About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.
Since then, things have changed somewhat.
The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.
Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.
In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.
Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.
However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.
(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)
This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.
At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.