Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post

Conservative opponents of electoral reform have had to re-package their argument slightly.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg is the Executive Director of Democratic Audit

The stock Conservative argument in favour of ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) is that it is the only system which produces clear and decisive electoral outcomes, thereby avoiding the need for parties to ‘haggle’ post-election; with FPTP producing precisely a situation in which the party leaders are forced to negotiate (in the way many voters would appear to like them to), Conservative opponents of electoral reform have had to re-package their argument slightly.

Over on Conservative Home, we are told by Jonathan Isaby that “we are currently witnessing the best advert against changing the electoral system”. Unfortunately, to make this new version of the argument work requires a re-writing of British political history. In Isaby’s view the current situation is “unprecedented” and “very much the exception to the rule”.

He goes on to claim that:

“First Past The Post has in the main always delivered a decisive result, with a Prime Minister re-appointed or turfed out within hours of the votes being counted.

Even if we take a generous view, this claim only stands up if we take ‘always’ to represent 1945-2009. Even then, Isaby is skating on thin ice. The elections of February 1974 failed to produce a decisive result, as is well known. Moreover, wafer-thin majorities were returned for the Conservatives in 1950, and for Labour in 1964 and in October 1974. Fresh elections were called in 1951 and 1966, but were not an option after October 1974. The 20-seat majority which the Conservatives secured in 1992 was not sufficient to prevent John Major being held to ransom in Parliament by Euro-sceptics within his party, and had anyway disappeared by early 1997.

If we take ‘always’ to extend a little further back in history, then the picture is even more complex. Four elections in the early twentieth century failed to return a majority government – January 1910, December 1910, December 1923 and May 1929. There would almost certainly have been more, but for the formation of the National Government in 1931 and the outbreak of war in 1939. From 1910-1945, minority governments and coalitions were the norm, involving a great deal of inter-party negotiation. In short, the current situation is far from ‘unprecedented’.

The experience of the inter-war years tells us something of enormous importance. FPTP only delivers clear outcomes in a two-party system (and even then it is far from guaranteed). It was the emergence of Labour in the first half of the twentieth century which made ‘hung Parliaments’ commonplace (although nobody called them that at the time).

The re-emergence of the Liberals is now producing a similar effect in the early twenty-first century. From 1945-70, both Labour and the Conservatives could usually command at least 45 per cent of the vote. Neither party has been able to do so since 1974. Unless one of the three main parties is reduced to a rump, as the Liberals were in the immediate post-war years, then we are facing the prospect not only of general elections producing ‘hung Parliaments’ on a regular basis, but also of them producing seriously disproportional results. This is surely the worst of both worlds.

But disproportionality is not one of Isasby’s concerns. Instead, he goes on to argue that “proponents of proportional representation actually want to institutionalise the very confusion and chaos which we are currently witnessing”. His horror scenario is that electoral reform enabling “a small party to hold disproportionate sway – permanently, after every general election – as to which is the majority partner in the coalition government”.

We have to assume that, when Isaby says “a smaller party”, he does not mean the DUP – with whom Cameron would have preferred to do a deal, had the numbers added up. So this must mean he is referring to the Liberal Democrats – whose 6.8 million votes come in at two-thirds of the Conservatives’ total and four-fifths of Labour’s. By European standards, this is a very odd definition of a ‘small party’, which would normally be one with around 5-10 per cent of the votes cast.

If Isaby’s knowledge of British political history is a bit shaky, the same applies to his grasp on European politics. He suggests that PR would “give almost perpetual power to that smaller party, as has been the case for the German FDP over the decades”. The Germany example is only true for the period until 1997; the FDP were out of power for 12 years from 1997 and have only just returned to government as a junior coalition partner following last year’s national elections.

The German political system over the four decades from 1969-2009 shows that all sorts of combinations are possible – ranging from Social Democrats and Liberals (1969-82), Conservatives and Liberals (1982-97), Social Democrats and Greens (1997-2005) and Social Democrats and Conservatives (2005-2009). Coalition patterns have shifted as the balance of political views in the German electorate has changed.

Conservative opposition to PR is rooted in their fear that left-of-centre electoral reformers will be proved right, and it will tip the balance towards centre-left government in the UK, locking the Tories out of power for a generation or perhaps for longer. The current Lib-Con negotiations suggest this need not be the case, as does the experience in Germany and elsewhere.

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24 Responses to “Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post”

  1. amol rajan

    RT @leftfootfwd Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post:

  2. Samuel Tarry

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post:

  3. Peter Campbell

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post:

  4. Dave Marks

    ♺ @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post: put forward by Jonathan Isaby…

  5. Will Straw

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post: << A response to @isaby

  6. Full Fact

    @leftfootfwd & @isaby battle it out over the history of first past the post voting:

  7. Sean Court

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post:

  8. Liz McShane

    Jonathan Isaby states that: ““First Past The Post has in the main always delivered a decisive result…” But a decisive result is not the same as a fair & representative result. What era do these people live in… I presume they do support universal suffrage…?

  9. Clay Harris

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post:

  10. billbest

    RT @leftfootfwd: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post:

  11. Mr. Sensible

    Liz for just the once I have to disagree with you.

    I do not support changing the voting system; Hung Parliaments would just become commonplace.

  12. Mr. Sensible

    And for the record I do support universal sufrage.

  13. Daniel Harley

    Come off it!

    How can you say that you are debunking the myths.

    Who is deciding the government of 2010 at the moment? We aren’t, the electorate certainly has no say in who will govern and what their policies will be. You cannot say that is a fairer system.

    You quote the number of votes the Liberal Democrats received, now compare that to the size of the electorate and you cannot claim it has the mandate to determine who runs this country!

    Many of you who voted Labour did so (I hope) because you liked their policies, I voted Conservative because I liked theirs, yet none of us are going to get what we want now. Regardless of who Lord Protector Clegg deems worthy of government be it my party or yours, or even his own, the policies enacted by that coalition may be nothing like the ones we were promised! That has to be the ultimate definition of a FLAWED SYSTEM – a complete wasted vote.

    When will people accept that this country has a 2 party system because we have a class divide. The clevage is class and we just have to accept that – and the more marginalised the main parties become the more other parties will get a look in. So just leave things as they are!

  14. Daniel Harley

    Please, somebody explain to me how government by committe, decided by the smaller and less popular parties, policies decided on behind closed doors (as we see right now) is fairer!?

    I understand vote percentage doesn’t equal seat percentage, but so what? The idea of a safe seat is nonsense anyway, if the people who didnt vote actually turned out to vote theyd completely destroy the notion of a safe labour/conservative area altogether. So you get what you work for.

    Again under your system, local constituencies could work their socks off for their candidates to win, and another party could do very little but the other party maintaining a slither of voter support across the country could be elected and then have the decision as to who forms government.

  15. Matt Lodder

    Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post: Our guest writer is Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, …

  16. Carmen D'Cruz

    RT @mattlodder: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post: Our guest writer is Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, …

  17. Nicholas Buzzard

    RT @mattlodder: Debunking the latest arguments in favour of first-past-the-post: Our guest writer is Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, …

  18. Modicum

    @Daniel Harley

    “Please, somebody explain to me how government by committe, decided by the smaller and less popular parties, policies decided on behind closed doors (as we see right now) is fairer!?”

    I would agree that there are some advantages to single party government. What I actually feel is that the choice we’re presented with is a false dichotomy. It is not beyond the wit of man to devise a system based on single party government which does not have all of the manifest flaws of the single member plurality system (aka “first-past-the-post”).

    I think even opponents of PR should agree that FPTP has big problems:
    (1) It produces perverse results, such as a party being elect despite losing the popular vote (as happened 3 times in the last century)
    (2) It creates safe seats.
    (3) It leaves those who vote for smaller parties totally unrepresented.
    (4) It allows a government that might be strongly opposed by a majority of voters.

    The obvious alternative for single party government is a directly elected prime minister (i.e. switching to a presidential system but keeping the queen). The disadvantage is this could lead to gridlock between the prime minister and parliament.

    Another option is a proportional system but with a set number of bonus seats for a “winning” party. Perhaps there could be a separate vote to chose which party wins. The current method is a very poor way of choosing a “winning” party.

    The only reason we have FPTP is an accident of history. If it didn’t exist no-one would ever invent it as means of governing a modern democracy. But conservatives seem to think that it cannot possibly be improved upon.

  19. Daniel Harley

    @Modicum, thankyou for your response but, again whilst I note the flaws you present for FPTP, I cannot get my head around how the alternative really improves upon the situation.

    Whilst FPTP is a product of history, it cannot be called an accident of it, and it does work, has worked, for a long time.

    We either have common hung parliaments, in which the unarguable losing parties decide government, or we have FPTP in which a number of the electorate (albeit not all of it) decides. Isn’t the latter the most preferable.

    What also concerns me is that I don’t think FPTP is to blame for safe seats. Safe seats are the product of the way in which this country’s population is divided, and they would not be abolished with PR, it would just mean some areas would be safe for the left wing parties and others the right.

    I worked hard at this election, and we had some successes in my party down undoubtably to our hard work and determination in what has always been quite safe for Labour. Should our hard work go unnoticed by abolishing a system in which the person most favoured (locally) is not elected but forced to share with those who didn’t?

    I do thank you howver for not greeting my clearly biased comments with hostility 🙂

  20. Modicum

    Thanks for reading my last long-winded post.

    “FPTP …does work, has worked, for a long time.”

    Three times in the last century the party that won most votes did not win most seats. If Labour had done a little better in this election they might have won most seats despite coming third. Personally I don’t think you can call that a system that works well.

    “We either have common hung parliaments …or we have FPTP.”

    This is really a false dichotomy. Any system in which all MPs are elected in single-seat constituencies will not produce common hung parliaments. So a change to a better single-seat system (such as the Alternative Vote, or the French Two Round system) should be something that advocates of one-party-government can support.

    “I cannot get my head around how the alternative really improves upon the situation.”

    I laid out 4 flaws that exist under FPTP. Actually they exist under any single-seat constituency system. The biggest problem is that when you have 650 separate, individual elections the overall result doesn’t match the overall national votes.

    My suggestion is that while one-party-government may be desirable, single-seat constituencies are a poor way of achieving it. So we could use PR for the Commons but use a separate system to chose the Prime Minister, such as a direct election by the whole nation. I hope this is a bit clearer.

    “What also concerns me is that I don’t think FPTP is to blame for safe seats.”

    You’re partly right; in any system there will be popular politicians who are assured of re-election. STV is used in Ireland (North & South) and the experience is that while some seats are fairly safe, in every constituency at least a couple of seats are competitive. So an elector doesn’t feel that it’s a waste of time to turn up and vote. Believe it or not, a common complaint in the Irish Republic is that seats are too competitive.

  21. Daniel Harley

    3 hung parliaments in the last century seems pretty good going if you compare that to what would be a hung parliament at every election with PR.

    And as you previously noted, the power of votes in those marginal constituencies is greatly higher than those in some of the safer ones, however truely in the majority of elections it still falls to the electorate to determine the government and not the smallest and therefore least popular political party. In a representative democracy should we not strive to keep power in the hands of the people?

    With AV, I am not entirely opposed to it. It does retain the personal local touch an MP has with his constituents and it is more likely to produce a majority government. But look at the PR alternative, large regions with a number of MPs elected proportionally – well I can tell you we have 3 cllrs per ward In this city and suddenly you lose the personal touch, not knowing who to turn to, if the same happened with MPs I do fear it would really separate ‘us from them’.

    Same thing goes for an elected head of state or PM as you suggested. Again in this city we had a popularly elected mayor system and what a state that was. We quickly reverted via a referendum to the old system as we suddenly became plagued with corruption. I think that when you need a city wide, or nation wide personality to get into office you do run the risk of separation. David Cameron is MP for Whitney and he can always be turfed out of office at the next election by a small constituency of people. Democracy at a real grassroots level!

    The old constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers was thought up when modern inclusive democracy was a new concept. Since democracy has flourished in this country, having a mix match of powers vested into one office ultimately accountable to the people really does work! I know not entirely related to Voting but with the suggested of a separately elected government leader I do think it is worth noting. That and our PM is primus inter pares in the cabinet, we are run by a team! Presidentialisation would be an awful way backwards.

  22. Modicum

    Thanks for your response.

    “3 hung parliaments in the last century seems pretty good going if you compare that to what would be a hung parliament at every election with PR.”

    To be clear I’m not talking about three “hung parliaments”; as a supporter of PR I don’t have a problem with them. What happened three times in the last century is that the system delivered a very dodgy outcome.

    (1) In 1929 the Tories won most votes, but Labour got the most seats and formed the government.
    (2) In 1951 Labour got most votes, but the Conservatives won most seats and formed a Tory government.
    (3) In 1974 (Feb) the Tories got most votes, but Labour got the most seats and formed the government.

    I would also note that there has only ever been one election since universal sufferage in which the winning party was supported by a majority (50%+) of voters. That was in 1931.

    Your argument seems to be that while there are flaws in the single-seat-constituency system they are outweighed by (1) the “personal touch” and (2) a risk of corruption.

    I may be that where you live multi-seat constituencies have created a separation from voters. I’m only familiar with the experience in Ireland. There the problem is the opposite: representatives are accused of paying too much attention to constituency work and not enough to national issues. I’m also not convinced that in general PR or directly elected majors cause corruption.

    Anyway, to try and wrap up this conversation, the way I see it is that for some people the link between one MP and one constituency is paramount. So it is unacceptable to have multimember constituencies, or even the Additional Member System (single-seaters + top-up lists).

    It sounds like that’s your view so I think we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  23. Daniel Harley

    I see, sorry I hadn’t read that part of your response properly.

    I agree, it does come down to where your political bias falls, and whilst mine comes down clearly on the right, yours is on the progressive left (which makes sense considering i’m the intruder on this site!) And that is why I strongly feel that a person should know an MP and have that link to parliament, to hold the executive to account. That locally, parties should have to work for their vote, and that the hard work should pay off. And that concentrating power in a few safe seats, whilst undesirable compared to the wider electorate, is still more desirable than giving it to the least popular parties.

    But I do thank you for your comments, I enjoy hearing how the other half lives so to speak! And it does seem, as much as it makes my heart bleed, that the progressive left is getting its way, and that whilst many on your side see ConLib as a sellout, it’s hurting the slightly righter than right of centre a great deal more! Lords and electoral reform and 5 year fixed term parliaments shall soon be giving me night terrors!

  24. Daniel Harley

    And just to clarify, my favouritism for FPTP is not just the personal touch and a fear of corruption. It is my dislike for hung parliaments. The fact that the loser is the kingmaker. The inability to oust a government effectively. The waste of a vote, cast by you in favour of a parties policies, only to discover that the compromise meant those ideas you believed in so dearly are no more. The eventual marginalisation of all political parties to maximise vote potential and to maximise a coalition deal for your party.

    For me there are too many problems. AV is the only electoral sacrifice i’d suffer being made. PR has so many faults, just to redress the imbalance between votes and seats. It’s a system to suit the parties and not the people.

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