Small Political Parties: First Past the Post vs Proportional Representation in France & the UK

Two well-known electoral systems are the first past the post system (FPTP) – applied in the United Kingdom and many other countries where some variation of the Westminster system of government is used, and proportional representation (PR), originally most used on mainland Europe and now the most common system in one or other of its many variations.

With its winner takes all style of divvying up the spoils of an electoral contest, the FPTP method is often criticised as being unfair to smaller parties, and it is quite true that in most countries where the system is used, the electoral landscape is dominated by two parties. PR is seen by many as less likely to marginalise smaller political entities, which would typically struggle to keep their heads above water in national elections under FPTP. With PR, a party is ensured a presence in parliament directly or closely concomitant with the percentage of votes it secures in an election. Proportional representation is thought to have come about in societies where there were many political parties of varying sizes vying for power, thus the need for a voting method allowing them to each have their voice be heard, whereas FPTP flourished in countries with no such crowded party landscape and, as such, having no need for any guarantor, as it were, of small political entities.

On the matter of small political parties, parties decidedly right of centre are often among the most vocal detractors of their countries’ electoral systems (both FPTP and PR), seen as intrinsically unfavourable to their success. They will be taken as the focus example of smaller parties here. These fringe parties aspire to become main stream and see some facet or other of their countries’ electoral systems as hobbling their progress towards this goal.

In an election using FPTP a seat is won by the candidate having received the highest number of votes. This is often not necessarily the majority of votes cast, but simply the highest number fetched by a single candidate. This is referred to as winning with a plurality of votes. Under PR, the losing parties would have the opportunity to have a presence within a legislative body in line with their share of the vote tally. With FPTP, the seat would simply be won by the candidate for their party and the others would be left with nothing to show for the votes they will have garnered, which aren’t factored in anywhere other than in the constituency they contested. What matters is not the total proportion of votes won by each candidate in each constituency added up, but rather the result of the individual micro-contests of each seat. The overall result is thus an amalgamation of winners of micro-contests, and not an aggregate score competition or the reflection of a weighted breakdown of each particular party’s effective success with voters. A win in a constituency equals 1 point, so to speak, regardless of the size of the voting population or the geographical size of that area. If this same scenario is repeated throughout the length and breadth of the territory holding the election, the party racking up the most wins in constituencies gets the most seats, and consequently can form a government. This party could be, and often is, far from winning the popular vote. Far right parties, along with other small setups, fall by the wayside, even if they actually put in a solid showing.

What is more, smaller parties often end up drawing the ire of larger parties who accuse them of splitting the vote in constituencies and lessening the chances of a larger party emerging victorious.

For example, in the 2007 general elections in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago the winning party, the centre-left People’s National Movement (PNM) won with 26 of the 41 seats, and the United National Congress (UNC) took the remaining 15 seats. A non-negligible third party also contested the election – something not always the case in this FPTP country, whose elections have mostly been 2 party affairs, with the second party at times being a coalition of larger and smaller parties, as incongruous and tenuous as were the feet of the statue from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the Bible. The third party in this Trinidad & Tobago election – the Congress of the People (COP) – had no trouble bringing in the votes, but the results were discouraging; the PNM won 26 seats with 46.7% of the total votes, followed by the UNC on 15 seats and 30.3% of total votes. That left the COP with 0 seats, despite fielding 23% of the total votes cast. The victorious party fell short of winning a majority – with 46.7% – but actually walked away with 63% of the seats.

Had the election been conducted under a PR basic system, assuming a single round of voting were held (PR usually involves 2 rounds), the PNM would have returned 19 seats, the UNC 13 and the COP 9. The PNM could have run a minority government, or some sort of coalition – as is so common under PR – could have been put together.

Under FPTP smaller parties appear doomed to be also-rans and either simply wallow in the doldrums as unrepresented talking shops unable to turn their ebbing and flowing support among voters into real political power or, perhaps even worse, run afoul of other parties and be derided and resented as nothing more than a nuisance. This would not happen, conventional wisdom has it, under PR. Is this really so? A look at recent elections in the United Kingdom and France could help determine the answer to the question.

FPTP in the UK – United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) 

The following is a rundown of election results in the May 2015 UK general election. In typical FPTP fashion, there is almost no correlation whatsoever between number of votes and number of seats; the top 2 parties in terms of votes were also the top two in terms of number of seats. Beyond that, the fact that getting high numbers of total votes doesn’t translate into electoral success is clear: in particular, it is interesting to look at UKIP, which placed third as far as number of votes went but ranked a distant 6th in terms of the number of seats won. As such, that majority of their 12,9% share of the overall vote was wasted, as they will have placed 2nd or further down the rankings in a great many constituencies and had nothing to show for those votes. The claim of FPTP meaning many votes are wasted is given traction by this example, with the Electoral Reform Society going as far as to say that three-quarters of votes in the 2015 election were wasted, staining that election with quite possibly the greatest disconnect between voters’ preferences and actual results that the UK had ever seen. That is a strong statement, given that parties winning in the UK without actually securing a majority of votes is nothing new, so much so that the last time this happened was in 1931. In comparison to UKIP a party having received less than a quarter of a million of the 30 million-odd total votes cast – the Welsh Plaid Cymru party – had thrice the success as UKIP, taking 3 seats. The fact that a win in a constituency equals one point, so to speak, regardless of the population or physical size of the constituency in which a party emerges victorious is illustrated here, as UKIP’s votes were spread over many areas of the UK, whereas Plaid Cymru, by its very nature, only polled votes in Welsh constituencies, which are rather small.

UK MAY 2015 GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS 

PARTY NUMBER OF VOTES (millions) % OF TOTAL VOTES SEATS WON RANKING – NUMBER OF SEATS RANKING – NUMBER OF VOTES
Conservative 11.1 37.8 325 1 1
Labour 9.2 31.3 229 2 2
SNP 1.5 5.1 56 3 5
Liberal Democrats 2.4 8.2 8 4 4
Plaid Cymru 0.18 0.6 3 5 7
UKIP 3.8 12.9 1 6 3
Green 1.2 4.1 1 6 6

UKIP, given the above details, has been vocal in highlighting the flaws of FPTP and in calling for it to be replaced with a system that would be more equitable for all parties. A petition was signed in May 2015 by UKIP – as well as some other parties – formally requesting changes be made to the UK’s electoral system by shifting over to proportional representation. A 2011 referendum on the matter of introducing PR yielded a 68% “no” victory. UKIP is on record as calling FPTP bankrupt, given the way in which in hampered the party’s would be electoral success.

PR in FRANCE – THE FRONT NATIONAL 

In France, the far right is embodied by the Front National (FN). France uses 2-round PR. In 2002 the FN made shockwaves, advancing to the runoff against the centre-right incumbent Jacques Chirac, though ultimately suffering a drubbing and garnering only a sixth of the vote, just as it had in the first round. The party has had its highs and lows since. After hitting a trough from the mid to late 2000s, the party bounced back, placing third in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, securing almost a million more votes than it had in either round (4.8 million and 5.5 million) of its remarkable, though ultimately unsuccessful, 2002 campaign, with 6.4 million votes. The party has set its sights on making the ultimate breakthrough in the 2017 presidential election. Their thinking is that they have been chipping away at the lead of the more solidly established parties – the Socialist and Republican (formerly UMP) parties – and will eclipse them in a matter of a few more years.

In the 2015 regional elections the FN topped its 2012 vote tally, receiving 6.6 million votes in the second round.

As of 2015, mainland France is divided into 13 regions, and there are 4 additional overseas regions, for a total of 17.

The results of the first round of the regional election are as follows:

FRENCH DECEMBER 2015 REGIONAL ELECTION RESULTS – 1st ROUND 

PARTY NUMBER OF VOTES (millions) % OF TOTAL VOTES REGIONS WON RANKING – NUMBER OF SEATS RANKING – NUMBER OF VOTES
Les Républicains & allies 6.06 27.9 5 2 1
Front National 6.05 27.88 6 1 2
Socialist Party & allies 5.49 25.28 2 3 3
EELV (environmentalist) 1.57 7.22 0
Debout la France 0.83 3.81 0
Far Left 0.67 3.09 0
Front de Gauche 0.54 2.51 0
Sundry 0.5 2.3 4 – 1 each for 4 different entities 4 – 4 way tie 4
TOTAL 21.71 99.99 17

When FPTP shows the blind spot of PR 

In the first round of the regional election on 6th December 2015 the FN finished with a mere 0.02% less votes than the centre-right Les Républicains (LR), but actually won more regions than any other party. Sound familiar? This is a PR election, but had it been FPTP – which at any rate has only one round of voting – the FN would have been declared the winner right then and there, even after having won ever so slightly less votes than LR. In this case their number of regions isn’t directly proportional to their share of the votes. Importantly, the smaller outsider party would have triumphed had it been FPTP, even though conventional wisdom has it that FPTP is incapable of achieving just such a goal. PR actually robbed the smaller party in this case because there had to be a decisive second round. The time lapse between rounds in PR allows for a recasting of the dice that can prove detrimental to less established parties.

When PR out-FPTPs FPTP 

Round 2 yielded the following results:

Les Républicains & allies & other right wing – 40.24% of votes – 9 regions

Socialist Party & allies & other left-wing – 28.86% – 8 regions

Front National – 27.1% – 0 regions

According to the PR method, therefore, the FN failed to return a single region despite an undeniably strong showing. It is, however, worth noting that the party now boasts a far greater number of municipal councillors than ever before, so its votes were not totally wasted.

Part of the reason for the FN falling short in round 2 was that, to an extent, the established parties encouraged voters to support whichever of the 2 was left against the FN in a given region.

It can be said that this is not PR’s fault per se. It is down to the fact of holding 2 rounds of voting. However, 2 rounds is the standard with PR. As such, the pitfalls of the inter-round period for smaller parties can be closely associated with the fact that PR is used in the elections they contest in that if FPTP were used, the issue would not exist. It is interesting to note that FPTP’s detractors charge that it leads to an element of calculated or tactical voting, with voters throwing their support behind candidates in order to thwart the election of candidates they don’t like. This is possibly the case with FPTP, but in the French PR case it is an established reality.

A case against 2 round PR can easily be made by looking at the 2014 European Parliament election in the UK. In that election – using PR but with one round of voting – UKIP placed first securing 27% of the votes and 33% of the seats. Had it been a 2 round system, they may have fallen down the ranking by the time the runoff came around.

Just as FPTP stacks the odds against smaller parties in the ways described earlier, a certain aspect associated with PR – that being the 2 rounds – makes it such that a different type of barrier is thrown in the path of such parties. The example of the French regional election also shows the possibility of FPTP being more favourable to a small but growing party than 2 round PR. The barrier is not the same in the two cases, but the end result is: smaller parties are hobbled.

If PR were so effective at empowering parties outside of the established duo found in most countries, shouldn’t it have given a number of far right victories already? In the French case it has not, just as FPTP has not yet yielded a win for a smaller party, be it far right like UKIP or a non-extreme party like the Liberal Democrats. The thing is, however, that FPTP is called out for failing to create conditions conducive to a decisive rise of smaller parties, whereas PR never is even though it actually does – in its French manifestation at least – do just that. It gives the illusion of greater chances for such parties on the national level, but simply prolongs the inevitable by sending smaller parties to sure death in the runoff.

As seen in the examples above, both FPTP and PR are capable of allowing a smaller – though not very small – party to place first. Specifically, in the case of far-right parties, FPTP is touted as a sure hedge against identity politics going mainstream in national elections, but if it were used in France for presidential elections (it is used for the legislative elections as it is in the UK, with one round and constituencies) it would have propelled identity-associated politics to controlling half the country’s regions. PR is said to ensure representation of all parties, yet still it ensured the FN paltry representation in comparison to its performance. The way in which constituency boundaries are drawn could help remedy some of the perceived unfairness of FPTP. In the opinion of those favouring an end to the use of FPTP, this system fails miserably at being representative. Two round PR may be said to do just about the same. The devil is in the details.

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