The British General Election – a view from the Czech Republic

Marshall Ivan Konev, surrounded by floral tributes © Ricky Yates

Marshall Ivan Konev, surrounded by floral tributes © Ricky Yates

Today, I have been struck by the irony of David Cameron and his Conservative Party, ‘winning’ the UK General Election by over 63% of the electorate NOT voting Conservative, coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War – VE Day. The reason for the Conservatives ‘winning’ the election by gaining less than 37% of the vote, is because of the antiquated, absurd and completely undemocratic ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) electoral system under which the election was conducted. The irony of this I’ll explain shortly.

Although I live in the Czech Republic, as a British citizen, I had the right to register to vote in this election but I chose not to do so. My reason for not participating was purely the FPTP electoral system. If I had chosen to register to vote, I would have been registered in the parliamentary constituency in which I last lived in the UK. In that constituency, even if the Conservative Party had put up a blue monkey as their candidate, s/he would have been elected. My vote would have been meaningless.

I’m sure many British politicians, particularly those in the governing party at any time, wonder why they are not held in very high esteem by the British public. There are many reasons, but one important one is that, as in yesterdays election, nearly two thirds of those who voted, have ended up with a government they didn’t vote for. David Cameron will claim that he has a mandate to govern the UK for the next five years. The reality is that he hasn’t.

Sadly, I see no likelihood of change in the foreseeable future. The Conservative Party in particular, but also the bulk of the Labour Party too, do not want to abandon the FPTP system because it makes it much easier to, sooner or later, be elected with a parliamentary majority enabling it to form a government, with only needing to persuade 35-36% of the electorate to vote for them. Both parties believe in what is proverbially known as ‘Buggins Turn’. Basically, neither party believes in real democracy.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, today is also the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War – VE Day. It has been marked in ceremonies all across Europe, including one in London attended by David Cameron, as well as by two, now ex-party leaders 🙁 Here in the Czech Republic, it is a public holiday. My photograph taken this evening, once more shows the statue of Marshall Ivan Konev, surrounded by recently laid floral tributes. His Soviet Red Army troops liberated two thirds of what is now the Czech Republic, in April and May 1945.

However, just under thirteen years earlier, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, gained just over 33% of the vote in the German Election held in November 1932. But despite only having the support of one third of the German electorate at the time, he was made Chancellor a few months later. We all know far too well, the consequences that followed.

Whilst not suggesting that David Cameron will be like Hitler, the similarity of their respective levels of support is striking. When only around a third of the electorate actually votes for you, pushing through your favourite policies which are not supported by two-thirds of the electorate, is a recipe for trouble. Witness Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax.

Four years after the end of the Second World War, in 1949, the Western allies – France, the United Kingdom and the United States, returned what became West Germany, to self-rule. But they imposed a strict form of proportional representation into the electoral system, in order to prevent a recurrence of a minority imposing its will on the majority, as Hitler and the Nazi Party had done. There are plenty of other examples of the UK in particular, imposing truly democratic systems of proportional representation on former colonies, before granting them independence. The one I’m most familiar with is that used in Australia since becoming independent in 1901.

The truly democratic systems enforced on Germany post-1945, judging by its recovery from war damage and the strength of its economy today, have done it no harm but instead, an awful lot of good. But successive UK governments, be they Conservative or Labour, react in horror at the thought of adopting an electoral system such as that used in Germany. Why – is the question I ask?

One inevitable consequence of the General Election result today, is that in two years time, there will be an in/out referendum on whether the UK remains part of the European Union. If the UK were to withdraw from the EU, the economic consequences would be disastrous. But it would also affect my position as a British citizen, freely living and working in another EU member country as I do at present.

In 2007, when Sybille had major battles with German bureaucracy, trying to renew her passport as Sybille Yates, after our marriage in October 2005, she threatened to become British, before next needing to renew her passport again. However, if Cameron and his supporters, aided by UKIP, take the UK out of the EU, I may just have to consider becoming German!!!

22 comments to The British General Election – a view from the Czech Republic

  • Martin Borýsek

    Hello Ricky!

    I understand your concerns about the FPTP system. However, let us not forget that Hitler’s (relative, as you rightly point out) victory in 1933 took place in the framework of pure proportional representation system (which was not newly introduced only after the war). That he was able to form the government and subsequently erase all his coalition partners and the opposition, was caused by their inability to recognise and tackle the Hitlerite danger, not by an electoral system.

    The occupation powers after the war did not introduce the proportional system, but re-introduced the very concept of free election and subjected the proportional system to some adjustments (such as the introduction of the 5% threshold). In fact, Germany today (as I am sure you know) has a mixed system, giving each citizen two votes, one for a list of party candidates (which competes against the other lists in the proportional system), and the other for an individual candidate who is chosen according to the FPTP method. This hybrid system was introduced in recognition of both method’s advantages and limitations.

    This is just to say that the proportional system, for all its advantages, is not a fool-proof protection against the abuse of power, and that also some countries which traditionally used the proportional system, now recognise the advantages of other methods.

    • Ricky

      Hello Martin,

      Thank you for this most thoughtful comment. I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure of the electoral system used in Germany in the early 1930s. But Hitler was eventually appointed Chancellor by the President, because he was the leader of the largest party. And you are right in saying that the inability of the other parties representing two-thirds of the electorate, to work together and oppose Hitler, is how he gained absolute power with all disastrous consequences that followed.

      As you suggest, I do fully understand the current post-war electoral system in Germany. You can describe it as ‘re-introduced…. with some adjustments’, such as the most sensible 5% threshold, but the reality is that this only happened with the agreement of the three occupying powers, hence my use of ‘imposed’.

      There is of course, no one form of proportional representation for electing governments. The Australian system, which I know from living and voting under it, provides for single member constituencies in the Lower House, just as in the UK, but voters put the candidates in numerical order of preference. This is then counterbalanced, as also in Germany, by the Upper House being elected in a different manner, to represent the constituent States/Bundesländer. And in my original post, I didn’t begin to tackle another part of the UK system of government – the completely undemocratic and total antiquated House of Lords!

      No electoral system is fool-proof against the abuse of power, as you rightly say. But David Cameron and the Conservative Party, will now be able to impose their political programme on the UK, despite over 63% of the electorate NOT voting for them. And that is effectively abuse of power.

  • David Hughes


    I am also a firm supporter of a change from the First Past The Post system but think you went a bit far here in denying that it’s in any way democratic. There is a benefit to the relatively small constituency model that is used in the UK in that allows direct representation by the MP. However, a system in which Labour gets 40,000 votes per seat, while the Lib Dems has one MP for every 300,000 voters and UKIP earns almost 3.9 million votes but finds itself with only 1 MP is somewhat silly.

    Your statement that a party can win an election “… only needing to persuade 35-36% of the electorate to vote for them” is only true for 2005 and 2015 of recent elections in the UK. Even Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at their electoral zeniths only won in the low 40%s (43.9% in 1979 and 43.2% in 1997, respectively). Indeed, no British party has won 50% of the popular vote since World War II, though the Conservatives got more than 49% in the 1955 and 1959 elections. In 2010 Cameron’s party won 36.1% of the vote but didn’t have enough seats to form a government so entered a coalition with the Lib Dems (20%). That government, I think, would have had your backing as clearly democratic by the fact that the parties making it up had won more than half the popular vote. Of course, the party on which this back-fired was the Lib Dems who were more or less wiped out across the country.

    You do fail to mention to non-British readers of the blog that there was a UK-wide 2011 referendum on whether the UK would change the voting system to the Alternative Vote System, which while not ideal is better than the current system, and that it was roundly rejected, by 67.9% of those who voted. Moreover, there are systems of proportional representation in place for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Parliamentary and Assembly elections.

    Ironically, this seemed as if it would be an election where no vote would be wasted. There had been much conviction that there would be a hung parliament and much speculation , often spurious, on who would have had the “legitimate” right to form the new government. In that case, it was held that a party having a plurality of the vote nationally (widely expected to be the Tories by the Tory press) would have had a stronger case. In the end, it didn’t matter of course.

    As much as I admire the strategic electoral politics success of the Tory campaign, I am rather fearful of what the next 5 years holds economically and socially for the UK. I remain rather more confident than you about the EU referendum since, as you put it, it would be disastrous for Britain to leave and this recent election has shown that worrying the electorate can work.

    On a side note: “Whilst not suggesting that David Cameron will be like Hitler…” I’m always looking out for rhetorical constructions. This is apophasis, no?

    • Ricky

      David – thank you for this long and detailed comment. Clearly you & I are of a similar mind about most of the things in my original post. Your figures for the number of votes per MP elected at the end of your first paragraph, clearly brings out the absurdity of FPTP.

      To deal with the points you raise. You can still have single member constituencies using a system of proportional representation (PR). See my reply to Martin Borýsek regarding the Australian electoral system. To say that my statement that a party can win an election “… only needing to persuade 35-36% of the electorate to vote for them” is only true for 2005 and 2015 of recent elections in the UK, doesn’t diminish the truth of what I wrote. Sometimes a party has got a few percentage points more as you indicate, but it isn’t usually a requirement under the FPTP system. Yes, you could say that the previous coalition government had more legitimacy because the two parties did jointly get more than 50% of the votes cast in 2010. But it was because for once, FPTP produced a hung parliament, not because of FPTP per se.

      I was only writing about the election of the national government for the whole of the UK, which is why I made no mention of the systems adopted for electing devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland. I believe there were two reasons why the proposed AV system was rejected in 2011. One was, as you indicate, because it is is far from being the best system of PR. The other was because nearly all Conservative and most Labour MPs campaigned hard against the proposal because they didn’t want to lose out on having ‘Buggins Turn’.

      Finally, I accept your side note – that was apophasis!

  • Fergus

    Interesting Ricky- I think you know we don’t quite see eye to eye on this! Matters of constitutional reform simply aren’t a priority for my generation, as seen by the comprehensive defeat of AV proposals in the referendum in the early years of the coalition government and the defeat of Lords Reform before it even left the House of Commons! The Lords in particular provide valuable expertise- and if one thing is clear, the last thing the public wants is another chamber of elected career politicians!!

    Most crucially though, it’s impossible to construct an electoral system with the assumption of negative voting- you can’t create a government of things people don’t vote for. Voting has to be assumed to be positive (i.e. it is not people ‘not’ voting for the Conservatives rather it is people actively voting for Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP etc etc.)- otherwise the basic logical precepts of a voting system fall apart, leaving us to construct one from negativities – a logical impossibility!

    • Ricky

      Let’s agree to disagree Fergus. But two brief points in reply. These days, the House of Lords being minus most of the hereditary peers, already has many unelected career politicians, often ones who lost their seats in a previous election & have been ‘kicked upstairs’. I agree with you that voting should be positive. But because of FPTP, many people employ tactical voting – they cast their vote trying to prevent the candidate they least like, from getting elected. Surely that is voting negatively!

  • jonathan

    I fully agree with your thoughts about the British elections, Ricky. It’s hard to imagine a more antiquated and patently unfair system than FPTP anywhere in the civilised world, a system whereby two virtually indistinguishable parties can alternate and monopolise power. Viva la democracia…

  • Allan Schoenherr

    Hi Ricky,

    I’m as disappointed as most at the election result and certainly worried over the implications of another 5 years of Dave and George not least the EU referendum. I think (hope) David might be right though. Anyway, I have just read a similar article on the Another Angry Voice blog regarding FPTP and PR. Excuse my ignorance of the German system but I wonder how we would deal with parties such as the SNP which had a small proportion of the overall vote but won over 90% of the seats for which they fought for? I don’t think all those SNP voters would be too chuffed if they were told their seats were going to UKIP instead, who campaigned in far more constituencies for their votes.

    I’m not an expert here so apologies if I’ve made any silly errors.



    P.S. Just re-read, by “think (hope) David might be right” I was obviously referring to David Hughes comment regarding the EU referendum and not anything Cameron may or may not have said on the subject. Excuse the confusion.

    • Ricky

      Hi Allan

      I hope that your optimism, and that of David Hughes regarding the proposed in/out EU referendum, proves to be correct. It is business interests that predominantly backs the Conservative Party & it is the business community who would lose out badly from a withdrawal from the EU by the UK. I do hope that common sense will prevail.

      The SNP result in Scotland is yet another example of the absurdity of the FPTP electoral system. I don’t have the exact stats in front of me but I think the SNP got around 45% of the Scottish vote but gained 95% of the Scottish parliamentary seats. A sensible PR system would have prevented that happening.

  • jonathan

    According to the BBC website the SNP won 50% of the vote, a spectacular result for any one party in modern-day politics and far more of an endorsement for their policies than the conservative result over the whole of the UK.

    But, as above, the other 50% of Scots who voted now have virtually no parliamentary representation at all.

    • Ricky

      Thanks Jonathan, for correcting my stats. I wanted to approve and reply to Allan’s comment before heading out to Church this morning, & didn’t have the time to check the exact percentage figure. I also completely concur with everything else you say here.

    • David Hughes

      Although I understand the point you’re making and have much sympathy with it, you’re wrong to say that 50% of the Scots who voted have no representation in the UK Parliament, Jonathan. They are represented there by their constituency MPs.


      Here are the figures for party representation in the House of Lords:

      Bishops 26
      Conservative 224
      Labour 213
      Liberal Democrat 101
      Crossbench 178
      Non-affiliated 22
      Other parties 15
      Total 779

      Crossbenchers and Non-affiliated are more or less the same, but Crossbenchers have a convener, who keeps them up-to-date with what’s going on.

      No SNP, no UKIP, and 26 Bishops too many.

      • Ricky

        David – Jonathan’s point is that the views of 50% of the Scottish electorate are hardly represented in the UK parliament. It’s a bit hard for a convinced Scottish nationalist, to represent someone who believes in the Union.

        I’ll let your figures for the House of Lords speak for themselves. As for your anti-Church little dig at the end of your comment, you are preaching to the converted. As I’ve previously written on this blog , I believe the Church of England should be disestablished which would mean that 26 Lords Spiritual would no longer have seats in the upper chamber. But this should as part of a much wider reform of the electoral and parliamentary system.

        • David Hughes

          It might be hard for them to represent a Unionist’s views on Independence but there are other issues that they can speak for them on and there’s a recent precedent for one’s views on the question of Independence to be heard.

          I appreciate your views on disestablishmentarianism. My comment was more for other readers of the blog who may be unaware that senior members of the Church of England sit in the legislature and who likely didn’t know the distribution of seats within the Upper House.

          How widely shared among your fellow clerics is your view on disestablishing the Church of England?

          • Ricky

            David – Your argument in your first paragraph is valid to a point. But I’m sure that many of the 50% in Scotland, who didn’t vote SNP, feel unrepresented.

            I did say in my previous reply that I’d let your figures for the House of Lords speak for themselves. However, I’ve no idea of how widely shared my view on disestablishment is held by my fellow clerics. In my experience, it is those further up the hierarchy who tend to defend establishment, rather than lesser mortals like me 😉

  • David Hughes

    The SNP got 56 seats out of 59 on almost exactly 50% of the vote in Scotland. In 2010 Labour won 41 seats on 42% of the vote there.

    Any system of PR brought in, and it’s not going to happen for a while, would also have to take into account Northern Ireland, which for historical reasons has a completely different panel of parties to the rest of the UK, and Wales, which also has a Nationalist party that doesn’t put forward candidates elsewhere.

    There’s a long history of PR being proposed. The Speaker’s Conference of 1917, many of the suggestions from which, including the extension of the suffrage to some women, were adopted, proposed PR in Borough seats. It was rejected by the then governing Liberals. Part of the problem is that, as you and Jonathan have said, the big two parties won’t go for it (and the Liberals in 1918).

    And, to be frank, why should they when it’s not in their interests? And, as Fergus noted, Electoral Reform is not something that floats many boats, either for the young or the old. People tend to like what they see as “stable” government. When I was a kid, the contrast always used to be made between stable Britain and unstable Italy, land of the coalition, and I think this way of thinking still holds among the electorate as a whole. Italy adopted a form of FPTP in the mid-1990s to much gloating in the British press. First Prime Minister: Silvio Berlusconi. The electoral system there was amended 10 years later.

    There’s a good piece by David Runcimann, the Oxford political scientist, here:

    • Ricky

      Thanks David, for like Jonathan, correcting my stats. See my reason for not getting it exactly right first time, in my reply to him.

      PR would need to be on a the basis of the constituent nations, together with the English regions, to deal with issue you raise in your second paragraph. Yes – the problem is the two big parties who believe in ‘Buggins Turn’. They are like turkeys or Czech carp, they don’t vote for Christmas!

      Opponents of PR always cite examples of countries where they believe PR causes unstable governments. Israel is often a popular example but the problem there is the lack of a sensible minimum threshold such as that of 5% under the German Federal system. There are plenty of examples of prosperous, stably-governed countries where it works well – for example Germany & Australia.

  • Ricky

    This comment will appear as though it is from me, Ricky Yates, the owner & author of this blog. However, it is actually from my brother-in-law Garry, but for some reason, both he & my sister June, couldn’t make the CAPTCHA Code work 🙁 So I’ve copied & pasted it from an email.

    Hi Rick,

    In 2011 I campaigned for the electoral system to be changed to A.V. As you know the result was heavily against, by a margin in excess of 2/1. I therefore, concur entirely with your sentiments.

    Sadly, I think it highly unlikely for the reasons you give that any change in the near future is likely.

    The following is a piece from the Electoral Reform Society:

    Conservatives 37.3% 244 seats
    Labour 30.7% 201 seats
    UKIP 12.8% 83 seats
    Lib/Dem 7.9% 52 seats
    SNP 4.8% 31 seats
    Green Party 3.8% 25 seats
    DUP 0,6% 3 seats
    Plaid Cymru 0.6% 3 seats
    Sinn Fein 0.6% 3 seats
    UUP 0.4% 2seats
    SDLP 0.3% 2 seats
    Alliance 0.2% 1 seat

    These are the figures from the last election.
    Interesting are they not!

    Best wishes,

    • Ricky

      Garry – Sorry for the CAPTCHA problem.

      The Electoral Reform Society statistics give a very clear picture of what the election result should have been. As I’ve said in reply to a previous comment, I would apply PR on a constituent nations/English regions basis with a 5% threshold in that nation/region. But doing so would give a not dissimilar result to that in your comment. Sadly, it won’t happen in the near future because the present system suits the two main parties.

  • Sean Mccann

    Hi Ricky,

    I’ve been reading your post, the various comments and your replies with great interest and I completely agree with your point of view regarding FPTP versus Proportional Representation/Single Transferable Vote systems. The only thing to be said in favour of FPTP is the brevity of the count after polling is completed.

    The PR system is enshrined in our Constitution (Bunreacht na h-Éireann, ratified in 1937) as the sole method by which local and national/general elections may be decided and in the past at least two attempted constitutional amendments to change to the FPTP system were defeated by the electorate. Needless to say both these amendments were proposed and supported by the then largest party in Ireland – Fianna Fáil. If either had been approved, the Republic would have been reduced to virtually a one party state, such was the size of support for Fianna Fáil at the time. Hopefully such an amendment if proposed in future by some party will again be rejected.

    Your comments re the House of Lords also struck a chord with me. Seanad Éireann (The Senate) is our upper house of 60 members. None of its members are elected by the ordinary voting public and all but 6 seats are political appointees of one sort or another, 11 being directly appointed by the serving Taoiseach (Prime Minister). There have been a myriad reports and proposals for reform of the Seanad down the decades; none of which have been acted on. A 2013 proposed constitutional amendment to completely abolish the Seanad was defeated (approximately 40% of the electorate actually voted, with 52% No to 48% Yes) and since then normal service has been resumed! Sorry for going off on a long winded tangent Ricky but I totally agree with your point that nothing will change anywhere until it suits the politicians of the most powerful parties and both our countries seem intent on using one house of parliament either as kindergartens or retirement homes for up and coming or superannuated party hacks.

    Thanks for your patience Ricky.

    • Ricky

      Thank you, Sean, for this comprehensive comment, the content of which I agree with entirely. You are quite correct, any PR system, especially one using the Single Transferable Vote (STV), does take longer to count. But within 24 hours, it is usually clear who has won an election – it just takes a bit longer to sort out the exact final details. Again, I know all about this from living in Australia for five years where STV is used, most successfully.

      I had read about all the issues around the Irish Senate and the most recent attempt to abolish it. I personally believe that there is a place for an Upper House that acts as a check on government & as a revising chamber. But it needs to be democratically elected, rather than a place where party hacks are kicked upstairs.