Electoral reform – why First Past the Post is not fit for purpose

In this post I am going to address the shortcomings of our current voting system and the awful attempts to defend it in the run-up to the referendum in 2011.

I have already argued that our current voting system is not fit for purpose, but I want to look at it in more detail, and explain why our system is so bad, as well as present some reasonable alternatives. This will take two or three posts, so settle in.

As a nation, we had the chance to change the voting system through the referendum in 2011, unfortunately without success, but this is still an important issue and not one I intend to drop. The voting system we have in the UK to elect our Parliament is commonly known as “First Past the Post” (FPTP). Interestingly, among people who have an academic interest in voting systems, FPTP has virtually no support whatsoever. For example, it received no support in this survey.

Under FPTP, if two similar candidates stand, then it decreases both of their chances of winning against a candidate with distinct policies, through vote-splitting. A voter can only cast a single vote for one or the other, so has to choose between them. Because the votes are split between the two candidates, they are each harmed by the presence of the other.

Often a minor candidate, with no chance of winning themselves, can change the result by taking away votes from one of the favourites. A candidate who affects the outcome in this way is known as a spoiler candidate. Here is a nice video explaining some of the main problems with FPTP.

FPTP keeps minor parties as minor parties by encouraging people to vote for their favourite of the top two in the polls or risk wasting their vote. So it entrenches the two-party domination, according to Duverger’s Law. It encourages strategic rather than honest voting by putting people off from voting for their favourite candidate, and can even put lesser-known candidates off from standing at all. The two main parties become like two brands that dominate the market, regardless of quality. So I see it as a very undemocratic system.

Even when the two-party stranglehold fails and other parties do get a look in, FPTP can produce pretty bad results anyway due to the vote-splitting that I’ve just discussed. FPTP isn’t equipped to deal with more than two candidates in a reasonable manner.

Alternative Vote (AV), is less vulnerable to the problems that plague FPTP. Under AV, you rank the candidates in order, and candidates are successively eliminated, so if your favourite is eliminated, your vote still carries on into the next round. Ranking a minor candidate top does not render your vote irrelevant.

Even though David Cameron and the Conservative Party were against the change to AV, it is a very similar system to how Cameron was elected as their leader. David Cameron, David Davis, Kenneth Clarke and Liam Fox all stood in the first round, in which Kenneth Clarke was eliminated as he had the fewest votes. Liam Fox was then eliminated in round two, and finally David Cameron beat David Davis in a head-to-head.

The AV referendum failed arguably, at least in part, due to the circumstances at the time. It was seen as a Liberal Democrat policy, and they, along with leader Nick Clegg, were very unpopular at the time, especially after university tuition fees debacle.

Also, many of those who wanted electoral reform didn’t want AV. Nick Clegg himself had previously referred to it as a “miserable little compromise”, which was then used against him.

On top of this, we had to put up with a lot of rhetoric, nonsense and outright lies from the “No” campaign, which I will now look at in a bit more detail.

This video says that implementing AV would cost £250 million. However, this claim has been discredited – see here and here. In any case, £250 million is still less than £5 per person in the UK. I’d be willing to pay more than that for a better system of democracy.

Here is the “AV Sports Day” video posted by the Conservative Party. There’s a lot of build-up in this video, but essentially what happens is that a boy wins a running race but the trophy is awarded to someone else. A voiceover then says “Under AV, the person who finishes third could end up winning.” This isn’t just a bit of political distorting of the truth. It is, plain and simple, an outright lie. It is true that the candidate who would have finished third under FPTP could win under AV, but this just means that the systems aren’t the same and don’t always elect the same winner. If they did always elect the same winner, there would be no point in changing. Equally, if a country was voting on whether to change from AV to FPTP, someone could make the same argument against that change. “Under FPTP, the person who finishes third [under AV] could end up winning.” To be clear, under AV, there would be a winner. That person would not have finished third in any sense because AV would be the system being used and they would be the winner under that system. The argument boils down to “Different systems can elect different winners.”

The racing analogy is poor, and the name “First Past The Post” is misleading. The system is nothing like a race with a finishing post. There is no post. Whoever gets the most votes wins. A finishing post implies a set distance, or set percentage of the votes. A more analogous situation to FPTP would be a race that ends as soon as the total distance reached by all the competitors added together reaches 100 metres (or any particular distance). That would be a bit of a weird race. In fact, it is AV that is more like a system with a finishing post. If no-one reaches 50% of the votes (the post), there is another round, and it continues until a candidate has more than 50% of the votes in a round, among the voters who have participated in that round (expressed a preference among the remaining candidates).

This is the most watched video posted by the official “no to AV” campaign, and it has most of the main points that were used against AV.

It starts off with Alan B’stard (the main character in 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The New Statesman”, played by the late, great Rik Mayall) announcing some ridiculous policies and then saying “And of course, with AV, even if they don’t vote for me, I’ll probably still get in.” This is mindless rhetoric.

“You know, the really great thing about a fudged coalition is that neither of us needs to carry out a single promise of our election manifesto.” Well, it turns out that we have a coalition now under FPTP. But I will come back to this at the end because I have a bit more to say about hung parliaments and coalitions.

“Of course the best thing about AV is never having to say we’re sorry or to pretend that we care.” More mindless rhetoric.

The video then has a horse race, which makes the same argument as the sports day video. There is then a confused teacher trying to explain AV to some confused students in an overly complicated manner, when clearly it isn’t complicated in the least.

It then has typed on the screen “Democracy is One Person One Vote.” However, I would take “One Person One Vote” to mean that everyone can cast a vote of equal power: i.e. some people don’t get to vote twice with others just once in the same election. If you take it to mean “Name one candidate then shut up” (a phrase I got from this site) then I fail to see why that’s a principle you’d want to hold onto. It results in just about the least expressive system possible. There may be several candidates standing, but you only get to say anything at all about one of them.

There are no serious points in this video. It’s bad for FPTP as a system that they had no sensible arguments and had to rely on rhetoric, nonsense and lies to defend it. The video is nothing short of moronic.

In this video, David Cameron argues that supporters of fringe parties get their votes counted more times than voters of mainstream parties, because once their first preference is eliminated, their later preferences are also counted. On the other hand, a mainstream party may not get eliminated at all so, according to Cameron, their supporters only get the one vote. However, this is also nonsense.

If there isn’t a majority winner in the first round, the candidate who has the fewest first preferences is eliminated and it goes to a second round. Everyone’s votes are counted a second time, or at least everyone who has indicated a preference among the remaining candidates. Those whose favourite candidate has been eliminated cast a vote for a different candidate in the second round, but everyone else is still casting a vote in this second round. For those whose favourite candidate hasn’t been eliminated, the two votes both happen to be for the same candidate. Everyone has one vote per round. And as said, this is very similar to how David Cameron was elected as leader of the Conservative Party. Those who voted for Kenneth Clarke in the first round and then had to change to one of the remaining candidates did not get more votes than those who were able to stick with their original favourite in the second round.

Having made you watch those horrific videos, here and here are couple in favour of AV to redress the balance.

AV is not a proportional system, so if it’s hung parliaments and coalition governments you’re worried about, then it wouldn’t make much difference. Majority governments are largely the result of a single-winner system, which AV and FPTP both are. Not that I’m a fan of majority governments anyway – I favour proportional representation – but I’ll address that in the next post.

Fewer people vote for the main two parties now than used to, so we’re more likely to get hung Parliaments than in the past even under FPTP, which could help explain why the 2010 election ended with a hung parliament. The graph here shows how the proportion of the vote going to the top two parties has declined over the last few decades. Here is an interesting video by Dan Snow on hung parliaments, which also makes the point that hung parliaments are more likely nowadays even with FPTP. FPTP has been shown to be an awful system for electing an individual to a single position, but its saving grace was supposed to be that it’s good at ensuring a party majority when many of these elections (650 or so) are put together. However, it has been shown to fail here too, such as in the 2010 general election.

If having a majority government is such an important thing, then we could indeed do a lot better than 650 individual elections each with a winner decided by FPTP, such using as a system that actually guarantees it. We could have a system that automatically gives the most popular party a majority of the seats. For example, we could have a “mixed-member” system. In a mixed-member system, you vote for a local candidate and also a party. The local candidates are elected as usual, but then there are “top-up” seats that go to parties ensuring that each party gets the right number of seats overall based on the national votes for that party. Normally, mixed-member systems are used to ensure proportional representation, but it could just as easily be used to ensure an outright majority for one party. By the way, I wouldn’t support this system, partly because I’m not so keen on majority governments, but it just goes to show that even if majority governments were an important criterion for you, you could do a lot better than FPTP.

This post has largely been to show what a poor system FPTP is, and also how poor the “No” campaign was in the 2011 referendum, relying as it did on rhetoric, nonsense and lies. I haven’t devoted too much time to showing why AV is better (although if you watch the videos that I have already linked to (once more here and here), you will clearly be able to see it) because while I want electoral reform, I would not advocate using AV given a free choice. So in the next post, I’m going to talk more about where I think we should be going. I’m going to make a case for proportional representation.

AV lost against FPTP in the 2011 referendum, but electoral reform per se didn’t lose. Regardless of the result of that referendum, FPTP is still as awful a system as ever, and we need to continue the fight against it.

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