Under a First Past The Post election the voters are offered a list of candidates and vote for the one they prefer, the candidate with the most votes wins.
In a referendum conducted on the 5th of May 2011, The UK (my country) voted by a margin of 68% against changing its voting system. They were offered the choice between the First Past The Post system (FPTP - the system is explained at the top of this essay) and the Alternative Vote (AV), and after an unexpectedly vicious and disingenuous political campaign the FPTP system was secure. It was a clear vote for the regime that had run Britain since the end of the First World War. This period had seen Britain dominated by a two party politics of left (Labour) and right (Conservative) trading power between them. The only blight on this otherwise perfect landscape for the establishment was the result of the regional elections in Scotland - where The Scottish National Party had managed to gain an overall majority against all reasonable expectations. Britain had - in it's own baffling way - managed to vote against electoral reform and simultaneously vote against the two party consensus, all in the course of one brilliant blue spring day.
The result of Scotland's election (not using FPTP) means that Britain is now very likely to witness a referendum on Scottish Independance, and with it the possible divorce of one of the most successful corporate entities the world has ever seen. Here was a powerful regional group failing to hold its own so badly within a nation that it started dividing up the finances. It was yet another sign, after secession crises in Belgium and Catalonia and the end of the bloodbath in Yugoslavia, that the beginning of the 21st century was proving a much more difficult time for Democracy and The Nation State than the 20th century ever was. The ties that bind the countries of Europe together have become much weaker relative to the interests trying to push them apart.
First Past The Post and the Two Party System
It's no exaggeration to call this a crisis of democracy. England (the largest member of the UK) and Scotland have been in union for 400 years, and a married couple for 300. To look at divorce at this point rather than resolving these issues at the ballot box hints at a failure in the democratic process. But the lesson from across Europe over the last 30 years is that different sorts of democracy have radically different outcomes. With Scotland using a different system for its regional elections, its political culture is rapidly evolving away from that of England. Democracy is becoming such a variable term that catch-all categorisation is no longer useful, they need to be categorised by how they work. And that comes down to an issue of Party Politics.
In any large nation you have a diverse population with different and varied interests - rich and poor, male and female, able and disabled, educated and uneducated, land-owning and nomadic - and it's the job of political parties to form out of these interests. By dividing themselves on ideological lines they allows the people to vote on the issues they feel most strongly about come election time. However, despite not being written into the constitutions of their respective countries these political parties have shown astonishing resilience. You'd expect them to form, evolve and disappear rather like corporations or charities, as new issues and groups dominate the political consciousness. Instead these political parties have become the defining presences on the political landscape of their countries. 19th Century Britain was the story of warring Liberal and Tory parties, while in the 20th Century the USA's story was of the balance between Republican and Democratic parties. This tendency is clearest among countries that use single member district plurality voting systems (SMDP) - the constituency based model of one representative per seat, elected by FPTP, used in Britain and the US.
This feature - of permanent equal sized two party systems evolving out of FPTP democracy - is so commonly observed that it's become a sociological law: Duverger's law. Developed in the 1960's by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, he identified properties of FPTP voting systems that favour the evolution of a two party system. Loosely, these are described as "merging" properties when they lead parties to join together and "eliminating" properties when they force voters to abandon a party in order to make their vote contribute to the final result.
Wikipedia's page1 on the law covers these in detail, but in summary: because only the winner in each district gets a seat, a party which consistently comes third in every district will get no seats in the legislature, even if it receives a significant proportion of the vote. Further, under FPTP systems you often end up with an incumbent and a number of competing candidates. In order to defeat the incumbent one other candidate needs to get more votes than them, and the incentive is for the voters to merge candidates' teams together or abandon one candidate completely as a lost cause. In any given seat, the most realistic way to defeat the incumbent is for everyone to vote for the nearest competitor.
The USA Case Study
In its own way the US is the perfect result of Duverger's law. In the 2010 US Senate election 94.4% of popular votes cast were for either the Republican or Democratic candidates, meaning the binary choice offered to the electorate in all these seats was one they were willing to engage with. In cases where a third candidate enters the race this binary choice becomes unbalanced, and these movements tend to be temporary. In US presidential politics this has happened twice in the last 20 years. Firstly in 1992 when Ross Perot's third party campaign split the right vote allowing Bill Clinton to win the Presidency, and again in 2000 when Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign split the left vote allowing George W Bush to win. This spoiler effect is so pervasive that it's tempting to suggest that voting third party in a FPTP election is worse for the democratic process than not voting at all.
This binary system that evolves out of FPTP elections means that nationally the parties define themselves against each other in public, allowing the electorate to decide which issues are so important that they'll vote one way or the other. The idea of a political Left and a political Right is arguably an outcome of a binary choice where the largest concern is inequality of wealth. Those with more than average wealth are strongly invested in keeping it, and those with less are invested in redistributing it. However, while these groups may form the cores of each party's support this binary choice goes a long way to blurring away the diversity of other important issues. So, after an election has been completed, a debate takes place - usually in the national media - that allows each party to redefine itself for the next election.
At every scale (city, state, nation) in US politics the electorate are offered a choice that evolved from the national dividing lines between Red and Blue. This blurs away diversity even more. Fortunately, since America is mostly a mono-lingual society and most citizens engage with the national level media the choice offered to them is one they're willing to select between. When it comes back down to a regional level the broad dividing lines between Red and Blue still allow them to make decisions that reflect regional interests.
There are a lot of perverse outcomes of this binary choice - let's start with a controversial one to get our juices flowing... Should any minority group become so passionate about a single issue that it dictates their voting pattern then this distorts the choice between the parties. The late 20th Century saw the rise of identity politics, where minority groups decided that issues of sexuality, gender, religion or race were vital to them2. This meant that other voters they shared parties with (mostly Democrats in the US) were forced to vote on issues in which they no vested interest. Poor, white, heterosexual men, to mention only the most obvious disadvantaged group, were effectively disenfranchised by minority movements piggy-backing on what was previously their party. Conversely, these minority groups alienated significant numbers of voters - abortion was the best issue the Red corner had ever seen because it carved the Blues away from so many people. Identity politics was a problem for a FPTP electoral system ill equipped to deal with diversity. Another perverse outcome of binary politics was that any voters willing to move across party lines had disproportionate power in deciding the outcome, since the effect was of a loss of two votes from the party they were voting for previously. It only requires 5% of the population in swing constituencies to act as so-called independents to completely distort the choice offered to the rest of the country, they become effective king-makers. Conversely, in any seat that reliably votes for one party the political class is left with no incentive to pay attention to local issues.
Nonetheless, with 94.4% of participating voters engaging with binary politics the American system is a remarkably efficient democracy. The secret to its success is a robust system of primaries. By having rigorously internally democratic political parties, the issues used in selecting candidates allows them to reflect the preferences of the people. Thus an insurgent political movement like the Tea Party could piggy-back on the Republican Party, reducing the need for a third option. By allowing anyone with strong enough political views to seize control of the parties from the inside the need for a multi-party democracy is reduced. However, this is only the case because enough people engage with the national level political debate and America is not so diverse (particularly linguistically) as to cause this system to breakdown.
The British Case Study
I go into this in greater depth here - Britain is an example of what happens when a two party FPTP democracy fails to function. Duverger dealt with the British system directly3. Britain is best described as a 2.5 party democracy, with Labour (left), Conservative (right) as the two main parties and The Liberal Democrats (other) as a third party option that is incapable of winning elections but stubbornly refuses to disappear. This has existed in roughly the present form since 1920, when the Labour Party emerged. In UK General Elections the composition of Parliament is decided by FPTP (SMDP again), with the party who wins the most seats taking charge of the legislature and from there becoming the executive.
The main two British political parties are hideously undemocratic by American standards. These political machines should be viewed as institutions in their own right, with institutional interests to protect. In the case of the Conservative Party the central party office and the current sitting MP's have a veto on candidates for party leadership and to decide who sits as an MP, whereas in the Labour Party this role is fulfilled by the affiliated Trade Unions who protect their own interests. This biased system means an insurgent group like the Tea Party could never emerge in the UK, but also that the institutional interests of The Labour Party and The Conservative Party can force the country to have a much more artificial choice come election time. It is likely that this rigidity is what has prevented either of the two main parties from absorbing the Liberal Democrats, who can't see themselves as either.
Because the British rely on one all-powerful election the option of hedging our bets through separation of powers is not open to us. The Liberal Democrats sit as the other option to the main two parties, with the balance of power whenever they argue each other to a standstill. Further, because there are 3 parties as options on each constituency ballot this leads to a series of subtly different two party choices (Labour/Tory, Tory/Liberal, Labour/Liberal) across the country. The British system is almost a multiple-rounds election: you read the last election result, check current opinion polls and only when you make a guesstimate of how your constituency will turn out do you decide how to vote. This, bizarrely, means that in some seats a voter who would like to see Labour win overall is forced to vote Liberal Democrat locally, to make sure the Conservative candidate is defeated. Of course, not everyone bothers to do this and so a lot of votes are cast without any understanding of how they will affect the result. This has become so institutionalised across the country that shares of the popular vote are badly distorted, and it's impossible to tell how the people feel about the issues at hand.
Subsidiarity - National and Regional Politics.
The American System is basically FPTP balanced against separation of powers, whereas Britain is a raw FPTP system as blood-sport. On top of this, as a country composed of nations Britain has to deal with subsidiarity - identifying what issues should be decided in London and which should be decided in the regions. Since the late 90's Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been allowed to make their own decisions, equivalent to states' rights in the US. These regions have also adopted different voting systems (something for part 3 of this essay) and with this the forces that bind them to the two party system have weakened. Subsidiarity assumes that diversity is spread geographically, with regions likely to have different interests to the country as a whole. In Britain we have Wales speaking an entirely different language, and Scotland as a region that has enough power to look after its own interests.
Problems occur because the national two party system works best if all citizens engage with the national level media, and use this to decide what are the issues that shape the parties. Unlike in the American System where enough citizens pay attention to the national media; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are rejecting the debates on London-based television/newspapers and refusing to choose between the parties offered to them by London politics. Further, because their local elections aren't conducted using FPTP they can vote third party without harming their interests. Superficially nationalist parties have sprung up, which reflect the dividing lines of local debate trumping UK wide. The more these regional debates fall out of tune with London, the more likely it is for mutual incomprehension to lead to divorce. The United Kindom's political system has become so dysfunctional that Scotland no longer engages with it.
There are parallels with the American Civil War and the collapse of Yugoslavia here, when autonomous regions could no longer co-exist with the national politics they were a part of. States' rights only works when all regions mutually understand each other, and are willing to share a common debate. It all underlines the limited diversity a FPTP democracy can cope with. Scale this up to a quasi-national democratic entity like the EU with 23 official languages and no EU-level media, and having a common debate would be impossible. Running a seriously diverse democracy requires a system more robust and dynamic than FPTP can provide.
So, that didn't work. What now?
It's not a promising state of affairs. Democracy as seen from Britain and the USA seems to be only capable of dealing with a monoculture who speak the same language, live roughly similar lives and agree to talk to each other at one national table. Further, democracy on this model is better at removing failing incumbents than offering people change. The EU, an entity far smaller geographically and with only a slightly larger population than the USA is already far too diverse to have a traditional democracy. What's needed for a diverse society is a way to run a subsidiarity based system, that allows its citizens to hold debates at whatever scale they decide is necessary for making the decisions they want made. And I'll address that in the later parts of this essay...
1Wikipedia article on Duverger's Law.
2Eric Hobsbawm on Identity Politics and The Left
3Duverger on the British system in 1972