Unit 3: The changing UK system
by Dr Alys Thomas
Former Lecturer in Government at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Glamorgan writes for BBC Parliament
Votes are counted in the 2001 General Election
The UK has a single-member simple plurality system for elections to Westminster, commonly known as 'first past the post' (FPTP).
Candidates need only to get more votes than any other candidate for victory. Or as Benjamin Disraeli had it: "As for our majority...One is enough". UK elections are fought in single-member constituencies.
Supporters of this system argue that it delivers strong and decisive government, unlike many other European countries where coalition governments are the norm.
This is because FPTP is more likely to produce governments with a majority in the House of Commons. In the last two general elections (1997, 2001) Tony Blair's Labour Party won very large majorities.
In 1992 the Conservatives under John Major were re-elected with a majority of 21, but by the end of the Parliament that majority had disappeared and the Government relied on the support of the Ulster Unionists.
Supporters of FPTP also argue that the system is simple and easy to understand, unlike some proportional electoral systems which do not appear to produce a 'clear winner'.
This also means that the accountability of the government is more transparent.
Having presented its manifesto to the electorate, a party forming a government with a decisive majority can claim a mandate for its programme.
Supporters contrast this with electoral systems which produce coalition governments where elections are sometimes followed by a period of 'horse-trading' between political parties while a programme is agreed.
However, FPTP also has its critics. Because a candidate in a single constituency can win by a small margin (as the Liberal Democrats did in Winchester in 1997 with 2 votes) he or she may actually secure victory with a relatively small percentage of the vote, particularly if the seat is hotly contested between three or even four parties.
Since 1945, most winning parties in general elections have won a proportion of seats higher than the proportion of the popular vote. In 1997 Labour won 63.4% of the seats with just 43.2% of the popular vote.
The concentration of party support can also produce distortion. In 1983 the Liberal-SDP Alliance polled 25.4% and Labour polled 27.6% of the popular vote but the Alliance ended up with just 23 seats to Labour's 209.
This was because Labour's votes were concentrated in its 'heartland' whereas the Alliance vote was thinly spread across the country.
Two party system
The electoral system helps to shape the party system. The UK is commonly described as a 'two party' system because since 1945 only the Labour and Conservative parties have contested elections with a realistic chance of forming a government.
They have tended to alternate in power although the Conservatives enjoyed prolonged periods in power between 1951 and 1964 and 1979 and 1997.
The Liberals were supplanted as the main opposition party by Labour early in the twentieth century but remained as a third party holding a handful of seats. Plaid Cymru and the SNP started to win seats in Wales and Scotland from the 1960s onwards.
A vote for a Liberal Democrat was often seen as a 'wasted vote' because the party would never be in a position to form a government.
However, in 1997 a substantial number of people voted tactically against the Conservatives, that is, people who normally voted Labour voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate if the party was stronger in the constituency. The number of Liberal Democrat seats more than doubled.
© Dr Aly Thomas 2002
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Glamorgan