In Defence of First Past the Post

In Defence of First Past the Post

Despite the British people opting in favour of first-past-the-post (FPTP) by a decisive 68:32 margin, in many of the circles I move support for other voting systems, in particular proportional representation (PR) is so de rigeur that FPTP’s merits are seldom even considered. Despite this, I continue to believe that FPTP remains  the best and most appropriate voting mechanism for political elections, and in particular significantly better than PR(1).

 

What do the systems involve?

As a very brief summary:

– In an FPTP system, in each constituency(2) being contested, the candidate with the most votes wins (even if they receive fewer than half of all votes cast). There is no reallocation of votes and no subsequent adjustment. It means that each constituency is represented by the candidate who was the first choice candidate of the largest number of voters, but that the proportion of seats occupied by each party in Parliament may (and usually will) be different to the proportion of votes cast for that party in the country as a whole. It is the system currently used in the UK for UK general elections.

– In a PR system, the proportion of seats occupied by each party in Parliament is the same as the proportion of votes cast for that party in the country as a whole. There are different ways of reaching that end result: in some PR systems, all candidates for  each party are chosen from a central party list until the appropriate number have been selected;  in others, some candidates are elected by winning constituencies and then other candidates are added from a central list to ‘top up’ parties where necessary. Refinements, such as a minimum threshold (e.g. 5% of total votes cast) to qualify for any seats from the list may be added. It is the system used in most European countries, such as Germany.

Before proceeding, it’s worth stating that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has mathematically proved that there’s no ‘perfect’ voting system. We therefore need to choose between different options, all of which will be flawed in different ways in different circumstances.

 

Why do I favour FPTP?

There are three principal reasons:

1. It tends to create strong governments which can be easily voted out.

2. It vests power in the people, not in political elites, by reducing unaccountable post-election stitch-ups.

3. It creates direct accountability for individual ​representatives, avoiding ‘guaranteed places’ through party lists.

A fourth benefit is that it is simpler, easier for everyone to understand, and can be carried out easily, by hand, by ordinary people rather than by experts, but this, though important, is not as significant to me as the reasons above.

To go into each of the principal reasons in more detail:

1. It tends to create strong governments which can be easily voted out.

The first half of this statement – the strong governments – is one of the most frequently cited advantages, and it’s one I agree with. Despite the experiences of 2010 and 2017, FPTP is far more likely to produce a government with an absolute majority that can carry out genuine change. Whilst compromise is often good, when nothing is possible without compromise, the results can be less good – think of the novel written by committee.

Far more important to me, however, is the second half of the statement: that the government can easily be voted out. Democracy is not a good system for picking the single best person to run the country: it is, as Churchill famously said, the worst form of government, except for all the others. People are not always good at knowing what they want; they are, however, very good at knowing what they don’t want after they’ve tried it. We see this in the market, where no matter what the hype, a bad product will quickly flop. The ability to kick out a government which is incompetent, corrupt, or simply not representing the people’s views is the most important feature offered by a democracy: not a guarantee of perfection, but the insurance that things won’t be terrible.

Due to the way it gives clear majorities, FPTP is brilliant at this. Whether it was Labout in ’79 or the Conservatives in ’97, the people voted decisively against them. Compare this with the situation under PR, where despite steadily falling vote shares, ruling parties can maintain power for election after election, simply because the electoral alliances between parties function that way.

2. It vests power in the people, not in political elites, by reducing unaccountable post-election stitch-ups.

All parties are coalitions. Labour contains old left trade unionists, New Labour centrists, pacificists, environmentalists, radical socialists and everything in between. The Conservatives count amongst their members free market liberals, centrists, social conservatives, libertarians and more. The same could be said of every party, even the smaller ones such as the Greens or UKIP.

Under FPTP, the incentives in the system drive the formation of broad parties, as described above. The party must then argue amongst itself to work out exactly what it is going to stand for and then put it to the country, in the form of a manifesto, during a general election. People can then choose whether or not to vote for it. They don’t have to try to guess, “well, if I vote Labour, am I going to get 1960s socialism or New Labour centrism?” They can look at the manifesto and decide accordingly (and the answer would be quite different depending on whether it’s 1997 or 2017).

Compare this to PR. The government will almost certainly be a coalition, sometimes between two parties, sometimes between three or more. Instead of the negotiation happening beforehand, transparently, with the outcome presented to the public in a manifesto, it instead happens behind closed doors, with absolutely no accountability(3). The politicians can discard all those inconvenient promises which won them votes but that they never really wanted to keep, and the people have no comeback.

This is a simply stupendous transfer of power from the people to the political classes. The political classes, quite obviously, are not representative (in the sense of being ‘like’) the population as a whole, either in their backgrounds or in their current status and salary. We see this manifested quite clearly on many issues, where politicians have different priorities to the people, and through phrases such as ‘the Westminster bubble’. Under FPTP this isn’t too much of a problem, as the manifesto forces politicians to commit to promises (and be held to account for them), and the decisive nature of the electoral system means they can be quickly voted out if they disappoint. It is much more of a problem under PR.

As an extreme phenomenon of this, consider the situation in Germany, which for the second election in a row is being governed by a ‘Grand Coalition’ of the two main left and right parties, despite these parties being nominally opposed – and the vote share of each dropping after the first Grand Coalition. This is simply rule by politicians, not rule by the people.

3. It creates direct accountability for individual ​representatives, avoiding ‘guaranteed places’ through party lists.

Under PR, any politician, no matter how detested, can be kept in parliament by means of a party list. Under FPTP this is not the case. If a politician is detested, whether for their policies, for corruption, or for immorality, they can be voted out. This accountability, at an individual level as well as at party level, is absolutely critical.

PR systems which maintain an element of local selection accompanied by ‘topping up’ do not solve this problem, though they do reduce it. They do ensure that each constituency is represented by a specific individual, which is good, but through the use of party lists to top up, they continue to provide immunity to unpopular politicians.

None of the above should be taken as being a critique of politicians in the individual. The vast majority of politicians (at least in the UK) are dedicated, hard-working individuals, passionately committed to improving the country. But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely: the principle of democracy is accountability to the people, and PR fundamentally weakens that accountability?

 

But what about the drawbacks?

There are two main arguments that tend to be levied against FPTP: that it disenfranchises people through ‘wasted votes’ and therefore produces unfair results; and that it encourages tactical voting, which is non-ideal and can lead to perverse consequences.

The first argument simply does not hold water. There is no such thing as a safe seat (just ask the voters of Kensington), particularly if one considers it over the course of 2-3 elections. As to the unfair results, yes, small parties do find it difficult to gain seats, but do they find it difficult for their policies to gain traction?

The last two decades have shown very clearly that small parties can be highly successful at getting their policies implemented, even without winning seats in parliament. Due to the swingy nature of FPTP voting, if an idea starts gaining popularity and pulling voters away from the ‘main’ parties, those parties have to sit up and take notice. Consider the success of the Greens during the late 90s and early noughties at getting green policies and climate change so mainstreamed that they were taken forward by both Labour and the Conservatives. Or UKIP, which achieved the ultimate success (from their perspective) of securing not just a referendum on EU membership, but Brexit itself.

Compare this to other voting systems. Under AV, the main parties can take much less notice of such trends, secure in the knowledge that they’ll continue to pick up the second preference votes. And under PR, whilst the parties may gain seats in Parliament, their more radical ideas will simply be dropped during any coalition negotiations (or, of course, the other parties will simply leave them out of negotiations).

Which is more important to a small party supporter: to get MPs into parliament, or to get their policies implemented? Surely for most it is the second(4), meaning that, counter-intuitively, FPTP is actually better at introducing genuinely popular ideas from outside the Overton Window, whilst still reducing the chances that unpleasant fringe parties will actually get into power.

As to the second argument, on tactical voting, I acknowledge this is a disadvantage. It would be better if these incentives didn’t exist (and, in the long-term, I strongly suspect that tactical voting is disadvantageous, for the reasons set out above). But no system is perfect, and the manifold benefits of FPTP outweigh this particular disadvantage.

 

In conclusion

In conclusion, despite the drawback of tactical voting, FPTP holds significant benefits over other voting systems, notably PR, by significantly increasing the accountability of politicians to the electorate and reducing the ability of the political elite to overide the wishes of the people. It produces strong governments that can easily be voted out, holds politicians to their manifesto commitments and provides direct accountability at the individual politicians. And it does all this whilst keeping out fringe parties yet simultaneously allowing genuinely popular, if unconventional, ideas toenter the mainstream.

 

 

 

 

 

(1) Yes, I am aware that the referendum was between AV and FPTP, not PR and FPTP. Most people I know who advocate voting reform favour PR, which is why it is what I am focusing on in this post.

(2) The words ‘constituency’, ‘country’ and ‘parliament’ can be substituted as necessary depending on whether it is a national, local, state or other form of election.

(3) Depending on the constitutions of the parties involved, party members may get a say, but not the general public.

(4) As can be seen by the utter collapse of UKIP’s support once they had achieved their principal policy objective.

 

3 thoughts on “In Defence of First Past the Post

  1. Generally agree with this! Specifically I like systems that encourage single-party government that can easily switch party (you can imagine FPTP in some countries wouldn’t be this and there are other ways you could achieve this outcome: America in effect is this because of the built-in deadlock between the President and two Houses).

    I think the main benefit is the accountability one – the ability to kick people out. Both because it can happen and because it’s healthy for the people running the show to know it can happen.

    I’m less bothered about the constituency/local thing. I think the main benefit is just that it’s good for MPs to have multiple loyalties they have to worry about (I think the pressure from constituencies can be irrational and against national interest at least as much as the Whips, but as part of my support for pluralsim I don’t want a legion of people whose only incentives are party-based.

    A lot of this comes down to what you think elections are FOR: you and your PR opponent seem to battling over who is most ‘democratic’ or best expresses the will of the people. I don’t really think this is hugely important in terms of accurately/precisely reflecting public views, which are often contradictory/vague or downright incorrect on the facts. Looked at historically, it seems to me that the incredible benefit of democracy is that
    1. It allows for clear-cut transfer of power with legitimacy for the newly empowered
    2. It ensures this happens when those in power are completely beyond the pale
    3. It channels most tension over social/political outcomes into ‘grrr, I’ll join the XX party and leaflet for them’ rather than ‘I’ll grab my gun’. If you want change there is an obvious route to take. (this one is the most dependent of the three on universal suffrage: the others pretty much worked in 18th century UK as far as I can see)

    FPTP does pretty well on these in this country (if differences in voting e.g. split more along ethnic/cultural lines it might not, but I’m not really sure if there’s any good solution there). I would worry a bit if it becomes more frequent for one party to win a majority of seats while another wins a majority of votes: I feel that chips away at the sense of legitimacy, especially if it happened more than once in a row. I do also think that if you personally live in a safe seat (which do exist, try being a socialist in Shropshire North) then it might make you feel like you have no voice, undermining 3. Happily people tend to think/campaign at national level which undermines that.

    No idea what you have against tactical voting: it seems to me to be a necessity otherwise basically winning elections is largely a function of not having very many other political parties with similar views.

  2. I think in conceptual analysis of this it’s worth splitting ‘do I want a clear ‘winner’ at an election who then has most of the power’ from ‘do I want FPTP’. America has FPTP but other elements of the balance of power means they don’t have the same sort of decisive results as us in many ways (a fan of strong/clear government might point to Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the weaknesses of Obamacare as different parties controlled the legislature/executive as an example of the lack of clear accountability this brings).

    I’m generally a fan of decisive elections for similar reasons to yours: I care less about FPTP specifically. I don’t think a local link is particularly good in itself, but I do like it just because it puts MPs under varied pressures rather than aligning all their incentives with the party machine.

    I think a lot of the arguments for PR implicitly assume that elections are trying to somehow create a body that simulates in fine detail what the people would choose if they voted on everything. I don’t think it does, but more fundamentally I don’t think this is a very important aim. Being able to kick out leaders (and them knowing it!) matters much more to me. I think part of this depends on if you see democracy as a fundamental moral good whose decisions are right by definition or the ‘least worst’ option that avoids the problems of other systems: I’m in the latter camp.

    Not sure what you have against tactical voting: surely without it, you just lose elections under FPTP if other people create parties that are very similar to yours and win them if they don’t?

    1. On tactical voting, I’m not saying never, I’m just not convinced it’s as in people’s long-term best interests as the ‘only these two parties can win here’ leaflets make out. For example, I doubt we’d be leaving the EU if all the UKIP voters hadn’t refused to vote tactically.

      To put it another way, if you’re a Labour supporter and ‘only Conservatives or Liberals can win here’, voting Lib Dem may give you a person slightly closer to your view this election, but it may be at the price of not electing the candidate you really want in 5-10 years’ time.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.