First Past the Post (FPTP) is the method by which the United Kingdom elects its Members of Parliament, and therefore its government. The system has been used for centuries, but is not without its criticisms. In 2011, the choice between sticking with FPTP and switching to a different system (called AV) was given to the British people via a referendum, and FPTP came out on top. Since then, however, some of the strongest arguments against FPTP have materialised.
This could be the best time to ditch the old and bring in something new. With Parliament experimenting with hybrid systems, and an appetite for progress in the air after the damage caused by the coronavirus, things could be looking forward, rather than back. Also, the best hope for electoral reform out of the two major parties is clearly the Labour Party, and with a resurgent Keir Starmer consistently making gains against the Prime Minister in the polls, it could be time for a New Labour victory, promising a New British Electoral System.
A key pillar in the argument against the system is the disproportionality that it generates. In 2015, David Cameron’s Conservatives were able to secure a majority of seats off the back of 37% of the votes cast, and in 2005, Tony Blair guided his Labour Party to an even stronger majority than Mr Cameron’s, but off just 35% of the votes cast. This particular problem is called the landslide effect, or winner’s bonus, which gives the elected government an artificially strong position which their votes just don’t merit. Only 5 times since 1945 has there not been a winner’s bonus, including all of the Hung Parliaments.
With FPTP, the minor parties in our proud multi-party system are effectively excluded – except for the regional parties, who get the inverse effect due to concentrated vote shares. Any party outside of Labour and the Tories who compete nationally are not rewarded with their fair share of seats when compared to the votes they get. In 2015, UKIP won 3.9 million votes, The Green Party won 1.1 million votes – they won just one seat each. Up in Scotland, the SNP were strong, winning 56/59 seats – but overall, they won just over half the votes cast throughout Scotland. There’s clearly something wrong here.
Whilst on the topic of regions, FPTP creates electoral deserts through the single member constituencies. In 2017, the Tory Party won 10% of the available seats in the North East of England, but 34% of the vote there was cast in their favour. That is just one example, this happens to all different parties, up and down the nation. These large scale regional disparities mean that, despite there being Tories in the North East and Labour voters in the South East, they just don’t have the representation they want, or that their votes merit.
Some of this disparity emerges in wasted votes, which is a vote either to a losing candidate, or a vote that just extends a candidate’s majority. In 2005, 48% of votes were wasted, but that is now up to nearly 66%. As you only have to beat your nearest rival to win the seat, this rise in wasted votes correlates to a rise in tactical voting and a return to the two-party system.
A large section of these wasted votes are in ‘safe seats’, but the issue of safe and marginal seats is a problem all of its own. Parties only really care about seats they might win, which naturally takes them away from safe seats in their campaigns, and towards marginals. This manifests itself in varying levels of voter engagement, and rising voter apathy, especially in ‘ultra-safe’ seats, as constituents there may never see a party campaign, whereas their ultra-marginal counterparts may well see a full campaign from all of the parties: it’s no wonder they have varying engagement levels.
Whilst some defend the FPTP system by citing its simplicity, its prevalence to create strong, responsible, majority governments, and that it excludes extremist parties – but they all have their counter arguments. Simplicity shouldn’t be the metric against which we measure off our democratic systems. By creating strong majority governments artificially, it gives no voice to the majority of voters who tend not to have voted for the government. And by excluding extremist parties, it is solving a problem that isn’t major in our democracy with a broad stroke, taking out far more peaceful parties than extreme ones. The BNP won 1.9% of the vote in 2010, which on pure Proportional Representation, would give them around 12 MPs, but that’s not the system I would like to see.
My preferred system would be a system of Single Transferrable Vote – also known as STV. It combines some of the better features of FPTP (maintaining a strong constituency link to MPs, and excluding those really unpopular parties) whilst making the results more proportional and majoritarian, rather than pluralistic. It delivers broadly proportional outcomes, with the government likely to receive well over 50% of the vote – as well as giving wider choice to the voters, including from candidates within parties.
The alternatives are clearly there, it is just a matter of those in high office not seeing them. As long as the system continues to benefit those who always form the government – the two major parties, in some form or other – then I fear that it will be forever thus. Yet there is hope that in this turbulent political climate another miracle can be arisen: stranger things have happened in politics over the last five years or so.
First Past the Post has had its time, and it must come to an end. In my opinion, the sooner the better.