How Jeremy Thorpe (and then Nick Clegg) broke the electoral system

by Stephen Tall on July 15, 2012

Democratic Audit this week published its latest analysis, its depressing conclusions summed up by The Guardian’s headline British democracy in terminal decline.

A fascinating aspect of the Audit, even for those of us still scarred by the rejection of electoral reform in the 2011 referendum, is its detailed dissection of how the First-Past-The-Post system is failing democracy. And in particular the pinpointing of the year when FPTP started to go bad: 1974, and the Liberal insurgence under Jeremy Thorpe, when the party increased its support from 7.5% in 1970 to 19.3%.

This, say the Audit’s authors, marked a turning point in the UK’s electoral history, a moment when ended the dominance of the ‘Golden Age’ of FPTP (1950-70) and introduced instead its ‘Dysfunctional Age’ (1979-2005):

What the table shows is the decline of a two-party system from its post-war peak of 97% share of the vote (1951) for Labour and Conservatives to around 75% after the 1974 election up to 2005. And then came the 2010 election and a second potential game-changer, with the decline in the Labour/Conservative share of the vote to just two-thirds. You can see the individual breakdown by party of this trend in this graph:

Democratic Audit identify four characteristics of this dysfunctional age:

    1) Recent elections have tended to produce excessively large majorities: “on four occasions since 1979 the winning party has secured majorities of 100, despite securing no more than 43 per cent of the vote – a scenario which would have been unthinkable in the 1950s.”

    2) The electoral system has blocked the emergence of a multi-party system at Westminster: “by 2010, the electorate’s desire for a multi-party system had become undeniable, yet the allocation of seats maintained the semblance of a two-party system.”

    3) The results of UK general elections have become highly disproportional: “Following a brief period in the 1950s when FPTP produced broadly proportional outcomes in which votes and seats were closely matched, … elections from 1983 onwards have consistently produced outcomes which are far more disproportional than those in the immediate post-war decades.”

    4) Rather than votes counting equally, FPTP has rendered voter power highly uneven. “As party support becomes more geographically concentrated, and the number of marginal seats falls, meaningful electoral competition has tended to diminish in the great majority of seats. … In 2007, following the ‘General Election that never was’, the Electoral Reform Society (2008) estimated that the difference between a Labour and a Conservative victory could have depended on how as few as 8,000 voters across 30-35 key marginals cast their votes.”

Will it be back to two-party business as usual in 2015?

While the trend is clear enough to say that 1974 was a watershed year in UK electoral politics, it’s naturally too early to say if 2010 will be seen likewise. Labour and the Conservatives will be hoping that the Lib Dems’ current opinion poll ratings point to a reversion to the norm, that the simpler and more comfortable two-party politics will re-assert itself.

Regardless of the Lib Dem vote recovery I naturally hope to see, there seems scant chance of that happening. Even today, with the Lib Dem vote hovering at a low c.10%, the two-party share of the vote has climbed back only to its ‘dysfunctional age’ average of 75%. All three main parties are looking nervously ahead to the 2014 European elections, when there is surely a good chance that Ukip will top the national poll just 12 months before a general election. If they do expect panic at Westminster, especially among Conservatives.

In short, two-party politics is dead. Unfortunately, we have a democratic system based on the assumption it isn’t. That’s not a good or healthy combination.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.