Commentators more or less sympathetic to the Conservatives are dismissing UKIP grumbles about electoral reform by suggesting that the First Past the Post does in fact reflect the country and that in the face of failure to secure more than one seat the party will now melt away. On the latter point they may, in part, be right. The dissapointment will be intense, especially for those who had not voted for some time and were drawn out of seclusion by the promise of making a difference. Such people may, perhaps, retreat into despair once more; and who can blame them? But the effect on the core of the party's nearly 4 million voters has the potential of galvanising them, and giving them a new sense of purpose. They now see that it is possible to collect a vote of national scale, and to deny the Conservative party a resounding victory. This will be attractive both to those who see UKIP's as a potential parliamentary force, and to those who think the party's role is to put pressure on the Conservatives to alter their policies. The latter group have every reason to congratulate themselves; they have pushed the Conservatives into much more robust positions on a whole range of issues, made it difficult for the leadership to ignore the backbenchers, and have reason to expect further success as Tory analysts seek ways of attracting, say, half the UKIP vote, without disaffecting the 11 million that they already have.
But the most important effect of the UKIP vote is independent of any immediate political consequences, and relates to the drift of public opinion and its long term effect on changes to law and constitutional practise, as described by Dicey in relation to the Nineteenth Century. The public can now see three parties, one of the right, two of the left, that have polled 7.4 million votes but are represented by only 10 MPs. This will not produce concrete proposals for electoral reform in the short or even medium term, but it is certain to contribute to a current of public opinion already in motion. As we know from the history of the late Eighteenth the whole of Ninteenth and the early part of the 20th Century, steady pressure for electoral reform eventually delivered universal suffrage.
Indeed, those who defend First Past the Post are in a similar position to those who resisted reform during that period, and some of the arguments are similar, namely that the existing system produces stable government, and does, in spite of its apparent oddities, produce governments and even parliaments that represent the mood the country. These points had substantial merit in the past and they have merit now, and they will be recognised even by those who nonetheless conclude that there is something in need of reform. But it is doubtful if such pragmatic arguments can save the reputation of a system where large numbers of votes go almost unrepresented in parliament, while sectarian interests such as the separatist Scottish Nationalist Party can gain 56 of the 59 the seats in Scotland with only 1.5m votes (which is less than half of the Scottish electorate, and about 2% of the population of the United Kingdom).
First Past the Post is on the way out; it won't go soon, but it will go, just as the electoral system of the 18th Century did, and it will go for the same reason, a gradual loss of credibility. Even those who see practical advantages in the status quo should understand that inflexible adherence to a system in which there is steadily waning confidence may result in social and political instability. It is often forgotten that England in 1817 was regarded by skilled observers as dangerously volatile, and Castlereagh took the remarkable step of suspending Habeas Corpus. This was recognised as undesirable, but simply thought to be necessary. We are a long way from such a situation, but there should be no doubt in anybody's mind that forces such as those we are considering here have major disruptive potential when frustrated.
It should also be recognised, on the basis of 19th Century experience, that even prudent and delays to reform intended to better reflect the political opinions and interests of individuals create the conditions in which collectivism can flourish, and ultimately, in the course of prosecuting its agenda, severely restrict human freedom. This is to be avoided.