Head to Head: First Past The Post

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Theresa May has called a snap general election. There has been lots of commentary regarding polling and likely outcomes. However, fewer questions have been asked regarding whether the British voting system is fit for purpose. Tim Ivorson, a board member of Make Votes Matter, argues that first past the post is a broken voting system. However, Talk Politics Campaign Agent, Matthew Waterfield, believes that while first past the post may not be perfect, it is the best system we have available.

What do you think? Read both arguments and vote in our poll!

Tim Ivorson: First Past The Post Is A Broken Voting System; Britain Needs PR

With a snap General Election looming, the issue of our broken voting system comes sharply back into focus. The vast majority of developed democracies have Proportional Representation. Why don’t we?

First Past the Post (FPTP) could be deemed democratic when there are just two political parties. With two candidates per constituency, each MP necessarily receives a majority of votes.

When a third party enters, this changes. With three candidates per constituency, you can win with just a third of the vote, plus one. It’s possible that one candidate thrashes the others and wins an overall majority. But candidates can – and sometimes will – win on a minority of the vote.

When four candidates stand, the minimum needed to win drops to 25% plus one vote. With five, it’s 20% plus one, and so on.

In the 2015 General Election, an average of 6.1 candidates stood in each constituency, from seven major political parties in Great Britain alone.

As a result, most MPs now receive a minority of votes cast in their constituency; with the Belfast South MP, for example, getting just 24.5% – meaning over three-quarters of those who voted are represented by someone they didn’t vote for.

Nationwide, it’s even worse. The Tories got 36.9% of the vote in 2015 – yet they have a Parliamentary majority and 100% of the power.
Meanwhile, the Greens, Lib Dems and UKIP received 24.4% of the vote between them. Yet they won a shared 1.5% of seats. Consequently, votes are dramatically different in value. It took 23,032 votes to elect each DUP MP, but 3,881,099 to elect a single UKIP MP.

FPTP actually severs the relationship between public support and power. In most General Elections since WWII, one of the three largest parties has either gained votes but lost seats, or lost votes but gained seats.

For example, in 1983 the Conservatives’ vote share dropped by 1.5%, but FPTP rewarded them with a “landslide victory” – increasing their majority by 38 seats. In 2015, Labour gained 1.5% of the vote. Their reward? Losing 26 seats!

In fact, FPTP can’t even ensure the correct side wins. The UK and Canada have each had two General Elections since WWII where the runner-up on votes won on seats. Two such “wrong winner” elections happened consecutively in New Zealand before it ditched FPTP for PR. Similarly, Trump won the US Presidency with three million fewer votes than Clinton.

All these problems are getting worse. In 1955, Conservatives and Labour shared 96% of votes (and 99% of seats). By 2010, they received just 65% of votes (but still kept 87% of seats!). As seen above, the more parties people vote for, the more chaotic the results.

FPTP delivers a disproportionately large number of MPs to the two largest parties, exaggerating the binary, oppositional, combative nature of our politics. PR fosters collaboration and consensus and strongly correlates with a huge range of positive socio-economic outcomes, from greater equality to lower likelihood of going to war.

Theresa May says she is calling an election to unify the country. But with more dividing lines than ever before – between left and right, progressive and conservative, leaver and remainer, unionist and nationalist – the distorting effects of our voting system may well reach their pinnacle.

We can be confident that millions of voters will be represented by MPs they oppose, many seats will be allocated almost at random, and the choices made by the voters will be grossly distorted. Thanks to our voting system, the election promises to be anything but unifying.

Let’s make this the last election held under such an undemocratic system. Let’s bring in PR and make all votes matter.

Matthew Waterfield: In Defence of First Past The Post

The ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system first began to be used in British general elections around 1884. It has survived more than a century of criticism and attempts to remove it, including the 2011 referendum when a proposal to use the Alternative Vote method instead was defeated by a margin of more than 35%. So why does this system remain popular across the political spectrum?

One reason is that it acts as a bulwark against extremists. If a system of proportional representation, one without seat thresholds, had been in place at the time of the 2010 election, the BNP would’ve got 12 seats in the House of Commons. This would’ve meant that a far right group, with minute public support, would’ve had 12 MPs due to 1.9% of the public voting for them.

However, as they were not the most popular party in any one constituency, they got no MPs under the FPTP system. With radical parties gaining more support across the world right now, the last thing we need is the abolishment of FPTP, which would give them the electoral boost they need to prosper.

FPTP is also crucial in providing a country with the political stability it needs to function. In the Netherlands last month, an election took place under their PR system. Due to the electoral math, at least 4 parties will need to form a government together, as no party came anywhere close to receiving 50% of the vote. Negotiations to form these coalitions are often tricky and political gridlock can hamper progress in the following years as multiple parties try to agree on the same position. Contrastingly, in Britain, we’ve only had 1 coalition government since World War II, with the stability of our majority governments leading to people like Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher being able to push through important reforms. This was down to FPTP allowing parties to win majorities without needing 50% of the vote (which no party has done since 1931).

Finally, the FPTP system creates a stronger link between the public and their representatives in Parliament. Every MP has a specific area they represent and their constituents are able to come to them for advice and support, whereas under a different system, people wouldn’t have a specific individual who they know represents them. The system also allows MPs to campaign on issues specific to their constituency and gives small areas, which might otherwise be overlooked, a say in Parliament. With the public growing ever more hostile towards politicians, the worst thing to do would be to remove the geographic link between people and their MPs, which would only serve to further alienate the public.

What do you think?

Image rights: secretlondon123 @ Flickr

3 Replies to “Head to Head: First Past The Post”

  1. With respect to Matthew, the arguments and points he offers in favour of FPTP are very weak.

    He asks “So why does this system remain popular across the political spectrum?”. Every single opinion poll in recent years has found overwhelming support for PR and opposition to FPTP – among voters of every party. Every party in Great Britain except Labour and Conservatives support PR – in addition to many Labour and some Conservative politicians.

    He says FPTP is a bulwark against extremists. Firstly, FPTP is the only system that can hand a minority of extremists total power. This is why Trump is President despite getting fewer votes. Secondly, FPTP doesn’t deprive extremists of representation, it deprives MILLIONS OF ORDINARY, DECENT PEOPLE of representation. By far the biggest victims of this effect in the last 100 years have been the Lib Dems – not exactly extremists.

    “With radical parties gaining more support across the world right now, the last thing we need is the abolishment of FPTP, which would give them the electoral boost they need to prosper.”

    This above statement is so obviously contradicted by the evidence it’s almost too obvious to point out. Geert Wilders came second in the Dutch election with PR. He got a share of the seats, all the other parties said “they’re too extreme – we won’t work with them”, and moderate, representative life goes on. In the US, Donald Trump came second in the election. He was instantly made the most powerful man in the world – and the whole country and indeed world must now dance to his tune. Can Matthew explain how FPTP has been a better defence against extremism than PR here?

    His idea that Britain is stable thanks to FPTP is so ludicrous I won’t respond in detail. We’ve just called our 3rd election in 7 years, mate. And indeed countries with FPTP have more elections on average than countries with PR (see study by Dennis Pilon, 2010) because – guess what – handing power to a minority does not lead to stability.

    The constituency point is 100% moot because good PR systems keep the constituency link – even a single member one if that’s what you insist on: see Scotland, Germany.

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  2. Single Transferable Vote means we all have several MPs, so more chance that one will agree with us. AND we can choose between members of the same party. AND the House of Commons REALLY represents us!

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  3. I never understand the ‘extremists can get into power more easily under PR’ argument. If they do (under any system, apart from, perhaps, a military coup) it’s because enough people have voted for them to get them elected. That’s how democracy works. To use this as an argument for retaining FPTP is profoundly undemocratic. In fact, the disenfranchising of huge numbers of people under FPTP makes it more likely that they will turn, in their frustration, to parties like UKIP.

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