Conventional wisdom has it that the British first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP) fosters an all-British two-party system which in turn provides territorial integration to a multi-national British state. While the first relationship has been significantly weakened since the early 1970s, the second one lost much of its compelling power at the General Election of 2015. However, as this analysis shows, the integrating function of the British party system has been a myth for quite some time. The FPTP system may have helped to concentrate votes in the two major British parties, yet it has also heavily exaggerated the existing electoral divergence between different parts of the country and has thus contributed considerably to the disintegration of the UK polity. As this effect becomes increasingly obvious, strong commitment to unionist ideology might be expected to induce corresponding support for electoral reform in both the Conservative and the Labour Party. The territorial concentration of their MPs (in part a consequence of this exaggeration), though, means that career self-interest points in the opposite direction.
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The electoral deviation for each region/nation is calculated by adding up the differences between the share of votes on the regional/national level and on the UK level for each party and by dividing the total by two. Scores may vary between 0, depicting complete similarity of the vote, and 100, depicting complete dissimilarity. The accumulated figure is calculated by adding up the dissimilarity scores for Scotland, Wales and England at each election. While there are much more elaborate measurements for electoral territorial divergence (cf. Bochsler 2010; Morgenstern et al. 2014), this simple index is sufficient to demonstrate the immense electoral divergence within the UK and its development over time.
For a more detailed account of this path-dependent process see Stolz (2009, pp. 250–258, 275).
Moran (2017, p. 75) states: ‘The election of 1997 (for the Conservatives) and 2015 (for Labour) showed that the first past the post system, far from advantaging the Westminster giants, could wipe them out territorially once popular support fell below around 20% (the Conservatives 1997) and 25% (Labour in 2015)’.
This was the first time since 1987 that the Conservatives did not lose out massively from FPTP in Wales.
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The effective number of parties (ENP) is a common measurement of party system fragmentation introduced by Laakso and Taagepera (1979). Parties are counted according to their relative strength (both in terms of vote share and parliamentary seats) resulting in the formula ENEP = 1/Σvi2 (for the effective number of electoral parties) and ENPP = 1/Σsi2 (for the effective number of parliamentary parties).
An effective number of parties (votes) of four is the value Colomer (2005, p. 13) calculated for the probability of electoral reform to rise above 50%. The ENP (votes) for the 2015 Westminster election was at 3.91. The 2017 election shows a mere 2.52.
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Stolz, K. Should unionists support PR? Electoral systems, party systems and territorial integration in the United Kingdom. Br Polit 14, 269–289 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-018-0075-y
- Electoral system
- Party system
- Territorial politics