The confusing scramble by Remainers to vote tactically in the UK general election has exposed the failings of the First Past the Post system, writes Tarun Khaitan. He explains why the Alternative Vote system could have delivered a clearer signal about Brexit – particularly as it would have discouraged Labour from engaging in strategic ambiguity about it, and forced voters to deliberate on Plan B if their preferred option was not to be realised.
What do the British people want to do with Brexit? Anyone hoping to find answers in the results of today’s election is likely to be disappointed. Only a clear majority in vote share (rather than simply seat share) for the Conservatives can possibly be read as a mandate for Brexit; likewise, only a vote share majority for the explicitly anti-Brexit parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens and others) could indicate a mandate against it.
Since no credible pollster considers either of these outcomes to be within the realms of possibility, and Labour voters are hard to read because the party is sitting on the fence, it is unlikely that we will know what the British people really want to do about Brexit on Friday morning. In this post, I will consider which electoral system would have produced the most faithful representation of what the people want. I will be assuming that although Brexit is not the only issue in this campaign, it is clearly the most important one and would largely determine the voting behaviour for most people.
Deciding Brexit through FPTP
The power to deliver, delay, modify, or stop Brexit, on the other hand, will be determined by the relative seat-shares of parties, which – in the existing first-past-the-post system (FPTP) – will likely reflect an over-translated (relative to vote-share) seat-share of the winning party. By doing so, FPTP clearly accrues a significant democratic deficit. Proponents of FPTP claim that this is a price worth paying precisely because it over-translates the votes of the winning party into seats. It is said to deliver stable governments and to exert a defragmenting centripetal force in the political system by penalising smaller parties and rewarding larger ones. It is said to be especially hostile to parties that behave like factions, and try to polarise the electorate by targeting a scapegoat minority.
However, FPTP exerts this centripetal force under very specific circumstances – a unitary state with a relatively homogenous population and a two-party system. Because it relies on single member constituencies, it penalises factions only if social groups are geographically dispersed. In federal states with geographically concentrated ethnic and cultural minorities, FPTP results in a multi-party system with a large number of ethnicity-based or region-specific parties whose political influence is concentrated in their particular regions.
India is a good example of a federal system with a heterogenous population and geographically concentrated sub-national groups. In India, FPTP has resulted in numerous factional parties – so while it continues to exercise a centripetal force in each state, and restricts the number of serious contenders to two or three parties, the frontrunners are different in different states.
As regional parties like the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and Sinn Fein gain strength in specific regions of the UK, the only parties that continue to be penalised by FPTP’s centripetalism are the smaller parties with a dispersed support base, such as the Greens, UKIP, and the Liberal Democrats. While this may be welcome to some people, the complete exclusion from power of a party like UKIP is more likely to make it want to seek political possibilities outside the system. It shouldn’t surprise us that parties that are always likely to fail in a system will want to change it, sometimes radically. Whatever its merits might have been 20 years ago, FPTP today simply inflicts costs on UK democracy without delivering its supposed centripetal benefits.
Parties and voters know the democratic deficit in FPTP and have been openly trying to game it. The scale of overt attempts to figure out the best strategy for contesting and voting in these elections has been unprecedented. Given the complexity of the system, and the unreliability of opinion polls, the ability of the voters to successfully game the system is extremely limited. Disgust with being forced to play these strategic games when performing one’s most fundamental civic duty, and frustration with the lack of information that would permit gaming with confidence, has led to renewed calls for a shift to a proportional representation system. Proportional systems, however, are no panacea either.
PR is also problematic
Under a proportional system, a small political party which only seeks a measure of political influence (which can be substantial if it holds the balance of power in a coalition government) may be content with winning (say) 10% of the legislative seats. Under a pure proportional system, it would need 10% of votes to do so. This may be relatively easy to achieve, in many contexts, by running a polarising campaign against a hated ethnocultural minority. In fact, it may even be easier for a small party to secure 10% of the vote share through a distinctive polarising campaign than by competing with broad-church larger parties.
Proportional systems, therefore, exert a centrifugal force on the polity. So, while a Brexit-focused election under PR rules would have permitted the voters to register their preference regarding Brexit directly without needing to game the system, it is likely that smaller parties would have been tempted (even more) to jostle for political distinction by employing divisive and polarising rhetoric. The polity then needs to fix increasingly higher vote share thresholds that a small party must win to qualify for legislative seats – thereby replicating (albeit to a lesser degree) the democratic deficit of the FPTP system that it was supposed to fix in the first place.
At any rate, given Labour’s ambiguous position, it is unlikely that running this election under PR rules would have delivered a clear verdict on Brexit. Even if (say) the clearly pro-Brexit parties won 45% of the vote-share (and seat-share) and the anti-Brexit parties won 30%, Labour’s 25% of seats would have been decisive in determining the way forward. While voters don’t need to (and typically can’t) game the system in a pure PR regime, they can have little idea what the resulting post-election coalition government’s policy is going to be. For all its supposed democratic merits, PR scores low on the accountability of parties to their voters with regard to their manifesto commitments. Remember Nick Clegg? Another democratic problem with PR is that it can vest a very small party with the balance of power — the Theresa May government being held hostage by the DUP is likely to become a very frequent scenario under a PR system.
An AV system could have been the best of both worlds
UK voters rejected a move to the Alternative Vote (AV, also known as Preferential Vote or Ranked-Choice Vote) in a referendum in 2011. That was a mistake. If the current election was being conducted under an AV system, no voter would have been required to game the system.
- An anti-Brexit voter would have ranked her preferred anti-Brexit party as her first choice, perhaps another anti-Brexit party as her second choice, an ambiguous or soft-Brexit party as her third choice, and so on, marking the staunchest hard-Brexit party as her least preferred option.
- A pro-hard-Brexit voter, on the other hand, could have done the same in reverse.
- All voters would have needed to deliberate on their second preference – not necessarily something they liked, but an outcome they could tolerate. This could reduce tribalism in politics.
- A voter who is indifferent to Brexit would have decided her rankings based on their policies in relation to the issues that mattered most to her.
Furthermore, strategic ambiguity would have been a less attractive option for Labour. Benjamin Reilly’s research on the Australian experience shows that AV affects smaller parties differently from FPTP. The latter system denies smaller parties with a dispersed base both power and influence. Under AV, parties like the Greens are able to advise their voters on which larger party to put down as their second preference in return for policy deals reached with such parties. So Labour would have had to enter into some form of pre-election deal with the Greens (and, possibly, even the SNP and the Liberal Democrats) to secure their voters’ second preference. To do so, they may have had to get off the fence. Since the deals are struck before the election, voters know exactly what they are voting for, and are in any case able to ignore their preferred party’s advice regarding their second preference vote.
In addition, AV distinguishes between factional smaller parties like UKIP and non-factional small parties like the Greens: while the Greens could equally figure on any rank for a voter, voters are likely to treat UKIP like Marmite. Some would love it and mark their first preference against it; for others, it is likely to be the over-my-dead-body option. AV therefore rewards broad church parties and penalises factions, unlike PR, which rewards factionalism at the margins of the polity. AV’s centripetalism, however, is more democratic than FPTP’s — it assesses not only the voter’s preference, but also the intensity of her preference and dispreference. Deals between parties are typically made before elections, and are therefore subject to electoral accountability ex ante. Also, while AV also keeps factional parties out of power, unlike FPTP it keeps them within the electoral fold and gives them a stake — albeit a small one — in the system.
Admittedly, AV is harder to explain and administer than some of the alternatives, but tweaks such as limited and optional rankings (which permit — rather than mandate — voters to rank their top two or three candidates) can make the system feasible. The right to rank one’s top three choices is very intuitive to most people. AV has the greatest ability to avoid making gaming demands on voters, and thereby avoid is delegitimising effects on democratic politics.
How this election would have turned out under AV is anyone’s guess. But voters would not have felt compelled to vote for reasons other than their partisan preferences, and could have felt fairly confident that parties would not renege on their key election promises in post-electoral coalitions. For a system under siege, that could only have been a good thing.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper. The article also draws on comments from Prof Kim Lane Scheppele and Prof Benjamin Reilly. This article first appeared on our sister site, LSE Brexit. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: allispossible.org.uk via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence
Tarun Khaitan – University of Oxford
Tarun Khaitan is Professor of Public Law and Legal Theory at Oxford University and an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Why do you call the Green Party ‘non-factional’ and UKIP ‘factional’ ?
Surely ‘factional’ is pejorative ?
IMO, Greens are highly ‘factional’.
They are extreme socialists, using environmental issues to oppose individuals and aspiration – the clearest example, opposition to cars.
UKIP simply argue for democratic decisions to be taken closer to the people.
i.e. If UK voters vote for Green policies – they should have them – undiluted by the EU.
This seems more unjversal than factional.
How is AV either hard to explain – or to administer ?
People make choices all the time – several times a week having to accept a second or third preference.
(Tesco often runs out of my preferred bread)
Having watched many counts for Council Elections, an AV count should be child’s play.
For Wards with 3 Councillors – and voters splitting their vote every possible way – that process is way more fiddly than AV !
UKIP are a nativist party that try to mobilise people around the idea that foreign influence and immigrants are malign influences on our lives (as are the natives who support these two things). Since Farage left they’ve added an anti-Muslim side to their campaigning that didn’t exist before.
It’s fairly obvious you sympathise with them and hate seeing them described in what you view as a pejorative way, but the role of an academic isn’t to care about what the supporters of political parties think, it’s to arrive at accurate definitions. I’m not sure there’s a single neutral observer on the planet who would view the Green Party as being more factional (using the definition in this article) than UKIP – opposing the use of cars isn’t “to polarise the electorate by targeting a scapegoat minority”.
‘academics …… accurate definitions….’ ?
So what is the evidence for all your obviously pejorative opinions and assertions about UKIP ?
Or are these a given in the academic echo-chamber ?
It is not foreign ‘influence’ that is deemed malign – but foreign made LAWS that UK MPs, supported by UK voters cannot undo.
Your charge of ‘immigrants are a malign influence’ is plain wrong.
Firstly it is not ‘immigrants’ as individuals that are ‘malign’ – but mass, uncontrolled immigration raising house prices, pressuring school places, health and transport.
If anyone claimed ‘immigrants’ were ‘malign’, surely that would be a comment on culture rather than numbers – which might make Europeans more ‘acceptable’ – yet it is uncontrolled EU immigration that triggered concerns.
What is your evidence for generalised ‘anti-Muslim’.
Have you not heard UKIP spokesmen focus narrowly on ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘literal’ Islam …….
… or do you have no problem with aspects of Islam against women or homosexuals ?
What is your evidence for UKIP ‘targeting a scapegoat minority’ ….
…. or are you referring to the Labour Party that puts everyone into an identity – and then tells us what to think about each one ?
I’m not an academic so part of this comment is fairly irrelevant to me, but what you’re doing here is extremely common. You happen to support a particular political party and want everyone to discuss this party in accordance with whatever PR spin puts them in a positive light. You therefore want to harangue anyone who identifies the party for what it is rather than the PR friendly image you’d like people to think of it as. All party supporters act in the same way whether it’s UKIP, the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems or anyone else.
And that’s all fine. If you want to campaign for a political party then knock yourself out. But if academics or serious journalists gave any concern to what political campaigners thought of their definitions then they’d never be able to write anything. The only thing that matters is how accurate those definitions are and needless to say your rather strange argument that the Greens opposing the use of cars makes them more factional than UKIP is about as accurate as a 17th century weather forecast.
UKIP’s appeal is exactly what I said it is. They dedicate all their energy into arguing immigration should be cut, the influence of foreign institutions should be reduced/eliminated, that we should send less money abroad, and so on (all in their last manifesto). You might think using words like “nativist” about them is pejorative. In the real world they’re practically the dictionary definition of the word. If you want to restrict academic/journalistic freedom by throwing a tantrum whenever someone uses a word you don’t like then fine, but don’t expect anyone to pay any attention.
Oh dear Ham…..
A strawman rebuttal.. …
I did not comment on ‘nativist’.
How is it a ‘tantrum’ to push back against someone who assumes that all the criticisms of UKIP by opponents are true – while dismissing as ‘spin’ anyone who challenges biased generalisations about UKIP ?
You remark abou ‘all Party supporters act in the same way’ betrays an unwillingness to think independently ( or buy into Labour’s Identity politics).
As a minor politician, I have operated closely with several members of all the Parties you listed – and clear differences exist within ALL Parties.
And UKIP probably attracts the most independent and diverse supporters of the lot !
The deal making in Australia is made in part because of the upper house, where until quite recently parties needed to reach agreements to handle preferences between them. In the lower house, parties do suggest how to vote, but those are only suggestions.
I cannot imagine parties outside Australia cutting actual deals with a minor party to attract voters from that party. Either the voters are likely to come over or they are not.
True – FPTP is messy, PR is disastrous for our style of democracy. AV would be the most apt.
It’s a gross oversimplification to refer to “PR” as though it were a single, well defined system, and it’s not at all clear to me what variety of proportional system you have in mind when you make rather sweeping generalisations about how it would work in contrast to AV.
Another crucial factor that’s absent in your analysis is the way UK is divided into single-seat constituencies. This exaggerates the uneven dispersal of political sentiment and is a major contributor to the national under-representation (which you note) of parties such as LibDems and Greens. Larger, multi-seat constituencies would greatly reduce this effect.