What’s so wrong with first-past-the-post?

Another election, another disappointing showing by the LibDems, another round of calls for fiddling with the system. I can understand the reasoning that lots of votes should translate into lots of seats. It sounds so plausible, so self-evident. But is it?

I’m not so sure. Suppose, albeit an unlikely prospect, that in 100 out of our 650 constituencies the local candidates for a given party achieve some local feat of such overwhelming popularity that they garner every single vote in a general election. And suppose further that in the remaining 550 constituencies, many recounts later, that the winning candidates from a variety of parties all achieve their success by a mere handful of votes. In such a set of circumstances, would the absolute numbers of votes won by by the party with those startlingly successful candidates really entitle them to run roughshod over the more evenly distributed votes in the much larger number of marginal constituencies? Personally, I can’t see why that would be either just or logical. The “problem” with first past the post is simply the problem of distribution of support. And the only problem that confronts the LibDems is that they are not capable in a sufficient number of constituencies of persuading enough electors to support them. But isn’t that an inevitable, and entirely proper, problem confronting any national party? Isn’t it in fact the whole point of the democratic exercise?

What is stopping the LibDems from achieving majorities in a greater number of constituencies? Simply, and brutally, it’s the fact that they’re not popular enough, not persuasive enough. In what way do other parties have an unfair advantage? They have to engage in exactly the same process. They have to persuade a majority of voters in a given place to vote for their candidate. At the moment they happen to be a lot better at it than the LibDems. What’s unfair about that? It’s no argument to say that voting is “tribal”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. If it means anything, it simply means that voters who have interests in common often live in a shared geographical space. And often it’s that very fact that gives them the common interests in the first place. To object to that is really to examine the electorate and to find them wanting. The party was good, but the electorate were rubbish. Very persuasive.

The success of the Greens shows what can be achieved if you simply throw all your resources into one place. Maybe the LibDems should concentrate scarce resources and stop pretending that they can get their message across to the entire country, which it is very evident that they can’t. I have nothing against the LibDems, and have a lot of time for many of their policies, but I don’t buy their hard-done-by sales pitch. The objective in a parliamentary democracy is to persuade a succession of majorities to support you. That applies to every party, neither more nor less. That does not make the votes of those who voted for the unsuccessful candidates “wasted”. It makes them unsuccessful. Sorry, but you backed the loser. As a voter you can try backing the winner next time. As a party you can try to persuade more voters to support you so that next time your candidate is the winner. That’s democracy, folks. To say that the unsuccessful votes are wasted votes, and that the voters in question were robbed, is to say that the losing players in a football match might as well not have bothered to turn up, as their playing was wasted. The losing team might feel that “they was robbed”, but actually they just lost. I’d get over it, if I were you.


10 thoughts on “What’s so wrong with first-past-the-post?

  1. Since you’re a green I can’t properly use my “Why does your vote count three and mine just one?” 😉

    Why should appeal have to be always geographically focused? I think this is very unhealthy for a democracy. In our everyday lives we don’t always have this strong geographic focus: the company I work for doesn’t focus on one geographic area, the people I share common interests with aren’t geographically focused. Look at the electoral map: the Tories hold the rural areas, Labour the urban areas. At most elections one large fraction of the population is dis-enfranchised, a government is in with absolute power and little interest in satisfying the needs of those that, geographically, didn’t vote for them. What’s so great about one party rule? In most other walks of life the inability to collaborate is seen as a drawback, not a benefit.

    We do have a component of geographical democracy in our local councils, and I think they should have more power

    The LibDems do target geographically, and until this election that has given then progressively more seats for not particularly more proportion of the vote because that’s what you have to do in first-past-the-post.

    In summary – I don’t agree with you, but I do enjoy not agreeing with you!

    • Thank you for your gracious response to my provocative post – you show more forbearance than I probably deserve!

      But our disagreement can be distilled into this: you say “one large fraction of the population is dis-enfranchised”; I say “one large fraction of the population was enfranchised, but unsuccessful”.

      There is absolutely nothing preventing a successful party from collaborating with the unsuccessful ones, and I agree that it would be better if they did. The disadvantage is of course that in some policy differences, compromise is impossible, and undesirable. You cannot both replace Trident, and not replace it; increase NI and not increase it, etc. There is no absolute or natural law that finds the best path always half-way between the choices.

  2. Yes, I agree with SmallCasserole (and, for that matter, Nick…)

    The football analogy would be apposite, but it isn’t extensive enough. In the football match you describe, there’s a third team with almost a quarter of the crowd supporting it, yet it is never allowed to play against the other teams. So that third team might not have bothered showing up, but their supporters still have to pay for the tickets. In many ways, we was robbed.

    Whilst the Greens were “successful” in winning one seat, that gives them under 1% of a voice in the House, aren’t the “winners” in Brighton as big (if not bigger) “losers” than those who supported the Lib Dems? Isn’t that the weakness of FPTP? You can dismiss tribal voting all you like, but that’s as false as dismissing social class when discussing how perfect and wonderful capitalism is. In theory we all start from a level playing field, in the real world, the haves have a great advantage over the have nots.

    And quite simply, in a great many constituencies the “I’ve voted X all my life, I’m not changing now” isn’t something that can be so easily dismissed. In 1997 the local Labour MP in Paisley South (as was) committed suicide, triggering a by-election shortly after the General Election. A New Labour drone was parachuted in, and despite knowing nothing about local matters, he got in. He wasn’t seen in the constituency again, and in 2001 got back in with an increased majority. How do you persuade people who would vote for Margaret Thatcher if she was wearing a Labour ribbon? I don’t think even all Lord Ashcroft’s money could smash that level of tribalism.

    It’s a cogent defense of FPTP, I’ll grant you, and better than the defence the Conservatives have been makeing, but as a Green, aren’t you even slightly disheartened that you’ve just argued for the total irrelevance of your own vote? Are you happy that you will always be backing the loser? Wouldn’t you rather that the level of support the Greens have was actually translated into Parliamentary representation?

    • Hi Paul, and thank you for commenting. I think there are several threads to what you are saying, but I also think they are separate from the FPTP system.

      First, on “tribalism”. Of course there may be many voters who cast their ballots out of habit, or out of mistaken loyalty to their parents or even more distant antecedents, but that is nothing to do with the voting system. That’s about saying “the electorate were rubbish”. They will still be rubbish (if you think that kind of way of deciding how to cast your vote is rubbish) whatever voting system is in place.

      Second, on my football analogy. For football substitute some hypothetical sport that has matches involving many teams playing simultaneously. Your objection is basically against the concept of outright winning – you want degrees of winning, a kind of “everyone gets prizes” position. We’ve corrupted our understanding of representative democracy if we think an elected MP only represents those that voted for him or her. The problem there is not so much the FPTP system as the party system itself: it’s the whipping of votes, and the placing of party allegiance above constituency allegiance that leaves those who voted for unsuccessful candidates unrepresented, rather than the FPTP system per se.

      So no, I don’t feel disheartened as a Green. I accept, albeit with sadness, that we have failed thus far to persuade sufficient numbers of our fellow citizens to support our programme. It was thus simply realism to put all our eggs in Brighton’s basket, and to hope that having one MP is better tactically than having more total support, and no MPs. This is a problem that comes, frankly, from being an unpopular party. The answer is not to change the rules, but to become more popular.

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  4. I think people too often forget that in many forms of PR you lose ‘localisation’ – that knowledge that your MP has a direct mandate from his constituency. I remember the Euro elections many years back where in Northern Ireland one of the Paisleys was able to effectively ‘transfer’ his votes to ensure that the other was also elected – regardless of the fact that he hadn’t polled the most votes in his constituency. It does seem to centralise power in the hands of the party rather than constituents at a local level so it seems ironic (to me anyway) that a party such as the Lib Dems should be it’s greatest proponent.

    However I recognise also that many people vote at a national level so perhaps the system SomeBeans (Ian?) mentioned in a comment on his blog would be best. PR that uses constituencies to ensure direct accountability at a local level – like we have now, but with some kind of topping up to ensure parties are represented according to their national vote. I still think this ‘topping up’ would have to be done carefully to avoid them becoming lackeys of whichever party this happens for… maybe parties are topped up from losing candidates in order of most votes received?… God, I’m rambling… I need to rest!

  5. Localisation under first-past-the-past is pretty wacky, combining the results from the two Oxford constituencies: Oxford West and Abingdon and Oxford East you get the following vote breakdown: LD: 41087 Con: 33633 Lab: 27937. but that gives you One Con MP, one Lab MP. The output from the system is heavily dependent on where you decide to put the constituency boundaries (in Oxford they changed from 2005). Oxford seems like a logical geographical unit. I’m sure you could find examples like this all over the place, and I suspect there really is no way to “fairly” determine constituency boundaries.

    For winnable seats it looks like most parties have a very strong say in who the candidate is in the local party.

    We have a completely undemocratic party list system in place already, in the form of a directly appointed House of Lords.

  6. I must say I agree with your defence of FPTP. But I think reform is needed within in. The reduction of MP’s and equalisation of constituencies will go some way to help. What PR does is allow thugs like Nick Griffin and fantasists like the Christian Party to get easier access to power.

    I’m aware of the counter argument that having FPTP makes it more difficult for new parties to emerge, and that it can lead to strange results like we’ve seen in this election but like you say the potential is always there for someone to come along and say “vote for me because…” in a convincing way.

    I just know that as soon as we change it the scores of ignorant racists in our country will get their chance to exert power. I don’t accept that just because there is enough of them they should have a right to get their party in power.

    FPTP has worked for years and I think we run the risk of opening a Pandora’s box which we cannot close, where our parliament is infiltrated by anybody who can get a few votes (which let’s face it isn’t hard), all because we’re a little ticked off with how this particular election has turned out.

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