by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
The 2005 election demonstrates why it is that major parties in Britain have an interest in favoring the existing election system there, an election system based on Single Member District elections based on the "first past the post" / "winner takes all" formula.
The rules: General elections in Britain are actually 646 simultaneous elections in 646 separate districts. Each is conducted by the "first past the post" method: the candidate with the most votes wins the seat; second and third place finishers win nothing. Voters understand that the candidate they choose is a member of a party, and that to have influence, their representative needs to be a member of the party that wins the most votes nationally. But the voters vote for whomever they choose, and in each of the 646 separate places they may choose any among several candidates.
In 2005, as in 2001 and 1997, voters in most parliamentary districts chose candidates of the Labour Party. (In 2005, the death of one member of parliament during the election season meant that a second or by-election needed to be held for his seat, only. Thus, only 645 of the 646 seats were up for election on May 5, 2005).
The vote for Parliamentary seats in 2005 went as follows (follow link to view illustration):
Labour candidates finished first in 356 districts and thus won 356 seats.
Conservative candidates finished first in 197 districts and thus won 197 seats.
Liberal Democrat candidates finished first in 62 districts and thus won 62 seats.
Other parties' candidates did not do nearly as well:
The Democratic Unionist Party, a Protestant party in Northern Ireland, won 9 seats
The Scottish Nationalist Party, a Scotland-based party, won 6 seats
Sinn Fein, a Catholic party in Northern Ireland, won 5 seats
PC, a Welsh nationalist party, won 3 seats
Social Democratic and Labour Party, a largely Catholic party in Northern Ireland, won 3 seats
several other small parties won a total of four seats overall.
In this election, turnout was 61.3 percent.
Popular Vote: Of all voters who voted for a candidate to the House of Commons, the nationwide percent voting for each candidates identified with a major party was (follow link to view illustration):
Labour: 35.2 percent (37 percent if Northern Ireland is excluded)
Conservative: 32.3 percent (33 percent if Northern Ireland is excluded)
Liberal Democrats: 22.0 percent (22 percent if Northern Ireland is excluded)
various nationalist parties and others: 10.5 percent (8 percent if Northern Ireland is excluded)
Criticisms of the system:
Many people find it unfair that so small a percent of British voters (35.2 percent) chose the winning party. To more closely mirror public sentiments, several European countries use a system called "proportional representation" or PR. Under PR, seats in a nation's parliament are allotted not by separate races in separate local districts but by the national vote percentage received by a party. Britain has never used PR, nor have ruling parties ever introduced legislation to do away with district elections and replace the system with one using PR. This is because the existing system benefits the interests of the major parties.
If seats in 2005 were to have been allotted according to proportional representation (PR), no party would have had a majority in Parliament. Seats under PR would have numbered:
Labour: 227 seats
Liberal Democrats: 149 seats
Other: 68 seats
Summary: The example above should have demonstrated how it is that the system of election laws helps to create and maintain a two party dominant system in Great Britain.
sources for further results about the 2005 election in Britain:
The BBC site has good coverage of regions, historic voting, and trends nationwide. A clickable map can be used to find more specific information.
The Guardian: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/election2005/map/0,,,00.html
The Guardian site has better accessibility to information on specific legislative district's votes, that district's historic voting, party winners there, etc. Also has a clickable map, but it is more precise than BBC's.
Further historic illustrations sustain the point made here. Follow this link to read a complete discussion of the role of the Single Member District "first past the post" system of conducting British elections, with illustrations from 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005.
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