First Past the Post Wins!

Many argue that our political system is broken but why? – is it simply sour grapes from candidates who didn’t win?

There is plenty of evidence to show that in the UK a political party can win a majority of seats in government without gaining a majority of votes cast.  In the 2005 election for example Tony Blair’s government won 355 seats with only 35% of the total votes cast. In contrast the Conservatives won 198 seats having polled 32% of total votes cast.

This imbalance of the “first past the post” election system is further compounded if results of the ballot box and allocation of parliamentary seats are compared to the total number of people who were registered to vote, regardless of whether they did or not.  In 2015 for example the Conservatives gained a majority with 36.8 per cent of the votes cast, but ….

… If the measure is then broadened to consider the proportion of support that the party received from the electorate as a whole, the figure plummets to 24.4 per cent. This means that three-quarters of those who were registered to vote did not support the government.

Matthew Bevington: Unrepresentative democracy and how to fix it: the case for a mixed electoral system

Support for electoral reform is not a new idea. John Stuart Mills was an early proponent of the need for proportional representation writing in 1861 that …

… in an equal democracy, the majority of the people, through their representatives, will outvote and prevail over the minority and their representatives. But does it follow that the minority should have no representatives at all? … Is it necessary that the minority should not even be heard? Nothing but habit and old association can reconcile any reasonable being to the needless injustice. In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately. A majority of the electors would always have a majority of the representatives, but a minority of the electors would always have a minority of the representatives. Man for man, they would be as fully represented as the majority. Unless they are, there is not equal government …

Chapter VII, Considerations on Representative Government, first published 1861. Free copy available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5669/5669-h/5669-h.htm

So “first past the post” does not lead to equal representation, too many people do not have their voices heard.  It is time for change, but change is often resisted by those who benefit from current arrangements.

In the 2019 manifesto the Liberal Democrats commit to change the system so that it works for the future writing that “Labour and Conservatives will not change the system that has always entrenched their privileged position. We understand that British politics needs to be reformed to make it more representative and empower citizens”.

But to move forward it is imperative that we use every opportunity to share information on proportional representation, to explain why electoral reform is needed and gain maximum support at grassroots level.  We cannot rely on saying we want proportional representation, we must explain why and let people reach that conclusion for themselves. And I think that work is needed now.

* Maggie Kellman is a member of the Lib Dems, and is currently Membership Development Officer for the local party. She was first elected in 2019 to Chesterfield Borough Council as Lib Dem councillor for Walton.

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15 Comments

  • Denis Mollison 3rd Apr '20 - 8:50pm

    Thanks, Maggie. Are you a member of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform, and if not, why not? – do please get in touch (lder.org).

    We were hoping to build support for a more active campaign for PR with a fringe meeting at our York conference, following the motion on Electoral Reform scheduled for the Saturday afternoon. For the time being we’ll just have to keep campaigning on the internet …

    Denis (Chair, LDER)

  • Hi Denis, thanks for getting in touch. I will certainly be joining Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and look forward to meeting you.

  • John Marriott 4th Apr '20 - 9:08am

    Is it just me, or is that a rather misleading title? Perhaps, having read the article, it would have helped if the author had substituted a question for an exclamation mark?

    Clearly FPTP does ‘win’; but that depends on how you define ‘win’. The Germans have a phrase to describe our voting system. They talk about votes ‘falling under the table’. Judging by results in most years, it’s amazing that you can get your feet under the table any more, given the amount of ballot papers there!

  • Mario Caves 4th Apr '20 - 9:54am

    Many people do not engage in politics because they feel whatever happens they will be unrepresented. A strong argument for Proportional Representation isn’t just the case for making every individual vote count but, more importantly I feel, for making every voter feel that they really have representation, whether their party is in power or not.

  • @ Mario Caves An embarrassing historical note. The Liberal Party (both bits of it) could have included PR in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. They chose to reject it. Only in 1922 did the Asquithian rump (28 M.P.’s) decided to include it in their manifesto…… Lloyd George came to it later after the Tories had kicked him out of his Coalition.

    As things currently stand first past the post is likely to ensure indefinite Tory Government. The Greens are calling on Keir Starmer to support PR…. so should the Lib Dems and the SNP and Plaid should also be involved in a cross party campaign.

    It will be interesting to see what Keir Starmer comes up with in about fifteen minutes time..

  • Denis Loretto 4th Apr '20 - 12:14pm

    I realise this will be anathema to many of my fellow members of the ERS but I think we have damaged the prospects for electoral reform by insisting upon STV as the only objective. I also prefer STV but the attachment of British voters to single member constituencies is very hard to shift. Roy Jenkins recognised this in recommending what he called AV plus in his seminal report back in 1998 – similar to the “top up,” system adopted in the Scottish Parliament. What a crying shame that the Blair government failed to adopt the Jenkins system – not the STV beloved by the purists but enormously better than first past the post.

  • Phil Beesley 4th Apr '20 - 12:40pm

    Further to Denis Loretto’s comment, I’d like to ask about STV in Ireland. It appears (ostensibly) that STV could be adopted because none of the parties founding the new state had an identified geographical base to lose. There were few incumbents and few areas where a small majority of votes could deliver bucket loads of seats. I daresay that a desire for reconciliation and agreement helped too.

  • The Labour Party’s relationship with First Past the Post is a bit like some abusive domestic relationships. You regularly get battered but you don’t walk away from it…but then we can never understand these things from the outside.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Apr '20 - 1:50pm

    Where is the traditional british value of fair play? Politics in this country is more concerned with winning the argument than fairness. We need a popular movement to demand PR. Perhaps recent events will give people time to ponder the injustice of the present system. If Labour unambiguously commit to reform, we should wholeheartedly support it.

  • FPTP results in some English councils being represented by councillors from just one party. A potential recipe for corruption.

  • David Evershed 4th Apr '20 - 8:09pm

    The argument against PR is that it is better to form coalitions before the electors vote and let voters decide which coalition should rule – rather than the coalition be formed after the electorate have voted and have no say in the coalition government then formed.

  • John Marriott 5th Apr '20 - 7:30am

    @Mike Read
    From my experience in local government, both as an observer and, for thirty years, a participant, where a party has a virtual monopoly of council seats, it often creates its own opposition. The trouble with the Lib Dems was, and maybe still is, that we didn’t need a virtual monopoly to create our own opposition. Trying to control even a small LD group, I found, was often like trying to herd cats!

    Not THE Mike Read – that’s the one that’s still with us?

  • John Littler 20th Apr '20 - 7:27pm

    The present government’s election is not a legitimate representation of the people. Lets be honest. If we are to have a democracy, then it should be a democracy and not just a power system game to play which just happens to benefit 1 party and occasionally 1 other or latter regional big players like the SNP.

    How can it be anything but nonsense that Caroline Lucas’s Green Party gets around 1 millions votes on average, but hangs onto just the one Brighton seat, while Tory MP’s are taking virtually every scrap of power and influence needing just 35,000 votes per MP.

    The system delivers a comfortable 80 seat majority monopoly power to 43% of the vote or 24% of the electorate. Or for an increase of just 300,000 votes ( about 1%+), it goes from being 20 short of a majority, to majority of 80. All ridiculous of course and why over centralised Britain is uniquely so badly governed in the western World, with GDP per head having fallen from 1st to into the 20th’s and in danger of falling out of the G7.

    FPTP is an unrepresentative lottery, based on rotten boroughs, artificial drawing lines around populations and fiddling them to achieve the most safe or winnable seats, while pushing Labour seats into concentrations of very high votes, piled way higher than they need to win enough seats. As to LibDems, the planned government aim is to disperse their vote between neighbouring seats and take their MP’s out of existence.

    The 50 seat reduction of Parliament planned is a Tory wet dream. It maximises Tory proportions of seats from the lower number, so removing mainly opposition MP’s, then leaves the Government effectively unchallenged, as when the number of Ministers and their underlings are deducted from the numbers, the remaining MP’s free to make a decision over any vote will often be insufficient to prevent the government from winning every time. It is a terrible recipe for dictatorial, doctrinaire and incompetent government pushing rushed nonsense through parliament, as has happened many times before.

  • John Littler 20th Apr '20 - 7:31pm

    Johnson plans to nobble Parliament, the Electoral Commission, the Civil Service, the Courts, the BBC, Channel 4 and possibly the monarchy, while a hard brexit awaits. They have already started using fake news and fact checking websites to promote Tory Propaganda. MP’s have been forced to sign an anti EU pledge and to support Johnson and they hope stay in power forever.

    Johnson is wanting to strut the world stage with other populists and pre-fascists from Hungary, Poland, Brazil, India, Turkey, USA and arguably China, still seeking his childhood stated dream to be “world King”

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