Tuesday, March 09, 2010

What is wrong with the First Past the Post Electoral System?

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the electoral system used in the UK, and a rump of its former colonies, namely Canada, India and the USA.

It is a deeply flawed system, because: 

1 It is not democratic.
Democracy is the political system where the Government represents the will of the people. There never has been a perfect democracy, there are only degrees of approximation, and democracy goes far beyond discussion of the voting system. Nevertheless, the voting system is an important element in shaping a democracy, and FPTP is woefully inadequate in expressing the will of the people, because the vote never gets beyond the constituency boundary. The only people whose will is represented in Parliament are those who back the local winner. All other votes are lost, or "wasted". They are no more. They are annihilated. They have no representation in Parliament.
In the UK 2005 general election, 70% of votes cast, 19 million, where invalidated in this way.

2 FPTP distorts the results
In the 1974 Election, the votes were as follows:

1st - Conservative - 37.9%
2nd - Labour - 37.2%
3rd - Liberal - 19.3%
The Parliament elected from this vote was as follows:
1st - Labour - 52% of MPs
2nd - Conservative - 47% of MPs
3rd - Liberal - 2% of MPs.
This is outrageous.
Just to prove this was not a fluke, in 1954 Labour got 48.8% of the vote, and 295 MPs, while the Conservatives got 44.3% and 302 MPs.
Anyone who thinks FPTP is a good idea is clearly not fit to be an MP.

Worse still, a Government can be elected on the basis of 33% of votes cast, but considering turnout, this falls to 22% of those entitled to vote. 22%! One in five!! Yet idiot conservatives of right and left still defend FPTP. Words fail.

MPs are elected on a minority of votes
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) page on FPTP states: Representatives can get elected on tiny amounts of public support. In 2005, for example, George Galloway polled the votes of only 18.4 per cent of his constituents, yet ended up in the House of Commons. Only three MPs elected in 2005 secured the votes of more than 40 per cent of their constituents.

3 FPTP encourages Tactical Voting
Voters are frequently forced to vote for a party that they do not back, in an effort to keep out a party that they most dislike. So Labour voters might vote LibDem if the LibDem has the best chance of beating the Tory.

4 FPTP penalises parties whose support is spread widely,
and rewards parties whose support is concentrated in one area.
ERS again: at the 2005 general election, the DUP won nine seats on 0.9 per cent of the vote, yet the Greens won no seats, despite polling almost 16,000 more votes than the DUP.

5 FPTP encourages gerrymandering
ERS: With relatively small constituency sizes, the way boundaries are drawn can have important effects on the election result, which encourages attempts at gerrymandering.

6 FPTP encourages Safe Seats

MPs in safe seats are more or less guaranteed to win every election. They are not motivated to compete for votes, and their party in not motivated to frame policy that will benefit the people in that constituency. Since 1970, only 50% of seats have changed hands. The other seats are a sinecure; like the old Rotten Boroughs.

Politicians pretend that they are concerned about turnout, but ignore the fact that turnout is lower in safe seats.

7 FPTP delivers power to marginal seats
Parties lust after the vote in key marginal seats, where two parties stand neck and neck. Within those marginal seats, there are a few uncommitted voters who must be won over. The politicians pile in with money to campaign in those seats (this was Lord "non-dom" Ashcroft's tactic), and trim their policies and pronouncements to please the swing voters in  key marginals, who constitute about 0.16% of the electorate.

8 FPTP is the first step to full radical reform in the UK
The scandals of the MP expenses, the unelected House of Lords and non-dom donors demonstrate the need for radical, root-and-branch overhaul of the British Parliamentary system. Voting reform is the first step.

So that is the case against FPTP. What is the case for it?

1 Proportional Representation (PR) breaks the constituency link
This is a lie. Some forms of PR maintain the link.

2 The British electorate is too thick to understand PR
The British electorate may take a different view

3 FPTP delivers Strong Government
So the One Party State produces even stronger Government. Is that the way to go?
PR produces mixed Governments, composed of more than one party. It seems to work in all democratic the countries with the exception of the UK colonies mentioned at the top.

4 FPTP is quick and easy to count
So? Do the count on the next day, not during the middle of the night. Idiots

5 FPTP keeps the BNP out of Parliament
That's true, but repression is not the answer to the BNP. They thrive on that sort of thing. The answer to the BNP is housing, jobs, and a more equal society. Here is an expansion of this argument.

6 PR gives too much power to Party chiefs
Some forms of PR rely on lists of candidates chosen by the party, who are used to "top up" representation in Parliament, to make it proportional to the vote. It is possible to dilute the party's choice by letting voters pick and choose from the party list. But it is rich for FPTP stooges to criticise PR for delivering too much power to the party politicians, when the effect of FPTP is to delever all power to one party, even if it is delivered by a minority of the electorate.

In conclusion, there are 8 forceful arguments against FPTP, and 4 weak and specious arguments, + 2 interesting arguments in its favour.

It is time to change the system. We have to recognise that this will take civil action, demonstrations and civil disobedience, since most MPs elected by FPTP are bound to regard it as an excellent way to elect people. However, those parties who do want change should clearly look to finding ways of co-operation to beat the system and get more pro-democracy MPs into the chamber.


TonyD said...

I have done a comment on my own blog about the flaws of FPTP. Strangely enough, in my area (Bristol and South Glos) it is the Conservatives who lose out yet they are the ones apparently most in favour of FPTP....

stephen.J said...

While I entirely agree that FPTP has to go, I don’t believe that every feature of FPTP is bad, and I would want to see certain aspects of it incorporated into a replacement electoral system.

Single Member Constituency
For example, I favour the single member constituency because the constituency is smaller, and it is easier for the MP to cover the ground and have a connection with the electorate. (less miles travelled, more local focus)

The smaller constituency is better during the campaign – again all the candidates can cover the ground better, the cost is lower.

There are fewer candidates so the electorate has a better chance of getting to know about them. This should be important in any electoral system, and I favour the idea that there should be more emphasis on the Candidate than the party label, while still giving everyone the opportunity to vote for the party to form a Government.

Any electoral system has to be simple – simple to vote, simple to count, simple to administer, and simple to understand. If the system is complex its validity will be open to question.

FTPT also avoids Party Lists, which can end up with MPs elected in two different ways, and which also appear to be away that a party can attempt to appoint MPs, and Multimember Constituencies and their associated long ballot papers and opaque counting processes.

FPTP has to go, it’s awful, but we need an electoral system that retains the positive aspects of FPTP. The simple, practical, alternative is Direct Party and Representative Voting. For a comparison with FPTP see www.dprvoting.com

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen J

OK, AV+ will satisfy your constituency criteria. It delivers an MP in a single constituency who has the backing of the majority of the voters. The Plus bit - making up the composition of Parliament to reflect the will of the people can come from [arty lists. This step is criticised as handing too much power to the party machine. One possible way of softening this defect is to allow the voters to express a preference names on the list.

If it is a defect, it is a minor one, compared to the manifold defects of FPTP.

I mention AV+ as an example because Government has already decided, in its bumbling way, to go for AV. Trained in T'ai Chi, I prefer to go with the flow, rather than to strive fruitlessly to turn the Government supertanker around on a sixpence.


stephen J said...

Hi Richard,
Yes I agree AV+ has merits. But DPR would be quite different in practice - much more Candidate focussed on the one hand, and more purely PR as regards the election of the Government.
AV is nothing like AV+ . In fact it could prove just as erratic.
You may be right about the Government supertanker. If it comes to a referendum the possibility of real reform will be out of the question for many years, whichever way it goes.
At the same time DPR Voting really would transform our electoral system in many positive ways. It may be too late for this Government, but still worth going for, for the long term.

Anonymous said...

Firefox cannot find the server at www.dprvoting.com.

You may be right, and there are other forms of voting that all have merits, but given that Govt seems to be going for AV, then AV+ is the most practical way forward.


Stephen Johnson said...

Sorry, Richard, Too hasty - it's www.dprvoting.org

DocRichard said...

Hi Stephen
I had a look at your site, thanks for the link. Every vote counts.

The advantages of DPRV are:
1 DPR is easy - easy to vote, easy and quick to count, and outcomes are easy to understand.
2 It tackles 'Safe seats'. The Election of the MP is about the Candidate, not the Party.
3 It is still not easy for new parties to get started or gain sudden power.
4 It needs very little change to the existing voting system and would be easy to introduce.

Not so sure at all about 3. It would still lock the Green Party out, surely? What happens when a party gets no MPs but 24% of the vote, which happened to us in the 1989 Euros?
It is done by having one vote for an MP, and another vote for the Party. Then:
Parliament would change its internal voting system, when voting on Government bills.
PR is achieved by scaling the parliamentary voting strength of each party to reflect their total votes, rather than their seats.
One MP one vote is ditched, and a fractional voting system introduced.
The elected Government's strength in Parliament would be determined by the total of 'party' votes cast in the General Election.
If a party got 40% support in the ‘Government' vote but 50% of the MPs, each of their MPs would have a vote value 0.8 Independents would have a vote value of one.
If a party got 40% support in the ‘Government’ vote but 30% of the MPs, each of their MPs would have a vote value 1.333 etc
Non government bills (Free Votes) could be determined by one vote per MP.

Machine readable swipe cards for each MP should make voting foolproof and simple.

It's interesting, and I certainly do not want to issue an immediate dismissal, which is what usually happens to unfamiliar ideas.

You say the constituency MP could be voted by FPTP. I would update this to AV, which is better at local level because the winner must get a majority. Which would make it easier for you to get uptake from Govt, using the akido principle. (Do not oppose the oncoming force, divert it into the way you want it to go).

The vote strength idea is very interesting. You would need to look at all kind of scenarios and look for unwanted consequences.

The problem is that new ideas take ages for Govt to get its head around.

And to address the Green problem I mentioned:

It could be done by drawing from a party list in the case of 5% of the vote and no MPs. That would be 5 MPs in a Parliament of 500, if my mental arithmetic serves me right. We could live with that.

But overall, I would still go for AV+, with the top-up MPS voted from a party list, maybe a week after the elections. The party should vote on the list that is to be put forward first (not chosen just by the party managers), then the electorate get to vote for the list...no, that wouldn't work, because people from other parties would back the idiot thickoes or docile ones. No it has to be a lsit voted for by the party. If you want more influence, join a party.

Interesting. Good luck with it. At least we agree on proportionality, that is the main thing. Are you going to say "First Past the Post has got to go" to the poling clerk?

stephen.J said...

Hi DocRichard. Thanks for your post, queries and suggestions.

I agree that on the one hand a new party with very widely spread thin support could get a significant (5%say) overall vote but no representative. But if that party had even one charismatic politician who was able to get elected, then the party could use its voting power on Government bills. Getting a particularly charismatic or effective candidate elected would be easier under this system because the voter can focus on the candidate rather than the party.

Your suggestion for a party list in the event of no representation for votes over (say) 5% could be a good backstop, although I suspect (but can’t be sure) that it would not be necessary, or rather that perhaps there should be some sort of low level barrier that parties have to leap over. I wouldn’t want to lose the simplicity of the system which is a strength.

Again with single member constituencies I don’t think it is possible to get 24% (or anything like that) of the vote and no MPs.

Re the Representative vote. FPTP is simple and what we do now, so it seems a good place to start. Since the party vote is separate, it completely changes the character of the vote to choose an MP. Is it oversimplifying it to say that FPTP will return the most popular candidate, AV would return the least unpopular? I wonder how much difference there would be. But you make a fair point that using AV for the Representative election would be quite possible.

I will rant about FPTP to anyone who will listen, but for me, ‘Direct and Party Representative voting’ reaches parts that no other electoral system does, so it will be a long haul!

DocRichard said...

Well, Stephen, good luck with your project.