First-Past-The-Post: the ‘safe seats’ system that breeds lazy, corrupt MPs

Calls for the First-Past-The-Post voting system to be abolished in the UK were given a real kick-start last year after it became clear – thanks to the work of Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson – that it was MPs with large majorities who were more likely to be implicated in cheating the expenses system.

It’s obvious if you think about it: if you were given life tenure in a safe seat where the Labour/Tory majorities are weighed not counted, how concerned would you be with the irksome business of being transparent and accountable? To put it bluntly – as Nick Clegg did, very much so, last week – First-Past-The-Post and the in-built advantage it gives the Labour and Tory parties tend to make them more prone to corruption.

So far, so familiar. But I was reading Mark Pack’s recent LDV posting, Two new reports into online politics – noting the Hansard Society’s punchily-titled report, ‘A study into how MPs use digital media to communicate with their constituents’ – and this sentence from it leaped out of the page:

… the internet has permeated the culture and day-to-day life of our MPs … [but there are] numerous examples of late or non-adoption. Survey data in fact suggest that adoption relates more to the MP’s majority, length of incumbency and, to some degree, the nature of the constituency (and constituents) than to the party that they belong to. MPs who hold a significant majority are far less likely to use the internet; as are those who have been MPs for a long time.

So there we have it, the MPs least likely to be active dealing with the significant number of their constituents who are internet users are those with the biggest majorities: folk who’ve been around for ages, and know they’re safe from challenge.

Put simply, MPs in safe seats are the laziest. As well as the most corrupt.

The solution? Ah well, that’s an easy one, as any Lib Dem kno’. Fair votes, electoral reform, proportional representation – call it what you will, the effect’s the same: an end to safe seats, and the lazy corruption the First-Past-The-Post system too often breeds.

What we need is for a decent bit of competition to be injected into Parliament, with MPs having to battle for every single vote, rather than simply taking their core ‘heartlands’ for granted.

It is no surprise the Tories are so vigorously opposed to the abolition of First-Past-The-Post: most Tories, nearly always and everywhere, oppose attempts to end entrenched privilege. Their attachment to safe seats is merely the latest example. Competition – rather like taxes – is for other people as far as the Tories are concerned.

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  • Toby D'Olier 14th Jan '10 - 10:45am

    I agree, I think fair representation is the only way to have people engaged in politics.
    However, strangely, Boris raises an interesting point regards short lived governments and constant elections
    I’d love to hear tour take on this.

  • Toby, there are a number of inconsistencies and errors in Boris’ speech. The first is the assumption that it’s clearly better to have one political party with absolute power even if it’s not supported by the majority of the electorate. Similarly, the “soverign right of people to kick the rascals out” is virtually nonexistent under FPTP. A preferential (not necessarily proportional) system would make seats less safe, and make it easier for poeple to kick out MPs they don’t like – along with the Lib Dems’ proposed recall powers.

    The second is that the BNP were elected in the Euros because of some mystical property of PR. They were elected because people didn’t vote for Labour after the expenses scandal. And again it depends on the kind of PR you use. STV in multi-member constituencies, the method preferred by the Lib Dems, would be very unlikely to elect somebody from the BNP because they’re just not that popular, though plausibly it would benefit UKIP in the Tory heartlands.

    Thirdly, the claim that PR entrenches party power through a list system. Not all forms of PR use, or need to use, a list. How parties select their candidates should be a matter for the party, and the voters can reward or punish them at the ballot box accordingly – the Lib Dem lists in Euro elections are decided by a ballot of Lib Dem members rather than imposed by the party. When Boris talks about “PR creates two kinds of MPs” he’s specifically talking about AV+ rather than all forms of PR – and that is a valid criticism of AV+.

    Boris assumes that power-sharing deals would be worked out in secret away from the voters. Yet Nick’s made it perfectly clear what the Lib Dems stand for, what the Lib Dems will hope to achieve and what the Lib Dems will insist on other parties adopting if they want our support as a minority government – quite the opposite of what Boris suggests will happen. And if Boris has learned that secrecy is bad, then surely he can no longer continue to support a voting system which entrenches power and encourages corruption?

    I could go on, but it’s clear that Boris’ position, while eloquent, relies on false assumptions and fancy rhetoric rather than actual reason.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jan '10 - 1:29pm

    From Boris Johnson’s speech:

    it is that in the 50 years since the war there were 103 elections in Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden

    I think most of those countries have done much better than we have in those 50 years.

    And that is exactly the kind of chicanery and secrecy that we associate with PR

    whereas when FPTP forces lots of people with different views into coalition in one of the two big parties, all that chicanery takes place internally and with even more secrecy inside the parties.

    PR entrenches the power of the party machines and any kind of list system

    Since he mentioned STV previously, he should know that STV is not a list system.

    increases the ability of the party cadres to exclude anyone with any independence of spiri

    FPTP does this, you can see it doing it when Labour and Conservatuve use their usual line “You must vote for our party candidate any other vote is a wasted vote”. The main point of FPTP – that is just what Boris is arguing about in much of the rest of the speech – is that it FORCES voters to choose between the candidates of one of two parties, because to do anything else risks “splitting the vote”, so gives stable government swapping between a majority for one or the other of these parties.

    it also creates two classes of MP with two types of democratic mandate

    Only some forms do, not the ones we want (shame our leader didn’t get this right last summer and instead of advocating the system we have always wanted and which deals with the problems raised by the expenses scandal, suggested another which we never wanted and which doesn’t deal with those issues and which is open to the sort of criticism Boris gives here which does not apply to the one we always wanted).

    everybody knows the Lib Dem policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it.

    Given that Cameron’s policy statements tend to be a mixture of things he says he wants that will cost more and promises to cut tax, promises to reduce government power and promises to introduce new quangoes and government force to impose whatever is flavour of the month with the Tories, this line (hah-hah, though sadly Clegg’s speech-writers are too fond of similar hah-hah lines) applies more to the Tories than to us.

    And above all in this by no means exhaustive list of the fatal defects of PR, it is not proportionate

    It is more so than FPTP.

    as tiny parties are allowed to hold the balance of power:

    Like the Ulster Unionists here?

    Let us kick out this ludicrous motion as prelude to the ecstatic release that will come when we are finally allowed to kick out this Government.

    Yes, I remember the silly grins on people’s faces on May 2nd 1997, and how I spelt out precisely to them why they would in time come to regret those grins.

    PR – the system that elected Hitler.

    Given that FPTP does not inevitably produce majorities for a single party, and frequently has not in our local government, perhaps Boris should advocate a system that is guaranteed to do so, and therefore would better meet his stated aims of an electoral system. An example would be the one proposed and introduced by Mussolini.

  • I agree with the point in the link that PR didn’t elect Hitler – they gave him 38% of the vote but he didn’t get a majority. 38% would have given him a majority in the UK’s system!

  • What would be nice is some hard data on what proportion of (say) Swedish MPs change at each election, compared with Britain. Ditto (say) Germany. Are seats less safe, or are there (de facto) large incumbency advantages? We use PR elections internally to select MEP candidates, I think, and I also think that the incumbent has never been voted out. Perhaps they are all brilliant, or perhaps there are incumbency advantages?

  • Are we jumping to conclusions? What is the actual evidence that changing to STV would make things better?

    Can you cite a country that moved to STV and avoided “corruption”?

    It is easy to just assume things.

    Where are you Chris Huhne and your more evidence-friendly input?

  • Toby D'Olier 16th Jan '10 - 10:55am

    Thankyou all for your input, it’s nice to see the reasoned side of this debate. I was looking for you to pick apart Boris’s rhetoric. I shall be using many of your points next time I am faced with more cries of self preservation from the right!

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Jan '10 - 6:04am

    I want to point out that the previous post has got its election systems all muddled. AV is another name for IRV, which is a degenerate form of STV. It is no more proportional than FPTP when used for elections.

    Newbury 1974 elections: 24.5k votes Tory, 23k votes Liberal, 10k votes Labour. Under an AV system, the outcome cannot be determined here, because those 10k Labour votes would have been transferred. Certainly if those people had all voted for the Liberals as their second choice then it would have been a Liberal win, but this is a fairly bold assumption. It seems more likely that those 10k votes would have been split between the two parties, and there is a very real possibility that it would still have been a Tory win.

    Regardless of the outcome, roughly 50% of the voters in the district would have been disenfranchised: they voted for a candidate who did not win, and hence they have nobody in Parliament who is representing their views. This is the reason why liberals (and even more so, democrats) object to IRV. It’s not proportional in any sense.

    Let’s consider instead what would have happened in a proper STV system like the Lib Dems have been pushing for. Suppose there were five seats up for election. The expected result would have been one seat to Labour, two seats to the Tories, and two seats to the Liberals. Now almost every voter in the constituency has somebody in Parliament who is representing them – only about 0.3% of the population is left disenfranchised. This is the reason why liberals think STV is a good idea. Anybody who voted Lib Dem but found themselves living in a Labour constituency should understand why this is important.

    For those who prefer power to principles, rough projections indicate that today STV would double the proportion of Lib Dem seats in Parliament, while AV is harder to predict but seems likely to reduce Lib Dem seats slightly.

  • Actually Dane, I am disenfranchised if my vote doesn’t elect someone to represent my views.

    I doubt if the voters in newbury in 1974 were particularly giving you a personal endorsement, let alone voting for you on the basis of a detailed knowledge of your views and policies.

    I think the Party you knew has stopped being such a breeding ground for odd balls, cranks and crackpots with incoherent and incompatible views.

    While I would support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, opposition to a referendum is an entirely legitimate view point. To be honest, most people haven’t read it, have little understanding of it and simply aren’t in the slightest bit bothered about it.

    Your Euro-phobia is funny, if not exactly Liberal.

  • How are safe seats any different to the names at the top of party lists?

    Maybe the top Politician could remove them but how often does this happen vis FPTP? It also makes politicianc accountable to other politicians rather than to the people who they are supposed to serve, this isn’t Democracy but the inflating of egos and power of those who appear more and more desperate to avoid accountabilty. It takes responsibility away from the people and gives it to the shiftless wretchess in Parliament, who being on closer terms with each other, and understanding the mechanics of government are more easily pursuaded that it isn’t their fault. And they would be right, it would be the fault of the people if they swallowed the guff about this wretched system.

    With a HOUSE FULL OF liars, embezzlers, warmongers and various other neer do wells do you really want to hand them more power and decision making?

  • Annerley Johnson 2nd May '10 - 2:07pm

    This is an example of how ‘safe’ seat MPs behave >>>

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