First Past The Post, Put Simply


How does our voting system of First-Past-the-post (FPTP) actually work? Does the system benefit some parties more so than others? Are there any better alternatives?

These are all common questions that come around once we get the results of a general election or a referendum. Upon analysing the number of individual votes a party gets compared to the number of seats won, we begin to ask why there is often such big da number of between the two. We see the electoral map covered mostly covered in blue and red, with the odd peppering of yellow and green. But does this map accurately represent the voting behaviour of the country? This article will outline the key components of the system and explain whether it is truly representative.

What is FPTP?

With the First-past-the-post system, voting is conducted on a constituency by constituency basis. There are a total of 650 constituencies in the UK, each of them with a Member of Parliament that represents them in Westminster. Voters indicate their preferred candidate on a ballot, and the candidate who receives most votes wins that seat. The party with the majority of seats then forms a government in Westminster.  The UK is not the only country that uses this system; Canada, India and the United States all use FPTP.

Is FPTP representative?

FPTP has often thrown up results that are at odds with the representative public voting numbers. For example in the election of 1974, the Conservatives beat Labour by more than 200,000 votes. However, they ended up with four fewer seats.  Harold Wilson formed a minority government, despite receiving fewer votes in total.

The critics of FPTP say that the system brings about a ‘winner takes all’ scenario. This is where an MP can be elected by a very small majority, likewise an MP can be elected by a huge majority, but all those votes will still just equate to one seat.  One of the biggest issues of the FPTP system is this problem of so called ‘wasted votes’. For example, if you were an avid Labour supporter in a Conservative heartland, your vote would not count as much as someone who lives in a ‘swing seat’, where the majority of victory is small. It can also cause ‘tactical voting’ whereby the electorate tactically votes for a party just so that another party cannot win. For example, one person may not want a particular party to get in, therefore they might vote for their nearest rival, despite not supporting them, just to oust the party that they don’t like. That way of voting will count for more than voting than for a fringe party who are not close to securing the majority.

The Liberal Democrats have long been advocates for electoral form. It’s not difficult to see why given that their seat count is often much less than their proportional number of votes. The FPTP system does not work well for the Lib Dems, as their vote is widely dispersed around the country, as oppose to concentrated in certain constituencies. This means that many of their votes are wasted, and do not translate to seats. Similarly, UKIP received the third highest vote share in 2015, gaining over 3 million votes. However, this only translated to 1 seat in Westminster. Therefore, it is easy to see why the smaller parties are strong campaigners for reform.

Ultimately, there is no simple answer to choosing the best system of voting. FPTP has been used for many years in the UK, and has been widely criticised over the years for producing a ‘winner takes all’ scenario, creating ‘wasted votes’ and tactical voting. We may well change our system eventually, but for now, these problems remain, and it will take a long and hard-fought campaign to change our system.

Image rights: secretlondon123 @ Flickr

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