The era of two-party politics is over
Last week’s ‘Super Thursday’ of elections was gold-dust for democracy lovers.
It saw elections in Wales and London for their Assemblies, in Scotland for the Holyrood Parliament, in councils across England, in England and Wales for the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), and for Mayors in London, Bristol, Salford and Liverpool. But what does it all mean?
Here are eight lessons Super Thursday:
- Politics is fragmented – there is no longer a UK-wide ‘picture’. The SNP won a majority in Scotland, with the Conservatives in second place, Labour in third (unthinkable a few years ago) and the Greens in fourth place.
In contrast, the left-wing nationalist party Plaid Cymru are the official opposition in Wales, while UKIP entered the Assembly for the first time. No one accurately predicted the local election results in England, with both Labour and the Tories losing seats.
We don’t have two-party politics in the UK any more. We have seven-or-more party politics – something which First Past the Post is completely unsuited for, but which thankfully the devolved nations’ electoral systems can cope with.
- First Past the Post is now almost completely isolated. Last week, for the first time ever, everyone in the UK outside of Greater Manchester could vote in a preferential or proportional ballot – Supplementary Vote for the mayors, Additional Member System for the Scottish, London and Welsh votes.
It means that people are getting used to voting in non-FPTP ballots.
And, crucially, it means local elections in England and Wales are now on their own outside of Westminster in being conducted via the outdated, winner-take-all First Past the Post system.
- Yet First Past the Post is still distorting results in councils across the country. In Castle Point, the Tories got just 37 per cent of the vote yet won a full 62 per cent of the seats. And UKIP didn’t get any seats for their 31 per cent of the vote.
In Oldham, Labour’s 49 per cent of the vote turned into a whopping 75 per cent of the seats.And in Portsmouth, the Lib Dems got 2 per cent more votes than the Tories but twice as many seats.
- The lessons have not been learnt from the last PCC elections. Although it’s positive that this PCC vote was held in May instead of the November 2012 vote – which was held on its own, in the rain – the public just didn’t have the information about the candidates, partly due to the government’s refusal to provide a freepost leaflet from the candidates.
A BMG poll last week for the Electoral Reform Society showed that just 10 per cent of people said they could name their PCC – and of those, 10 per cent actually got it wrong. The BBC also report that there were high numbers of spoilt ballots, a reflection of low information.
- Women’s representation is stalling in Scotland and Wales – stagnant at 34 per cent in Scotland and 42 per cent in Wales, essentially the same as last time. Parties need to take action now to ensure we don’t see progress slipping back in 2021.
- Turnout was better than expected. In Wales, Scotland, and London it was the second highest ever since devolution and the first London Assembly in the late 90s – all around 45 per cent.
But the fact that ‘only’ 55 per cent of people abstained on Thursday is a good turnout story is a little bit saddening.
We could do so much more to increase engagement in elections – including decent citizenship education, better funding of public information, votes at 16 (outside of Scotland) and registration drives in educational institutions and workplaces.
- The Additional Member System produced mixed results. While AMS produced a fairly proportional result in Scotland – the SNP got roughly half of seats for roughly half the vote – in Wales the less-proportional nature of AMS there meant that Labour’s support fell by 7.6 per cent on the constituency vote and 5.4 per cent on the list vote, yet their number of seats fell by just 1 – from 30 to 29.
The Welsh Assembly to increase in size, with a switch to the Single Transferable Vote used in Northern Ireland, or failing that, to increase the number and overall ratio of proportional list seats under AMS.
- Minority government is becoming normal. Scotland and Wales both elected minority governments – i.e. ones that don’t have an overall majority of seats, leading them to rely on other parties to get votes through.
It’s normal, it can be stable, and what’s more it can lead to better, more cooperative politics (see the ERS’s report last year, ‘Working Together’).
The overall lesson from last Thursday has to be that in the 21st century, with voters ‘shopping around’ more than ever before, we need the frameworks and democratic systems to reflect the new and diverse politics we see in the UK today. Let’s hope policy-makers take note.
Josiah Mortimer is communications officer at the Electoral Reform Society
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