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UK European Elections: Would First-Past-the-Post Really be a Better Choice?

by Forrest Barnum // Published June 16, 2009
Much fuss has been made about the extreme parties elected in Britain's recent European Parliamentary Election. Many have argued the unprecedented second-place result for the Euro-skeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the astonishing two seats earned by the far-right British National Party (BNP) should give devotees of proportional representation pause. In an earlier post, I suggest Britain's List system – an inferior alternative to choice voting (or the single transferable vote, STV), in my opinion – was partly to blame for these surprises. However, some prominent figures, including the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, the Rt. Hon. David Cameron, have taken the argument in another direction, calling for the abolition of PR, and a restoration of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) elections. With respect to Mr. Cameron, I am going to crunch the numbers and demonstrate why his position is self-interested. While Mr. Cameron would personally benefit from a return to FPTP, such a retreat would be a mistake for Britain.

Allocating European Parliament seats by region according to winner-take-all 'bloc vote' is an expedient – if imperfect -- means of simulating a FPTP election. In English, a party winning a plurality of seats in a given region will earn all the seats. Had the 2009 election been carried out under such a system the result would have been as follows: UK MEP results under bloc voting

Which result is really more extreme? Is it the election of a modest number of fringe candidates as happened in this year's elections or the Conservative Party  winning an overwhelming 83% of the seats with less than 30% of the vote, as would have happened with block voting (and perhaps at least partly explaining Mr. Cameron's opposition to PR). The absurdity of the latter scenario is further born out by the outsize success of regionally centered sectarian (Sinn Fein) and secessionist (SNP) parties and the failure of UKIP and the Liberal Democratic Party to win any seats, despite substantial support.

It is easy to object to the methodology used to draw these conclusions; Britain has never utilized regional bloc voting for a national election. However, a very precise comparison can be drawn from the results of earlier British European Parliament elections; the first four of which (from 1979-1994) used the FPTP system (save for Northern Ireland, which has always used STV). The relative disproportionality of the results can be calculated by subtracting the percentage of seats won by a given party from the total vote received by said party:

The 1999 switch to a list system allowed the election of a vastly more representative slate of MEPs and greatly normalized the results. In perhaps the most egregious instance of disenfranchisement, the Liberals in their various iterations only managed to elect two MEPs during the twenty-five year era of FPTP. Notably, the Liberal Democrats are currently considered the most pro-European party in Britain. Diversity was the principal casualty of FPTP, current delegations are composed of members with a broad variety of views on the European Union and other issues; before 1999, Labour and the Tories claimed between 92-96% of seats; not coincidentally, these parties placed first or second in each election. While diversity can produce major shocks – like the election of the BNP – Mr. Cameron had best be careful with his nostalgic musings, returning to a system where the lucky leading parties dominate would neither be progress nor poultice for British democracy.

A heartfelt thank you to my supervisor Amy Ngai, who produced the bloc voting scenario and the disproportionality graph.

Election Data:

1979 Election 1984 Election 1989 Election 1994 Election 1999 Election 2004 Election 2009 Election