For decades I was a First Past the Post zealot.
I was convinced that it was the only way to keep extremists out of parliament. In my defence, this was not completely unfounded. Despite UKIP polling at 12.5% they never picked up a seat in a general election.
But one look at today’s government shows just how wrong I was. FPTP has acted as a gateway for extreme parties to infect government. Increasingly concerned about “the UKIP vote”, the Conservative party lurched to the right. Worse, it adopted the same populist techniques used by authoritarians throughout history. This has only got worse in the post-Brexit world.
Why is First Past the Post so wrong?
Democracy is built on the concept that government is accountable to the general public. Not the other way round.
For this cornerstone of democracy to hold true, there are three principles that must be adhered to:
- Government must be chosen by the public
- The public must have an effective means of holding an errant government to account
- Governments must not be able to game the system to hold on to the levers of power
First Past the Post fails, to a greater or lesser extent, on all three.
Principle 1: Government must be chosen by the public
Under First Past the Post, the government is almost always elected with a minority of the popular vote. Worse, anything above 40% of the vote is likely to lead to an overwhelming and insurmountable majority.
This is the situation the country finds itself in today. The Conservative party, elected with just 43.6% of the vote, returned 56% of the seats. This is an 80 seat majority. The participation rate makes these figures even worse. Absolute executive power has been handed to Boris Johnson by just 29% (less than 1/3rd) of registered voters.
The worst off were the Liberal Democrats, who received just 1.7% of seats despite gathering 11.6% of votes. In reality there were probably far more people who wanted to vote Lib Dem. Prior to the election they had polled at around 20%. In fact, up to 1/3rd of voters did not vote for their preferred party. They voted for the party that they thought would prevent victory by their least liked party. FPTP has made this type of tactical voting a necessary evil.
So we can conclude that under First Past the Post, we don’t actually know who the public want in charge. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that they don’t want Boris Johnson. Yet the Conservatives walked away with absolute power.
Principle 2: Holding Government to Account
We have already established that a majority government essentially has absolute power over the country. So what stops a dishonest, corrupt politician from turning Britain into an authoritarian state? Not a lot it seems.
Britain has an unwritten constitution that is built on “conventions”. These conventions have been built up over centuries. Historically, enforcement of these conventions has relied on the idea that parliamentarians are honourable.
This is particularly true of the Ministerial code, which sets out several areas which are classed as “resigning matters”. Should the Minister concerned not resign, the Prime Minister is expected to act as a fail safe. But what happens when the Prime Minister is not honourable. Or worse, is directly responsible for the most egregious breaches of standards?
In short, nothing. Our system has absolutely no safeguards in place for such an eventuality. This weakness is a topic I’ll explore in more detail in future. But for now, suffice to say it is another failing of FPTP.
Principle 3: Rigging the System
FPTP again fails utterly. Under FPTP, votes for a losing candidate are wasted. This creates the perfect conditions for all sorts of political games designed to influence the outcome.
The most common tactic is gerrymandering. This essentially means redrawing electoral boundaries to maximise the number of seats won by a particular party. This is particularly rife in America, but has also become increasingly relevant in the UK system. A simple comparison of the numbers of votes per seat shows how big an impact that this can have. For example, it took:
- 865k votes to elect one Green MP
- 334k votes per Lib Dem MP
- 51k votes per Labour MP
- And just 38k votes per Conservative MP
As a result, 45% of voters are unrepresented.
A more insidious issue is voter suppression. A common way of doing this is to introduce ID requirements, often in response to overblown concerns around voter fraud. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Conservative government decided to pilot it in 2019. The pilot was small scale, but led to 1,159 voters being prevented from voting. Conversely, just 1 person was convicted of voter fraud in 2019. Not 1 person from the pilot population; 1 person in the entire country across every election held. This type of scheme has a massively disproportionate impact on minority groups and has seen heavy use by US Republicans.
A final American import is pork barrel politics. This occurs when a ruling party “bribes” the electorate by handing out funding to government controlled areas. This in turn encourages future loyalty in target seats, whilst discouraging votes for the non-ruling party in other seats. This is only possible in a FPTP system. Again, the Conservatives have been accused of doing exactly this in Tory held red wall seats.
What are the alternatives?
There are lots of alternative systems, but they generally follow the model of Proportional Representation. This type of system is in place in the majority of Western countries. Far from creating governments rife with extremism, they foster a spirt of compromise. If FPTP pushes parties to the fringes, PR forces them to the centre. No one party can form a majority without compromise, and as a result the most extreme policies from across the political spectrum fail to get a look in. But how does it hold up against the above three principles?
First, under PR the government returned matches the proportion of votes cast. There are several ways this can be applied, which I will not go into now, but some of these are quite complex. This does have the disadvantage of making it harder for the layman to understand. But no vote is wasted.
Second, the above results in the need for coalition governments. This means that if any one party or minister acts in a manner unbecoming of government, the coalition partners can force action. A minority cannot hold the rest of the country to ransom. It also avoids the situation where the members of a single political party have the ability to select the PM for the entire country, as happened with Boris Johnson in 2019.
Finally, the above political games hold little sway in a PR system. Gerrymandering is not possible. Pork barrel politics and voter suppression could take place, but due to the reliance on coalition are easily punished. Any party attempting these underhand practices would quickly find a lack of coalition support. It is also possible that they could be outright frozen out of government.
Should Proportional Representation replace First Past the Post?
The system is not perfect by any means. For example, there is a reduced link between MP and constituency. PR may also give extreme parties a voice. But in practice, the benefits far outweigh the failings. If there is a vote for PR again, it will have my full-throated support.