How Jeremy Thorpe (and then Nick Clegg) broke the electoral system

Democratic Audit this week published its latest analysis, its depressing conclusions summed up by The Guardian’s headline British democracy in terminal decline.

A fascinating aspect of the Audit, even for those of us still scarred by the rejection of electoral reform in the 2011 referendum, is its detailed dissection of how the First-Past-The-Post system is failing democracy. And in particular the pinpointing of the year when FPTP started to go bad: 1974, and the Liberal insurgence under Jeremy Thorpe, when the party increased its support from 7.5% in 1970 to 19.3%.

This, say the Audit’s authors, marked a turning point in the UK’s electoral history, a moment when ended the dominance of the ‘Golden Age’ of FPTP (1950-70) and introduced instead its ‘Dysfunctional Age’ (1979-2005):

What the table shows is the decline of a two-party system from its post-war peak of 97% share of the vote (1951) for Labour and Conservatives to around 75% after the 1974 election up to 2005. And then came the 2010 election and a second potential game-changer, with the decline in the Labour/Conservative share of the vote to just two-thirds. You can see the individual breakdown by party of this trend in this graph:

Democratic Audit identify four characteristics of this dysfunctional age:

    1) Recent elections have tended to produce excessively large majorities: “on four occasions since 1979 the winning party has secured majorities of 100, despite securing no more than 43 per cent of the vote – a scenario which would have been unthinkable in the 1950s.”

    2) The electoral system has blocked the emergence of a multi-party system at Westminster: “by 2010, the electorate’s desire for a multi-party system had become undeniable, yet the allocation of seats maintained the semblance of a two-party system.”

    3) The results of UK general elections have become highly disproportional: “Following a brief period in the 1950s when FPTP produced broadly proportional outcomes in which votes and seats were closely matched, … elections from 1983 onwards have consistently produced outcomes which are far more disproportional than those in the immediate post-war decades.”

    4) Rather than votes counting equally, FPTP has rendered voter power highly uneven. “As party support becomes more geographically concentrated, and the number of marginal seats falls, meaningful electoral competition has tended to diminish in the great majority of seats. … In 2007, following the ‘General Election that never was’, the Electoral Reform Society (2008) estimated that the difference between a Labour and a Conservative victory could have depended on how as few as 8,000 voters across 30-35 key marginals cast their votes.”

Will it be back to two-party business as usual in 2015?

While the trend is clear enough to say that 1974 was a watershed year in UK electoral politics, it’s naturally too early to say if 2010 will be seen likewise. Labour and the Conservatives will be hoping that the Lib Dems’ current opinion poll ratings point to a reversion to the norm, that the simpler and more comfortable two-party politics will re-assert itself.

Regardless of the Lib Dem vote recovery I naturally hope to see, there seems scant chance of that happening. Even today, with the Lib Dem vote hovering at a low c.10%, the two-party share of the vote has climbed back only to its ‘dysfunctional age’ average of 75%. All three main parties are looking nervously ahead to the 2014 European elections, when there is surely a good chance that Ukip will top the national poll just 12 months before a general election. If they do expect panic at Westminster, especially among Conservatives.

In short, two-party politics is dead. Unfortunately, we have a democratic system based on the assumption it isn’t. That’s not a good or healthy combination.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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41 Comments

  • Nicola Prigg 15th Jul '12 - 3:13pm

    When you write FTPT do you mean First-Past-The-Post i.e. FPTP or is FTPT a new system that I’ve never heard of?

    I too hope that the two-party system is dead and that 2010 was another transitional year but with the current strategy that Clegg is pursuing, I fail to see how that will happen unless everyone jumps ship to UKIP, Greens etc. which I don’t hope seeing as I’m a Liberal

  • Richard Dean 15th Jul '12 - 3:56pm

    The problem is that Democratic Audit seem to be defining what “democratic” means in terms that the voters have democratically rejected.

    DA seem to assume that democracy requires proportionality, but voters seem to have democratically disagreed. So it is DA who has lost the plot, not the system!

    I suggest that a less agendizable measure of how democratic a system is might start with particpation rates – what proportion of voters take an interest, what proportion feel their vote counts?

  • ……………………..In 2007, following the ‘General Election that never was’, the Electoral Reform Society (2008) estimated that the difference between a Labour and a Conservative victory could have depended on how as few as 8,000 voters across 30-35 key marginals cast their votes.” ……………..

    Had that election taken place and been won by the Conservatives they would have been the ‘party in power’ and deemed responsible for the financial meltdown.
    Had they failed to secure a majority, and formed a coalition with us, they/us would have been deemed responsible.
    The coalition would probably fallen apart in 2008/9.
    Either way, Labour would be in power (under Brown) with a massive majority.

    fLabour would

  • @Richard dean
    “DA seem to assume that democracy requires proportionality, but voters seem to have democratically disagreed. So it is DA who has lost the plot, not the system!”

    I’m not sure that is true. AV is not proportional (some say it is ‘more’ proportional than FPTP) so us voters never really had a choice. Living in a Tory stronghold as I currently do, the 40% of us who vote for someone else would still have had our votes lost.

  • Charles Beaumont 15th Jul '12 - 4:52pm

    An important observation is the point when LDs got better at translating electoral scores around 20% into bigger numbers of MPs – 1997 (a bit of a breakthrough in numbers of seats and our lowest GE score in 20 years). Very few people actually know about vote share because it has so little connection to seats won. What proportion of the public knows that our 2010 vote was only one-fifth lower than Labour’s? Why aren’t we working harder with the Greens, UKIP and the regional parties to make this point?

  • Stephen Tall 15th Jul '12 - 6:07pm

    @ Nicola Prigg – thx for the typo-spotting, now corrected!

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Jul '12 - 6:50pm

    1950-1970 a “Golden Age”, when FPTP was working well? Surely the most notorious election result in British history was 1951 (the only election Churhcill “won”), when Labour got a quarter of a million more votes than the Tories – and lost.

    Ian Sanderson: “AV is not PR, though the dishonest people in the No campaign pretended it is.”

    I think you mean the dishonest people in the Yes campaign. As I recall, the No campaign understood perfectly that AV was not proportional. The Yes campaign, with their vague talk of “fairer votes”, were the real confusers.

  • @Ian Sanderson
    Further to the post from Stuart Mitchell, you may wish to recall that one of the strands of the No Campaign was actually “No to AV, Yes to PR”. I would hardly call that pretending that AV was PR.

  • The one positive feature of FPTP for the Lib Dems is that it gives them substantial power to decide who wins, or even if there’s no winner.  However, this does require thinking along the lines of Tim Farron’s 57 by-elections strategy and not pretending that the current electoral system is PR.  There is often little reward for getting more votes, eg 24% cf 23%, and in particular in 2010 getting 2,000 Lib Dems to vote Labour in 10 Con-Lab marginals would have produced a ‘double-hung’ parliament and would have greatly increased Lib Dem post-election leverage.

  • Elliot Bidgood 16th Jul '12 - 1:45am

    This analysis by Dem Audit isn’t new, but it’s correct. A similar argument about this on Next Left two years ago was one of the things that pursuaded me to vote in favour of AV: http://www.nextleft.org/2010/05/it-wasnt-pr-that-got-us-into-this-mess.html

    However, I’d question this- “by 2010, the electorate’s desire for a multi-party system had become undeniable”. Yes and no. People want better choice among parties and to break from the Lab-Con-Lab-Con-Lab-Con pattern, but they’re not in practice willing to bring it about, as a true multi-party system would involve letting go of the desire for strong majoritarian government and embracing PR and regular coalitions instead, which they are deeply wary of.

    Polls on AV showed early on that when you asked people if they’d vote Yes they’d say yes, but then when a follow-up question described what AV actually was and asked them again, they swung to No- this was the harbinger of the bottom falling out of the Yes campaign’s polls in the final couple of months before the referendum. Insofar as people care at all about electoral reform, British sentiment on the subject is essentially something along the lines of (to paraphrase Churchill) “FPTP is the worst electoral system, except for all the others”. They know it undervalues their votes and constrains their choice, but they won’t swap it for anything that is more unstable, more complicated or that will break the constituency link, and even AV, the tamest and least-threatening type of reform imaginable, was regarded as a bridge too far.

  • Rebecca Hanson 16th Jul '12 - 7:45am

    I think the main problem leading to decline in the quality of democracy is not he first past the post system, it’s the reality that those we have to elect to lead us are nowhere near as bright as those who’d run the empire, fought wars and had had the kind of integrative education which was provided by small universities. The fragmentation and disconnection of communities and society is also a driving force.

    I’ve been looking at explicit methods by which we can reintegrate our education and become more connected both in our understanding of our own communities and in our ability to perceive what’s happening in other cultures.

    PR would help but it’s not the core issue and it’s nowhere near enough.

    You guys should get me to help you write a manifesto.
    (Rebecca is on the committee of the LDEA and is serious).

  • Richard Dean 16th Jul '12 - 11:52am

    The fact remains that DA has one set of ways of measuring how democratic a society. Other ways are possible, and insisting that DA’s is the only correct one reeduces DA to a totalitarian pressure group, not a democratic one at all.

    At football matches we generally support one team, not both. In this and many other ways, society teaches us the skills to make a single choice, rather than to rank alternatives. Who is your favorite celeb? An FPTP system could be more democratic, in the sense of that people are more skilled at making that kind of choice, and so will be more likely to accurately express what they want.

    Why not constitute the Lords as the collection of candidates who came second in parliamentary elections for the Commons? That way we might get a system that people could easily understand, and one that would not challenge the primacy of the Commons while giving much better representation to everyone!

  • By 2020, if not 2015, it’s not impossible that we may enter a new golden age of FPTP. It all hinges on whether the issue of EU membership is resolved the way UKIP and backbench Tories are campaigning for. If the threat of UKIP is removed, the Conservatives are free to consolidate the right and will aim for 40% or more of the vote.

    Assuming the Lib Dems don’t recover and no one else mounts a successful challenge against Labour on the left, both main parties will be in the low 40s, where a two horse race effect could propel them the rest of the way to 90% of the vote, and firmly back into golden age territory.

  • “AV is not truly proportional, and of course the referendum never offered a proportional system, but it does produce a slightly more proportional, and hence fairer, result than FPTP.”

    On the contrary, it’s not intrinsically more proportional at all.

    Under the current political set-up in this country, by chance it would produce a more proportional result, simply because the third party would attract more second preferences than the others.

    But if that wasn’t the case (for example if the third party was on the left or on the right), AV would produce a _less_ proportional results than FPTP.

  • “Assuming the Lib Dems don’t recover and no one else mounts a successful challenge against Labour on the left, both main parties will be in the low 40s, where a two horse race effect could propel them the rest of the way to 90% of the vote, and firmly back into golden age territory.”

    That I doubt. I think there will be a substantial protest vote against the main parties, but it’s likely to be fragmented among a number of minority parties which won’t be able to translate it into seats.

    But what matters in practice for the extent of two-party dominance is the number of seats won by the Lib Dems (and to a lesser extent the SNP). On that basis, I think 2015 will see a substantial move back to two-party politics in terms of MPs, even if the two-party vote share remains historically low.

  • Charles Beaumont 16th Jul '12 - 2:51pm

    @Richard – Over the years people have suggested the idea that the Lords could be a sort of proportional offset to the FPTP Commons (I remember an article by Bill Rodgers for example). Sadly, the 15-year terms proposed in the current reforms (which I still support as a very minor improvement on the existing system) undermines all this. Wouldn’t it be great if the HoC was split it two – 300 MPs on FPTP normal constituencies and 300 elected proportionally.

    @Charles Even with a collapse in LD support the minor parties have increased hugely since 1970 and will probably continue to do so (a Green MP in the house!). The problem is the dissipation of so much of this political support.

  • Richard Dean 16th Jul '12 - 3:17pm

    One of the basic requirements of an electoral system is surely that voters should be able to understand it. But if you experts are still confused about whether AV is PR, and politicians and broadcasters (and so educators) are also confused about whether AV is PR, what chance has the electorate got?

    My impression is that people see this as the LibDems trying to cheat by changing the system to their advantage. That does not seem to me to be something that will increase support for LibDems.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 16th Jul '12 - 8:03pm

    @Dane Clouston – I think you have your numbers round the wrong way there. In February the Tories got 24.6k, the Liberals got 23.4K and Labour got just short of 11k. In October the Tories got 23.5k, the Liberals got 22.5k and Labour got 9.4k.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jul '12 - 8:43pm

    @Dane Clouston — I think you’re letting your own experience mislead you as to the likely effect of AV. It would not have ended “many safe seats”; in fact, it would undoubtedly have ended some, and created others.

    Of course, Newbury in 1974 clearly wasn’t a safe seat, so it belongs to a different argument about AV. Even there, however, I note that you claim that “many Labour voters were sick that they had not voted Liberal” — yet, given a chance to correct their “mistake” just eight months later, they chose not to do so. Were their memories really that short? Were they just too stupid? Or did they perhaps prefer to vote for the party they actually wanted, rather than give an arguably artificial mandate to a sort of compromise* candidate?

    *I realise you wouldn’t have regarded yourself as a compromise candidate, but the implication clearly is that those Labour voters would have done.

  • Tony Dawson 16th Jul '12 - 9:22pm

    I am trying to work out how the ‘transitional year (1974) is to be considered any different than the average of the following elections from which it is not statistically significantly different in terms of three party vote shares) at all. And, although one might like to believe 2010 was a watershed, ie another ‘transition’ , the way the polls are going, I would wait and see 2015 before writing screeds like this claiming to have any authority!

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Jul '12 - 8:55am

    A good point, Tony. One could even make a case for 2005 being more significant than 2010 in terms of 2-party vote, since that was the first time that dropped below 70% (and quite substantially). And if you look at the change in the three-party vote (which may be more significant given the likely eclipse of the Lib Dems at the next election), that was when the “Others” vote first went above 10% (as 1974 was when it first went above 5%) and may be a more telling indicator of political fragmentation and disillusion with mainstream politics.

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Jul '12 - 8:19pm

    Simon: “[AV] does produce a slightly more proportional, and hence fairer, result than FPTP.”

    Not according to the Electoral Reform Society, whose website used to feature a page on AV which confirmed that AV “can be less proportional” than FPTP. Notoriously, the ERS removed this page from their site at about the same time they started heading the “Yes” campaign.

    How great that we can still argue about this over a year later!

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '12 - 11:17am

    It is nice to see, at last, a recognition that the turning point was 1974 rather than the foundation of the SDP in 1981.

    I am sorry, however, that Democratic Audit has not listed a fifth dysfunctional characteristic which I actually think should be listed first of five. That is, the extreme regional distortion caused by FPTP. So we end up with the whole of the south-east outside London having almost entirely Tory MPs, and large parts of the north and industrial/inner-city areas having nothing but Labour MPs. I believe this has been hugely damaging for many reasons.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '12 - 2:57pm

    Dane Clouston, you’ve missed my point. I’m not saying whether the Social Democrats were good or bad, a problem or not a problem. What I’m saying is that their role in the decline of the two-party system has been greatly over-played. From 1981 onwards you will find commentators, and people writing books on modern British politics, the sort of textbook a student of politics would be given, writing up the decline of the two-party system as if it started in 1981. The story was – and those who were not around at the time believe it, because that is what they see written down – that the Liberal Party was a sleepy historical remnant and it was the foundation of the SDP that changed things and ended the days when Britain could be realistically written up as just a two-party system.

    In fact the February 1974 general election was, I would say, and have been saying since 1981, the more significant event. The reason it was downplayed is because then as now, the Westminster Bubble thinks politics is only about them and only what they do changes anything. The SDP was a Westminster Bubble creation, the Liberal Party of the 1970s was primarily a grassroots activist organisation – and it was those Liberal grassroots activists who were the real driving force in ending the two-party system.

  • Denis Cooper 19th Jul '12 - 10:41am

    I would much prefer to keep FPTP for the Commons.

    Partly that’s for admittedly rather sentimental reasons, eg so that people in a community can usually still say “our MP” rather than having to say “one of the six MPs we share with neighbouring towns”.

    But mainly it’s because FPTP is the system most likely to produce a single party government with a working majority in the Commons.

    However I can also see the disadvantages of FPTP, both practical and theoretical, which is why I think it would be a good idea if people in a community could still say “our MP”, but also say “our SMP”, who would be the “Second Member of Parliament” representing that constituency in the second chamber.

    And the simple, cost-free, practically effective and theoretically justifiable method to choose that SMP would be for him to be the candidate who had come second in the same parliamentary election that produced the MP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jul '12 - 11:51am

    Denis Cooper

    Partly that’s for admittedly rather sentimental reasons, eg so that people in a community can usually still say “our MP” rather than having to say “one of the six MPs we share with neighbouring towns”.

    Sorry, when I was growing up on a council estate in a supposedly true-blue safe Tory part of the world, how was I supposed to think of the Tory who was the MP as “our MP”? He did not know or care about people like us, he never spoke for people like us, he was part of a party whose whole aim was to oppress people like us, then as now, make us more miserable so the people they REALLY represented could grow richer. If there were several local MPs, I would regard the one of them who represented the minority poor people in the area, gathering together the scattered votes form the small council estates hidden away over the large “true blue” district as OUR MP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jul '12 - 12:00pm

    Dennis Cooper

    But mainly it’s because FPTP is the system most likely to produce a single party government with a working majority in the Commons

    Well, fine. I hope you are not one of those people moaning about the LibDems “propping up the Tories”. The logical consequence of your argument is that whichever party wins the most votes should have unrestricted government power regardless of how short it fell of actually getting 50% of the vote. So to follow what you want, the LibDems should simply let through everything the Tories want, not argue about it and try to change it. I hear Tories saying this sort of thing, but anyone who is Labour and opposes electoral reform for the reason you do should, if they have any decency take the same line. So why don’t I hear Labour opponents of no-one who opposes electoral reform of electoral reform saying “dirty rotten Liberal Democrats – they are stopping the election winners getting all their own way instead of just agreeing to let the Tories govern as they want”? So far as I am concerned, that is the only morally defensible position Labour oppponents of electoral reform should be taking to the Liberal Democrats.

    Or perhaps you should consider introducing a system, as was introduced in Italy in 1922, which guarantees full power to the biggest party. Seems to me the mindset of the party which introduced it is similar to the mindset of those who support FPTP on the grounds that it leads to “decisive government”.

  • Denis Cooper 19th Jul '12 - 8:13pm

    Matthew Huntbach –

    Perhaps you missed the point that under FPTP-SPTP if your MP was Tory then your SMP would not be a Tory.

    Except perhaps in very rare cases where the Tories had such overwhelming support in a constituency that they dared to split their vote by putting up two candidates, bearing in mind that each elector would still have only one vote to cast as now.

  • Denis Cooper 19th Jul '12 - 8:14pm

    Matthew Huntbach –

    If I really wanted any single party to have unrestricted power, would I be proposing a system deliberately designed to ensure that whichever single party had a Commons majority would not also have a majority in the second chamber?

  • Denis Cooper 20th Jul '12 - 9:26am

    Dane Clousten –

    “Having come a very close second in two General Elections I would not have taken kindly to being referred to a “Second Member of Parliament” and being in the Senate rather than the Commons, which is what I was hoping to enter.”

    If you came second in a general election and entered the second chamber then the description “Second Member of Parliament” would be entirely appropriate, and if instead Senators were elected by a separate PR election then that title would not change the fact that many of them would not have won if the election had been held under FPTP.

    In any case I would have thought that the opportunity to serve your community in Parliament would have been more important than your title.

    “This is a recipe for producing a permanent institutionally guaranteed fundamental conflict between the Commons and the Senate, or second chamber.”

    It’s a recipe for institutionally guaranteed and hopefully effective opposition to the government in the second chamber, to compensate for what is usually a lack of effective opposition in a first chamber elected by FPTP.

    But as the second chamber would clearly have less democratic legitimacy than the first, with the average SMP having received maybe 65% of the votes received by the average MP, there could be no question about which chamber should have primacy.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Jul '12 - 10:21am

    Dane Clouston
    “Let us agree that AV would have ended somewhere between “many” and “some” safe seats. I am not sure about it creating others very often, if at all.”
    I don’t know about often, but it certainly would create some — mostly to the benefit of the Lib Dems, who are in several places neck-and-neck with the Tories (or occasionally Labour) and would become much harder to dislodge if the remaining Labour (or Tory) voters had the opportunity to choose between the devil and the merely (to them) undesirable. I don’t think LibDems are genetically incapable of the sort of behaviour that we have seen from Tory and Labour MPs with safe seats, so I don’t regard creating safe Lib Dem seats as intrinsically better than the other sort.

    “Presumably the present vastly un-proportional, un-preferential system suits your politics. ”
    Well, that just shows how silly presumption can be. I voted for AV because, as I said at the time, I thought it was very slightly less bad than the awful system we have now. Don’t assume that the world is divided into people who think everything’s great the way it is and people who agree with Dane Clouston. :-/

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