This essay was originally composed as a comment on the article “Why Democracy Fails”, posted on 3rd June last by Richard W here on UKIP Daily.
But I saw it was too long for inclusion as a comment. I am now submitting it as an essay, in the light of Gerard Batten’s call to UKIP to prepare for a snap General Election this autumn. I hope some of my considerations may be useful.
Richard W’s argument is ingenious and doubtless right, as far as it goes. (He explains how it is that though a majority of the population is against, say, further immigration, all three parties elected are in favour.)
However he does not discuss the influence of the voting system itself on how people determine their voting preferences.
He takes as a given the idea that “many representative democracies become dominated by two major parties to the exclusion of third parties. “. This is true in countries like Britain, which use FPTP (first past the post) voting, but not in countries that use PR (proportional representation), where many parties win seats.
The difficulty with PR is that, although it allows political representation to a larger variety of views present in the population, it makes it harder to form a stable governing majority. As is the case, for example, in Italy.
In the UK we use PR for the EU Parliament elections and FPTP for the domestic elections.
Now UKIP came second in the 2009 EP election, and first in the 2014 EP election. But in both Westminster elections in 2010 and 2015, we won no seats at all. This is paradoxical. It shouldn’t have happened this way.
I believe that to a fair extent this was due to a misunderstanding on the part of our own electoral strategists of how people vote in FPTP elections.
Why is it so difficult to dislodge the incumbent 2 parties from their predominance? This is because, under FPTP, people realise that unless they vote for a winner, or the runner-up, their vote is entirely wasted. Of course there will be a smallish number of devoted people, sometimes called “anoraks”, who will vote for their favourite party regardless of its chances of winning.
With PR you can vote for your heart’s desire, and have a fair chance that your vote will help your favourite party to get a seat.
But with FPTP most people realise that unless you vote for the number one party, your vote will count for nothing. In a marginal constituency you might vote for number 2 in the hope of toppling the existing number 1 from the seat.
So you try to calculate which of the various parties on the ballot paper are likely to be the numbers 1 and 2 in your constituency. Of course you may dislike them both and prefer another party, but with FPTP you realise that unless you vote for number 1 or number 2 your vote will be wasted.
How do you decide which will be the numbers 1 and 2 ? Well, mostly on past form. For 100 years now that has meant Labour or Conservative, very occasionally here and there LibDem. Voting for anybody else means your vote will be thrown away, useless.
Now many people have not only a favourite party, but also a party they dislike more than any other. So voters realise that if they dislike the Tories more than Labour, then however unsatisfactory they may think Labour is, they will vote Labour “to keep the Tories out”. And vice-versa for those who dislike Labour more than the Tories.
This is something that many UKIP canvassers have found on the doorstep – “Yes I agree with all of UKIP’s policies, but you are too small and haven’t a hope, so unless I vote Tory the really dreadful Labour candidate will get in. They are the only party that can defeat them.”
This became a sure-fire winning argument when Cameron promised a straight In/Out referendum in case of a Tory victory. He had pulled the rug completely from under UKIP’s feet.
How could UKIP break into this sort of closed-shop system? How could we be considered “electable”, ie a number 1 or a number 2 party? How can we persuade voters that a vote for UKIP is not a wasted vote?
Well, in 2009-10 and 2014-15, fate dealt us a wonderful gift. In each of these two-year periods, the EP election, run on PR, preceded the Westminster election, run as always on FPTP.
With PR voting, UKIP did extraordinarily well, coming second in 2009 (beating the LibDems and even the then governing Labour party), and actually coming out top in 2014, beating all the other parties.
We should have capitalized on this, and conducted the Westminster election campaigns which in each case came the year after, repeating obsessively, in 2010 “Look we came second last year, a vote for us is not a wasted vote, vote for us with confidence, we are the alternative”.
Part II of this piece can be read here.