First Past The Post voting system damages the UK

Ballot boxes at count in Omagh
Ballot boxes at count in Omagh
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The UK results again raises grave questions about the winner-takes-all voting system.

A dismaying feature of the debate over proportional representation is the short termism.

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

Political parties and their supporters that do well out of First The Post (FPTP) mostly support it, and those that don’t do well do not.

As it happens, I think that on key issues the last coalition was right – cutting the deficit, reforming welfare while helping the low paid, restoring educational standards after decades of grade inflation – so I should be (and am) delighted at the continuation of that.

But it is troubling that, once again, a UK government has a majority in parliament when almost two thirds of the country did not vote for it (63.1 per cent to 36.9 per cent).

Political legitimacy is important at any time, but crucial when passions are running so high within the UK.

Leaders tripped over themselves to resign yesterday when it was the system that failed, not them (even Nick Clegg was due 52 seats under PR).

For decades, parties have won overall majorities on percentages in the low 40s, which was bad enough (Margaret Thatcher never got more than 44 per cent).

But this century two have done so on mid 30s (Tony Blair in 2005, David Cameron now).

Simultaneously, smaller parties have either been massively over-represented (this time the SNP winning 95 per cent of the Scottish seats on 50 per cent of the vote) or massively under-represented (Ukip and Greens getting two seats from five million votes).

This is a problem that has been brewing since 1983 when the SDP/Liberal Alliance got a quarter of the vote but only four per cent of the seats.

The issue has almost now reached the level of a constitutional scandal.

Northern Ireland shows how short termist it can be to back FPTP. In the 1980s, FPTP was good for the UUP (in 1983 they had a third of the votes and two thirds of the seats), and bad for the DUP. The reversal of that almost destroyed the UUP.

There are some advantages to FPTP such as relationship between MP and constituent (which is why I backed the AV compromise).

In the two-party US, FPTP works.

But in UK general elections, the disadvantages now outweigh the advantages.

People talk about the stable governments that it produces, but what about the instability from public resentment at repeated governments that have millions more people who vote against than for them?

Or the instability of outcomes such as this disproportionate SNP result, that damages the UK itself.

Those of us who love the UK need to look beyond our personal preferences and think about how to ensure that governments command the support of at least half the nation.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor