indicate that in England, there are, for the first time ever, five parties with more than 5 per cent support— the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence Party and the Greens. In Scotland, with the Scottish National Party, there are six parties with over 5 per cent support. Multi-party competition on this scale is quite unprecedented. We face a totally new electoral situation.