Problems with First Past The Post

I’m really not fond of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system, used in many elections around the world.  I’ve just found an excellent video which details the severe flaws of this broken system.  The video explains it far better than I can, but to summarise its points:

  1. It nearly always results in minority rule.
    Elections very rarely result in majorities.  Usually opinion will be divided between a number of candidates and parties, meaning that the winner will nearly always have less than 50% of the vote.  This is how the UK generally ends up with a government the majority don’t want, an extreme example being the Labour Government from 2005-2010 which was only elected with 35.2% of the vote but won 55.2% of seats in parliament.  In more complex systems you can get candidates elected who actually won less votes then their rival – George Bush in 2000, for instance.
  2. Creates a two-party system.
    Due to the ‘winner takes all’ nature of FPTP, many parties or candidates who regularly poll in 3rd or 4th place have virtually no chance of winning an election, despite having a modest level of popularity (perhaps 20% or so).  Over time the voters for these parties will realise this and shift their votes to more popular parties, leaving only the very faithful continuing to vote for these parties.  This results in the growth of two parties- usually one left-wing party and one right-wing party.  Why is this a bad thing?  Well, it polarises political debate and suggests that there are only two options for governance, when in reality there may be many different opinions going unrepresented.  It makes it more difficult for individuals or ideas to gain representation and, in some cases (such as the USA… again), allows businesses and corporations which support the parties to have disproportionate influence.
  3. Can result in gerrymandering.
    I would hope this isn’t that great an issue in democracies which use FPTP today, but it does recur every time plans are made to create new electoral boundaries – which must happen regularly to keep up with demographic changes so that all constituencies or voting areas have the same population to ensure no areas have greater influence than others.  For more corrupt and authoritarian governments it provides an easy means of rigging elections but even in healthy democracies, creating boundaries all parties can accept is an added complexity which can be costly and time consuming.
  4. Voting third party is always a bad idea.
    Unless you dislike both major parties or candidates equally, this is a huge problem.  In the UK most people have a preference towards either Labour or Conservative (despite often blurring lines between them), even if they wouldn’t like either party to be elected.  It’s the same with Republicans and Democrats in the USA.  Say you’re a left-leaning liberal in Fictionland and decide to vote for the Liberal Party.  Most people who vote Liberal are also left-leaning.  Unfortunately this splits the left-leaning vote and allows the right-wing Free Market Party to form a government with less than 50% of the vote.  Therefore, by voting for the Liberal Party instead of the Socialist Party, these voters – who make up a majority of Fictionland’s electorate – allowed a government to be formed which they didn’t want.  This is, in my opinion, the main reason Margaret Thatcher got elected so many times in the 80s, because the left-wing vote was split between Labour and the Liberal-Social Democrats.  On the other hand, it is speculated that the rise of UKIP will benefit Labour because many Conservative voters will shift to them.

Any one of these reasons alone is enough to make FPTP a terrible system, but together it is shocking that we still use it.  There are many alternative systems to FPTP but my favourite of these is the Additional Member System which, happily for me, is used in Scotland.

Once a FPTP system is in place it is very difficult to remove because, obviously, it works in favour of all the major parties.  In such a strict two-party system as the USA it’s unlikely that the electoral system will change for a very long time.  In the UK things are a bit more optimistic: the pro-reform Liberal Democrat Party, for instance, became a part of a coalition government in 2010 and managed to push through a referendum on the electoral system.  This was defeated for a number of reasons – the most significant being that the alternative system was pretty poor – and electoral reform seems to have gone off the agenda since.

I’ll admit that there are also benefits of FPTP system: the most convincing of which being that it provides stability and limits the influence of extremist parties.  This would be particularly useful for new democracies which often collapse due to weak governments (this is a major reason Hitler was able to take power in Germany in 1933).  There are also a few occasions where I think it would benefit a long-lasting democracy, such as Israel which produces such inconclusive results that political and religious extremists nearly always play the role of ‘Kingmaker’ and are often included in coalition governments.  But in nearly every other case, FPTP is an inherently flawed system.

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6 thoughts on “Problems with First Past The Post

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  3. I think you’ve hit it on the head. In my opinion, AV is the best system, as it takes the best bits of Proportional Representation and of First Past The Post. You need a majority to win, which is the essense of democracy. But with PP, parties select candidates, according to the votes they have, and civilians can only vote for parties, not people. I think people deserve to know the individual that they’re voting for.

    • My preference would be for AMS. I’d happily settle for either AV or STV, but I find the problem with those systems is that the person elected might not actually be the most popular, just the least unpopular, there will always be a candidate elected who some people dislike, and in further removed constituencies there is still likely to be a limited choice of which parties field candidates. AMS also has its flaws, but none of those issues largely apply to it. Particularly, I like how the regional vote gives a choice of every single national party to be represented, and I think generally produces a more proportional result than STV.

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