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Wobbling the post: the democratic meaning of the UK's May 3rd elections

The successful use of the 'single transferable vote' in the UK's May 3rd elections marks a significant loss of ground for the 'first past the post' system. But with minority seats seeing little increase, three or four party politics looks here to stay for England, Scotland and Wales respectively. 

Mark Pack
10 May 2012

The most remarkable aspect of the May 3rd elections has gone almost without comment. Despite the overwhelming result in the AV referendum, The 'single transferable vote' was used without significant controversy or complaint in Scotland, a sequence of Mayors were elected using the supplementary vote – and there was even a clutch of referendums on introducing more elected Mayors with the supplementary vote.

In other words, first past the post may have triumphed in the voting reform referendum last year, but elsewhere it has lost ground and continues to lose further ground.

Not only is there no sign of first past the post regaining its lost ground in other elections, but it also continues to lose ground elsewhere thanks to the number of elected Mayors using the supplementary vote increasing.

Then this week the Queen’s Speech featured Lords reform, using STV. In this case the fear of democracy on the part of those who want an unelected House to remain may be overshadowing any future controversy over the choice of STV, but remember that a Conservative Prime Minister has just signed off on a Queen’s Speech including the introduction of STV for a national election.

A diverse range of voting systems is here to stay and is growing.

It also means that any return to a two-party political system is off the agenda. Whilst British politics used to have structures which encouraged a two party system, the combination of devolution and voting system changes means we now have structures which foster multi-party politics.

That is an important factor underpinning the political future of the Liberal Democrats, despite the difficulties of being in coalition in Westminster. Ironically, the continuation of first past the post in English and Welsh local council election also helps the party keep its third party status, as it makes it that much harder for other would-be challengers to the third party crown (the Greens and UKIP in particular) to break through at the local election level. For all the talk of the Liberal Democrat election results last week, the Liberal Democrats won 431 seats compared to just 40 for the Greens and a mere 9 for UKIP.

Three party politics (and four party in Scotland/Wales), with the Liberal Democrats as the third party, is here to stay.

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Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

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