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Should the first past the post system for the House of Commons be reformed? If so, to what?

Updated on February 21, 2015

Main Discussion

‘Should the first past the post system be reformed’ is a question raised incessantly throughout the U.K. The way in which the first past the post system works is that the candidate with the most votes wins the constituency he/she is battling for, with or without an absolute majority, (meaning more than 50% of the votes cast.) Many believe this system ought to be eradicated from use. However, how do we know that any of the alternatives on offer will be any more democratic or effective than our current electoral system? This essay will provide an analysis and investigation into whether the first past the post system could be replaced with a superior alternative.

Those in favour of keeping the first past the post electoral system would state that there are many advantages why we should maintain its usage. It provides strong single-party government as general elections result in a single party gaining an overall majority; the winning party is also able to implement its proposed programme without interference from other parties. It is able, therefore, to fulfil the promises that it made to the electorate. First past the post ensures a quick, cheap, simple electoral system, as Watts notes in 1994,

“The system is easy to understand especially for the voter who marks an X on the ballot paper…it has simplicity.”

Moreover, its theory of one person, one vote allows a basic form of political equality.

Many also believe that links between M.P.’s and constituencies is closer than in large, multi-member constituencies. Small single-member constituencies mean that local people can air their grievances directly with their M.P. These views are shared by Faulkes, a Labour M.P. and opponent of electoral reform who said in 1992,

“It is an essential part of our democracy that all constituents know that they have an M.P. who has a duty to pursue individual problems and constituency issues…either individually or collectively.”

This view is additionally supported by Watts, who in 1994 stated that,

“M.P.’s have sole responsibility for the area which they represent, and once elected represent all who live in the area, not just their voters.”

The information mentioned above further adds an unshakeable “no” to the underlying question – should the first past the post system be reformed?

A third argument in favour of sustaining the use of the first past the post system is that by providing an outright winner, the current system ensures that a single party is provided with a mandate to carry out its programme. There is no need for post-election trade-offs and coalitions. The party with the most seats usually has an overall majority and is therefore able to carry out its programme without having to compromise with the smaller parties. This also allows strong government and maintains the principle that a party in government should be elected on the strength of its proposed programme and then judged on its actions. Coalitions with other parties would give undue influence to small parties, which do not represent the opinion of a large proportion of the population.

Lastly, one could say that the first past the post system has effectively worked over the years, so why is there any need for it to be replaced? Plus how do we know any of the alternatives would better our electoral system? – For example, as Faulkes pointed out in 1992,

“Experience elsewhere has shown that proportional representation often puts crucial government decisions in the hands of very small minorities, possible extremists, who hold the balance of power.”

All previous argument, however, in favour of retaining the first past the post system can be heavily disputed, with claims that an amendment in our electoral system is imperative. An example to delineate the unfairness of the first past the post system would be that between 1979 and 1992, the conservatives won an overall majority consecutively in four general elections. Critics pointed out that in all of these elections, not once did the conservatives win more than 50% of the vote; in fact the highest share of the vote they gained was 43.9% in 1979. Is it democratic that for four terms a party, which receives less than a 50% share of the vote, governs a majority of voters? There is another example of this, when in 1997, Labour won a huge Commons majority – (178 seats) and yet only received 43.3% of the vote in the U.K.

Yet a further argument against first past the post, and arguably the most significant, is that in each constituency perhaps as many as 70% of votes are wasted. Votes cast for the losing candidates are ignored as far as seat allocation is concerned. Votes that add to the winning candidate’s majority are wasted in the respect that they give no extra benefit to the party whose candidate has won. Because of this, the number of seats won by each party nationally is disproportionate to the votes cast for each party. For example, in the 1997 general election, the Liberal Democrats won 16.7% of the votes nationally but won just 7% of the seats. A party can win fewer votes than another party yet gain more seats than that party. For instance in February 1974, Labour won 301 seats with 37.2% of the vote whilst the Conservatives won just 297 seats with 37.9% of the vote.

In addition, the winning party rarely wins an outright majority of the total votes cast. Last century there were only two occasions when a single party received more than 50%of the vote in a general election – in 1900 when the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists won 50.3% of the vote, and in 1931 when the Conservatives won 55% of the vote. Critics of first past the post see the fundamental fact that the party that wins only a minority of the vote normally forms the government, and as such is seen as proportionately unjust.

Another disadvantage of first past the post is that regional imbalance can occur. For example in the 1997 election not a single Conservative M.P. was elected in Scotland and Wales despite the fact that the party attracted 17.5% and 19.6% of the vote in these regions. Britain’s “electoral geography” means that some parties gain an electoral advantage while others do not. As in the 1997 election, compared to Labour and even the Liberal Democrats whose votes are more unevenly distributed, this places the Conservatives at a disadvantage when it comes to translating votes into seats.

Furthermore, critics state that general elections are decided by what happens in a small number of marginal constituencies. So some votes matter more than others. Usually 500 seats are “safe” and in these seats the result is almost a foregone conclusion. The winning party gains many more votes than it needs to win. Votes for other parties count for little. In marginal seats however, every vote is important. The result in marginals determines the complexion of the government. The idea that the link between M.P.’s and constituents is a good attribute of first past the post can instead be considered a negative, as in reality M.P.’s cannot represent all those who live in an area. According to Plant,

“There are my social, political, economic, ethnic and religious cleavages which undermine the idea that constituencies are natural communities.”

Representation can be looked at rather differently, in a more negative way. Plant suggests that supporters of proportional representation believe that Parliament should not be made up of individuals who each claim to speak on behalf of a particular area. So this view is saying that a system that divides the country into large multi-seat constituencies, is likely to produce a Parliament which is less representative than a system that avoids this.

Moreover the theory that the first past the post system makes the government an “elective dictatorship” is one shared by against campaigners. Although supporters of the current system say that it encourages strong government, which does not rely on coalitions, critics counter this and say that there is a danger of a single party becoming entrenched in power. Also political parties themselves are coalitions in effect. A single party in government has to make deals with members of its own party in the same way that coalition governments have to make deals. The difference is that in a coalition these deals are made openly. Besides, proportional representation does not necessarily lead to coalition government as pointed out by Rooker,

“There are plenty of other countries that have proportional representation which have majority or one party governments.”

Additionally, critics of proportional representation argue that answerability is diminished if the clear line between a government and the electorate is lost through coalition politics. Temple argues that,

“In systems where long-term coalitions are the norm, there is evidence to suggest that voters vote in anticipation of certain partnerships. In many systems, the parties announce their preferred coalition partner in advance so that voters can vote in anticipation of proposed governments.”

A coalition government can be just as accountable to the electorate as a single-party government.

Finally, such systems as the Single Transferable Vote are mathematically complex, but for the returning officers to work out, not the electorates. There is therefore, no reason why voters should not be able to deal with other voting systems, and this is further reason why those against feel a transformation of our electoral system is crucial.

So far in the essay, reasons why we should or should not retain the first past the post system have been analysed, however, an exploration into alternative electoral systems will now follow.

Party list is a system which some in favour of electoral system reformation feel is the appropriate system to replace the current one. Party lists’ features are that it is the most proportional electoral system; it converts the percentage of votes into the percentage of seats and is very democratic. Also the voter votes once for a party, and electing is simple. Before an election, the party draws up a list of candidates; the top people on the list become M.P.’s and the most hopeful candidates are at the bottom. The reason some feel it should be introduced as Britain’s electoral system is because it is very democratic, it is easy for voters, is quick to operate, and it is effective because you vote for your party, not your constituency.

However, like all systems, it has its disadvantages as well, such as there is no M.P. or constituency link. Also one may argue that there is too much power in the hands of party leaders to choose who goes at the top of the list. Furthermore, extremist parties win representation, and many small parties gain power, which results in coalition government, which is weak and ineffective. Moreover accountability is difficult, and we could end up in a governmental crisis like in Italy if this system were to be introduced. For these reasons for campaigners would say that this system is too flawed and that the first past the post system therefore should be kept.

Another party system – A.M.S. (Additional Member System) is a collaboration of the first past the post system and the party list system. It provides very strong, effective coalition government and is half elected using constituencies and half elected using the party list system. Its strengths are that it keeps the M.P. link with constituents, and it incorporates the best of first past the post and party list. Also minority parties get more representation, whereas in our current system they do not.

The negatives of it include that it is unclear who stands in a constituency and who stays on party list. It is confusing for voters, as voters have to vote twice which is hard to explain on their doorstep. There would also be questions over the loyalty of constituency M.P.’s to their party.

Another system called S.T.V. (Single Transferable Vote) is when the country is divided into multi-member constituencies and seats are allocated according to a quota system. Its pros are that it gives power to voters rather than parties and enables voters to express their opinions effectively. It also gives voters a representative of their choice and links representatives to their voters. Furthermore, it makes government more representative and produces strong and stable government.

However, its cons are that it provides large constituencies; a complex counting process and competition between candidates in the same constituency can lead to over-emphasis on casework.

The final system under proportional representation is the Alternative Vote system. This is where voters have the opportunity to rank candidates whose names appear on the ballot paper in order of preference. The advantages of it are that it retains constituency representation and it ensures that the winning candidate has more than 50% of the vote.

But critics argue that the system leads to disproportional support for the centre parties because, while they are not voters’ first choice, they are nearly always voters’ second choice.

In conclusion it would be sensible to conclude that S.T.V. is the most suitable system as it is the only system which holds more advantages than disadvantages. First past the post is by no means the most ineffective electoral system on offer, and due to its fair number of advantages, one can appreciate why it would be chosen as a country’s system, but S.T.V. in my view is much more democratic, allowing smaller parties more representation and it also has more advantages than the first past the post system and fewer flaws. Party list has too many disadvantages, and in similarity to A.M.S. and the Alternative Vote system is too complicated and too flawed to be implemented as the country’s electoral system. S.T.V. is used in many countries throughout the world, such as Northern Ireland and Austria, where it appears to be working effectively. Its multi-member constituency system seems all the more appropriate to implement in this country when we consider our ever-increasing population and ever-expanding conurbations and metropolises ‘sucking up’ more and more towns and villages. Although the first past the post system is a good system, I am of the opinion that democracy and representation overshadow ‘strong’ government, and therefore S.T.V. should replace it for the peoples’ sake.


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