**This was touched on in Morus's diary about the general election, but I wanted to expand on this.
Ah, the time-honoured "first-past-the-post" system. It's how Britain has elected its MPs for centuries. Most current democracies that were ever a part of the British Empire conduct, or have at some time conducted, their elections in that way. Virtually every single election at any level in the US is run in the same manner.
Here in America, where there are two, and only two, major political parties, FPTP doesn't fail us very much at all. The proportion of seats a party wins is usually fairly analogous to the number of votes for that party in the election. I know some may ask if Florida 2000 was a FPTP failure. No, that was an Electoral College failure.
So, in America, because of the rigid two-party system, FPTP works out. But what if we had a multi-party system? Better yet, what if the three or more parties were fairly even?
For those who don't know a lot about current British politics, there are two major parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, aka the Tories. There are also the Liberal Democrats, who are the continuation of the old Liberal Party, who haven't been in government for nearly a century now. There are also Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, as well as multiple Catholic and Protestant parties in Northern Ireland, but they are all irrelevant here.
For decades, the Liberal Democrats were little more than a political sideshow, puttering along with somewhere around a dozen seats, maybe even less.
This began to change with the 1997 election, when the Conservatives were tossed out like old garbage, losing over half the seats they had previously held, with Labour winning nearly two-thirds of all seats. Along with the Labour landslide, however, the number of Liberal Democrats increased from 18 to 46. This was largely due to "tactical voting"; if a seat was a Labour-Tory battle, a number of Lib Dem voters would abandon their own candidate and vote Labour, just to oust the Conservative. In constituencies where the race was between the Tories and the Lib Dems, it was vice versa.
But the cracks in FPTP were beginning to show. That large upswing in the number of Liberal Democrat seats occurred even though their share of the national vote was actually lower than the last election in 1992.
1997 General Election
LABOUR - 418 seats (+147) - 43.2% (+8.8%)
CONSERVATIVE - 165 seats (-178) - 30.7% (-11.2%)
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - 46 seats (+28) - 16.8% (-1.0%)
The next election, in 2001, was pretty ho-hum. Britain liked where it was headed under Tony Blair and New Labour, and the bitter infighting among the Tories did not help them any. What little movement there was outside of Northern Ireland was mainly to the Liberal Democrats' benefit.
2001 General Election
LABOUR - 413 seats (-5) - 40.7% (-2.5%)
CONSERVATIVE - 166 seats (+1) - 31.7% (+1.0%)
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - 52 seats (+6) - 18.3% (+1.5%)
By the time of the next election, in 2005, Britons were very upset with Blair's practically unquestioned jump into the War on Terror, especially the sending of British troops into Iraq, and the Tories were starting to get their act together by then. The Liberal Democrats maintained their steady climb as well.
2005 General Election
LABOUR - 356 seats (-47) - 35.3% (-5.4%)
CONSERVATIVE - 198 seats (+33) - 32.3% (+0.6%)
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - 62 seats (+11) - 22.1% (+3.8%)
Notice the changes for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats there. The Tory vote was practically unchanged, yet they gained 33 seats. The Liberal Democrat vote was up rather nicely, yet their gain was one-third that of the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Labour's vote skidded to just three points higher than the Tories, yet they still had nearly double the amount of seats. Why is this?
The main reason is that Labour's vote is distributed much more efficiently than that of either of the other two parties. When Labour candidates win, they tend to win by a much higher percentage than other parties' victorious candidates. Moreover, many of Labour's winning constituencies exhibit chronically low turnouts, not unlike inner-city Democratic strongholds here in the States. Also, Labour tend to lose big (that is, with fewer wasted votes) in high-turnout constituencies where they face long odds anyway. These facts mean there are more wasted Tory or Lib Dem votes in Labour seats as there are wasted Labour votes in Tory/Lib Dem seats.
The Liberal Democrats are especially wronged by the system. As can be seen from the election results above, their number of seats is far less than what their proportion of the vote says they deserve. There are around 650 seats in the House of Commons (the number varies slightly with each election). The Lib Dems have yet to win 10% of the seats, despite winning 15-20% of the overall vote. This is because they are spread too thin. In a lot of seats across Britain, they will take a decent 20-30% of the vote, but often be beaten by either Labour or the Tories. And their vote share increases more uniformly than the other parties; a 5% swing their way would result in a few more seats, but often, they would then lose seats with a decent 25-35% showing.
That brings us to the current election campaign. Thirteen years in power has worn Labour down. Tony Blair stood down in 2007 in favour of Gordon Brown, his Chancellor of the Exchequer (sort of a combination of our Treasury and Commerce secretaries), and he is not as politically gifted as Blair was. The young new Tory leader, David Cameron, has presented a different image than the party has had for the last decade or so, one which is less off-putting to voters. The Liberal Democrats, as usual, had been sidelined, lost in the shuffle. Until recent weeks, polls consistently showed the Tories with large leads over Labour, with the Liberal Democrat number slightly down on 2005.
Last week was the first time the leaders of the three parties have ever participated in a televised election debate. Anyone who has ever watched Prime Minister's Questions on C-SPAN know that the PM is obviously the star of the show, and the Leader of the Opposition is afforded certain privileges that the leaders of smaller parties aren't. So, for Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, this debate was really the first time a leader of a third party was viewed as an equal of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
By all accounts, Clegg hit a home run with his debate performance, making Gordon Brown look like the Scottish version of Al Gore that he is, while appearing far better prepared than David Cameron. This has led to a spike in the Liberal Democrats' poll numbers, at the expense of both Labour and the Tories. Polling shows the three parties at the most even they've ever been, with some surveys even showing the Liberal Democrats in the lead.
But polls show how people would vote. As we've seen, that doesn't mean those votes will necessarily turn into seats in the House of Commons. Using this nifty BBC toy, we can see how different percentages might translate into seats. An average of the three polls released today shows:
CONSERVATIVE - 31.67%
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - 30.00%
LABOUR - 28.33%
ALL OTHERS - 10.00%
That would roughly translate to this in the House of Commons:
LABOUR - 277
CONSERVATIVE - 240
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - 104
ALL OTHERS - 29
And we think the Electoral College is screwed up! The third-place party could very well end up with the most seats in the House of Commons, while the second-place party would have more votes, but less than half the seats. First-past-the-post would have to go if this happened, and it's hard to see it surviving very long if this scenario came to pass.
If neither Labour nor the Conservatives are able to garner an absolute majority of seats (326 are needed to win outright), then they would almost be forced to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats in order to form a coalition government, or risk having to form a minority government which could be brought down at any time, leading to a new election. Not surprisingly, one of the Liberal Democrats' major platform planks is electoral reform, and they would certainly require the larger party to introduce legislation ending first-past-the-post as we know it.