First Past The Post: obsolete or effective?

Just how democratic is ‘the Mother of Parliaments’?

Ronald Reagan, in a 1982 speech to the British House of Commons, deliberately evoked a famous Leon Trotsky quotation when he declared that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history”. Yet this self-styled champion of democracy, and the so-called Mother of Parliaments in which he was speaking, operate with an electoral system which has been denounced by the Electoral Reform Society as “bad for voters, bad for government and bad for democracy”. The First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system was left behind by the British as they withdrew from the Empire, operating in former dominions from Anguilla to Zimbabwe, with Canada, India and Nigeria in between. Is the system simply a fossil of the Empire, which ought itself to be confined to history’s metaphorical ash heap?

The system is pretty darn simple to understand. Basically, the candidate with the most votes in each ‘constituency’ wins. The UK is divided up into 650 territorial entities, ‘constituencies’, and at a General Election each constituency has a ‘winner takes all’ vote on candidates for local MP. The problems with this system are often summarised into two words: “democratic deficit” (although this term has been used in other contexts, such as the issue of separate representation for Scotland and Wales) At micro level, this means that most votes are effectively ‘wasted’: your vote only serves a purpose if your candidate wins in your seat (say a Tory MP wins a seat with 36% of the vote in their constituency: the remaining 64% of votes have no effect on what parliament will look like). At macro level, we are always governed by a party which won fewer than half of votes cast (even worse when you factor in non-voters: which you do not have to do in Australia, where voting is a legal obligation). This effect becomes even more ridiculous when you look at the results of the 1951 General Election, in which Labour’s proportion of the vote was 48.8% versus the Conservative Party’s 48%, and yet the Tories earned five more MPs than Labour, and won the election, because their votes happened to be cast in the right places.

This can be contrasted with the Proportional Representation (PR) system (of which there are many versions), in which the seats in a Parliament or Senate or House are distributed in proportion to the number of votes each party receives, rather than a simple “who has the biggest share in each constituency”. Proponents of FPTP generally point to its stability. It is (normally) easier for parties to gain a majority of seats and not have to make a coalition. Critics of PR argue that because under PR there are more parties, there is a higher likelihood of coalitions: then, the government is less effective and less stable, and at times extremist parties with just a few seats have been able to have a powerful sway over government policy – because the government has to satisfy all of the parties within the governing coalition. So PR has problems of its own: but the ‘coalition’ threat seems less pressing in the UK now that we are seeing coalitions under FPTP!

In the USA, where there are, for all intents and purposes, only two parties, if you happen to be a Democratic living in a Republican ‘safe’ state, a state where the Republicans always win, you will find yourself a victim of the democratic deficit, because your vote for the Democrats will not earn you any further Democrat representation. One unfortunate manifestation of the ‘winner takes all’ effect of FPTP is that voters feel guilted into ‘tactical voting’ to keep out their least favourite candidates, instead of opting for those they truly want to vote for. In ‘safe seats’ where a single party has overwhelming support, you can vote for whomever you like, but in ‘marginal’ seats where there is real competition you are under pressure to simply vote for the party likeliest to keep out your least favourite, because the winner takes all in each seat. The worst example of this came in the 2000 American presidential election, when many Democrats blamed George W. Bush’s victory on those who had the audacity to cast their votes for Ralph Nader of the Green Party instead of tactically supporting Democratic candidate Al Gore. In the UK, this has given rise to the strange VoteSwap initiative, where Labour and Green voters agree to concentrate Labour votes in marginal seats, and Green votes in safe seats where there is little competition.

Ralph Nader: a wasted vote?

With the recent passing of Lee Kuan Yew, leader of Singapore from its independence until 1990 (and maintaining considerable influence post-retirement), The Economist reflected on the achievements of the nation which took first-past-the-post to its most undemocratic extreme. Lee combined the electoral system with constant use of anti-defamatory laws (another hangover from the Empire) against opposition figures, gerrymandering (where geographical constituencies are carved out in such a way as to ensure opposition support is more fragmented), and financial incentives for constituencies which voted for the ruling party.

The Singaporean system cast the positives and negatives of first-past-the-post into the spotlight. The People’s Action Party was able to govern with great effectiveness, and supporters point to massive achievements since independence: Singapore has developed into a global economic hub, and an apparently cohesive yet multicultural society. Meanwhile, at the last election – in what was apparently quite a relatively poor result for them – the late Mr Lee’s People’s Action Party gained 93% of parliamentary seats with 60% of the vote. The third party, National Solidary, gained 0 seats in exchange for 12% of the 2011 vote. In 2006, the electoral slogan of the main opposition, the Workers’ Party, was “You Have A Choice”, apparently feeling the need to actually remind voters of said fact. The Economist noted the democratic deficit in the Singaporean system, but focused on singing its praises. The system is seen as one in which there is enough electoral competition to prevent corruption and keep the leadership responsive – but not enough to force it into populism and ‘short-termism’. But this leaves anyone who is negatively impacted by the government with a very, very steep hill to climb to effect change.

It is right that major changes to our constitution (we actually don’t have a real constitution in the UK, but, you know…) should be made in consultation with the people through referenda – as was the case with the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum of 2011. However, the case for AV was weakly made – it was ultimately defeated, albeit with an abysmal turnout, with the main opposition argument apparently being that it was ‘too complicated’. In the present author’s opinion, this was a good opportunity to shift our electoral system in a more representative direction, to lessen the phenomenon of ‘wasted votes’. There are certainly arguments for and against first-past-the-post and proportional voting systems. But it seems to the present author, that leaders have little right to criticise and guilt non-voters while presiding over a system in which votes are ‘wasted’ en masse.

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