No government since 1945 has gained more than half the votes cast in a General Election, never gaining the absolute majority although some have come very close. For example, in 1955 the Conservatives gained 49.7% of the votes. This means that a government forms that more than half of the people voted did not want. Furthermore, the fact that most people are voting against the winning candidate weakens the theory of the mandate. The theory of the mandate gives the government in power a moral right to pass into law any policy that was in its manifesto on the basis that the party was elected on the strength of the promises. However, if more people vote against the candidate more people are also voting against the policy. It is also simplistic to suggest that a vote for a party indicates support as it is likely a voter does not agree with all the promises and policies.
Furthermore, the winners are always over-represented leading to a government that is too powerful and legislation is easy to pass. An example of this would be the early Blair ministry when Labour had 167 seats the party always outvoted the weaker Conservative party. However, this can be interpreted as an advantage as it allows government to get all the legislation passed that they want without dispute.
The over-representation of large parties penalises small and middle sized parties and in particular third parties. For example, in 1983 the Liberal-SDP Alliance gained 25.4% of the votes cast whilst only 23 of the seats. Labour gained a similar percentage of the votes cast with 27.6% although gained 209 seats. The votes and support for a third party like the Liberal Democrats is thinly and evenly spread throughout the country and so the party accumulates far fewer seats than a competing candidate whose support is geographically concentrated. Liberal gained second place in most constituencies or a good third.
Recent election results do not show the need for electoral reform because first-past-the-post produces a strong, stable government likely lasting for at least five years. First-past-the-post does rarely produces coalition governments. In addition to the current government there has been only one other coalition since the Second World War when the Labour government of James Callaghan formed a coalition with the Liberals in 1974 when it lost its narrow majority gained at the October 1974 election. First-past-the-post was set up mainly to avoid divided legislatures and an indecisive government to help the formation of stable government. However, under PR it is likely the result would be a coalition government which would not create any stability. Coalition governments are invariably weak and the partners often fall out; parties in a coalition government find it difficult to agree and how to solve a problem with different ideologies and policies. It is very likely that a party could therefore pull out of the coalition and the government would collapse. For example, under a PR system Italy had 50 governments in 47 years between 1946 and 1993. A PR government would encourage an indecisive government instead of a decisive one like FPTP does.
Furthermore, the plurality voting of first-past-the-post is very easy to understand whilst PR presents many complexities. For example, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in Ireland requires voters to vote in order of preference and to gain election it is necessary to get a particular quota of the votes. If a candidate is then elected their surplus is redistributed according to the second preferences of voters. If necessary, the bottom candidates are eliminate and their second preference votes are redistributed. More complex systems means that are many more spoilt ballots. With the STV system voters are obliged to provide a full list of preferences, however, some only ‘bullet vote’ giving fewer candidates than required meaning the vote cannot be counted.
The MP-constituency link produced by first-past-the-post is strong and PR systems destroy this traditional link. However, some systems do not rid of the link and the PR systems that have been introduced in the UK for elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and European elections (party lists) create tension between constituency members and ‘top-up’ members from the party lists in Scotland and Wales. The constituency MPs have a significant constituency workload whereas the ‘top-up’ members do not have a link with the constituents and therefore have less work and are perceived as inferior.
First-past-the-post is the most easy to understand electoral system. The most concerning flaws and unfairness of the system is the number of wasted votes and under-representation of third and small parties. However, the purpose of the electoral system to produce a perfectly representative assembly but to produce a strong, stable government which FPTP consistently does. Other problems are created through the PR systems such as a high number of spoilt ballot papers instead of wasted votes through the complexity. The balance of power in an almost guaranteed coalition will also be held by small parties, whose power will be far greater than their electoral support. The Liberal Democrats would most likely always be this party and they would not accept that they have a small amount of support in the country and so should have a similar amount of influence in the government. They would exploit the system and ensure that they get positions and power in the government that are beyond the extent of their support. Liberal Democrats would wrongly have a predominance of political power. Many of the policies that the Conservatives and Labour parties also make would never be seen again because the Liberal Democrats would always oppose them.