First Past the Post is a flawed electoral system – is the best alternative Proportional Representation?
The election is over. The results of the nation’s vote are in. We have in place a majority Conservative government, the first in over 20 years. A shocking outcome, especially considering the extensive cuts to public services made ‘for the good of the economy’, even though said cuts evidently failed, as the national debt doubled throughout the last Tory/Lib Dem government. It seems the electorate are willing to mindlessly swallow the claims of David Cameron, rejecting the counter arguments of Ed Milliband, for little reason other than being ‘un-charismatic’ or having a big nose.
The result perhaps may not be so stinging, however, if it actually reflected the voting decision of the nation – but it didn’t. Under the current electoral system of first past the post, the result of the election is skewed massively in favour of the large parties, at the complete dismissal of all others. Not only this, but because the franchise, aware of the unfairness of the current system, have grown weary of its injustice, much of the voting patterns shown are by the ‘tactical voter’. The 2015 election is said to be the biggest tactical vote ever. The fear of a potential SNP-Labour coalition, sent many to the polls with a cross in the ‘Conservative’ box, thought to be their only option.
The use of first past the post, means that Parliament simply does not represent what was actually voted for by the public. The effects of FPTP on representation are plain to see. The percentage of votes per party is not proportional to the seats filled in the house of commons. UKIP received 3.8 million votes, and the Green 1.1 million votes, each being rewarded 1 seat each. SNP, with their 1.5 million voters however, secured 56 seats in the House of Commons, a momentous skewing of the public vote. These figures perfectly highlight the lack of representation between votes and Parliament. Rightly so, this has led to widespread outrage. Petitions of Change.com and Avaaz call for an alternative voting system to be used, with proportional representation put forward by The Electoral Reform Society, as a potential new electorate system. Currently over 50,000 signatures have been made and these figures continue to grow.
With the current first past the post electoral system in place, the public, much of whose voice is silenced through this system, cannot be forgiven for growing increasingly disillusioned by politics. 66.1% of the electorate voted in this last election. This is not a low figure, when compared to previous years. In fact, it is rather good. If ‘good’, is satisfied with ignoring 33.9% of the electorate. The widespread complaint of ‘my vote won’t count’ carries weight, when the system in place snubs any vote that challenges the over inflated ‘safe seats’ in British constituencies. Something has to be done to change the voting system. With such a sorrowful lack of diversity in ideas and viewpoints already to choose from, it is simply unacceptable that when we vote, the system only works to reinforce this lack of diversity, through an utter lack or representation of what has been voted for.
What exactly is first past the post and what makes it so flawed? For anyone who didn’t vote in this election, and is unaware of how first past the post works, Britain is split into 650 constituencies, each with a number of candidates that the members of that constituency vote for in a general election. Quite simply, and over-simply, the candidate with the most votes wins and is elected as MP in the House of Commons for that constituency. The overall winner of the election is thus the party that reaches a majority of at least 326 the seats in Parliament. On the surface this may seem perfectly fair. But, for a system to be described as ‘fair’, each vote must count the same as every other. With the majority of seats being ‘safe’, and vote that goes against the party holding this ‘safe seat’ seem pointless. Witney, for example is considered so safe a seat for the Tories that it is represented by no other than David Cameron himself, who received 60% of votes this election. In fact, there are so many of these ‘safe-seats’, that only 194 are left that are thought to be marginal. You’d be forgiven for thinking that votes in these marginal seats count more as in safe seats. They basically do. And the MPs continuously standing in these ‘safe seats’ are rarely held accountable for their actions. Perhaps this why Canterbury MP Julian Brazier continues to win a firm majority despite highly questionable votes in his political career, like voting strongly against gay rights and women’s rights. Added to this unfairness, due to the ‘whoever gets the most, wins’, system, MPs with votes as low are 28% can still win a seat, and any votes for the remaining parties are discredited. That’s right, if you vote for the losing opposition, even if in a close marginal seat, it won’t count. And that doesn’t seem very democratic to me.
Is proportional representation the best alternative? A system of proportional representation would see the House of Commons made up of MPs exactly representative of the percentage of votes per party. It is the simplest, and arguably the most primal system of voting. A House of Commons elected through this system would be very different to the one elected on Thursday. Conservatives would still remain the largest party, but would be 75 seats worse off under the system. The biggest change to see would be in the smaller parties. UKIP would gain 83 seats from 1, and Green 37 seats, a better reflection of the 1.1m green voters that it’s one current seat. Although it must be remembered, that a system away from first past the post would see a decline in the number of tactical votes, so the difference in result would reach much further than on a numerical level. No one can argue with proportional representation in terms of well, proportionately representing the electorate. However, the system runs the risk of small-party coalitions formed within the House of Commons in order to find an obscure majority against the parties with the most votes. The growth of increasingly radical small parties, like UKIP, made possible by proportional representation, may give results less desirable than under first past the post.
The obvious reference can be made here, avoid any sweeping generalisations, between the potential outcome of this system and the outcome of The Weimer Republic, in 1920s Germany. Under a system of proportional representation, it was impossible for a majority to be formed, reducing the Reichstag to squabbles impossible to resolve. It was only through a coalition of 4 smaller left wing parties in ‘The Great Coalition’ that a clear decisive voice was formed. It is impossible to predict the outcome of such a diverse government with conflicting views, but the potential for difficulty is easy to imagine. The force of UKIP would be one to be reckoned with, which would defiantly be cause for concern. But in an age of autonomy and censorship ever growing, I don’t think the need to snub the influence of UKIP holds weight, as to do so snubs a large percentage of the nation’s voice, 3.8 million of the nation. True democracy means that all votes should count the same. A Labour or Tory vote should never come above a UKIP vote, despite what the establishment feel. To do so fails the very premise of democracy.
Are there any other systems other than first past the post and proportional representation? Although proportional representation provides a fairer alternative to first past the post, it is not without its flaws, and although it may seem so, the actual outcome may not be so democratic. A ranking system, where votes of the second and third ranking parties are taken into account as well, like the system of a Single Transferrable Vote, may be the answer. Under the system, the election will require the electorate to rank candidates in order of preference. The constituencies would be larger with multiple candidates put forward from each. Candidates would be required to meet a ‘quota’ of 50% to be elected, solving the issue on elected candidates with small percentages of voters. If the next party, or indeed no party, reaches this threshold, the candidate with the lowest amount of votes is eliminated, and the electorate’s second choices are taken into consideration, adding to the rest, until the number of required candidates is met. This means no votes are wasted and that the population is better represented. It also eliminates the need to tactically vote, as second and third choices are also taken into consideration. Safe seats would no longer exist, and a state closer to democracy would exist.
Clearly, the need for a reformed electoral system has reached a critical level. Proportional representation is outdated. It prioritises the large parties, with hell to the smaller. British politics is no longer a two-horse race. A system that’s answer to a broader voice in the House of Commons is to ‘nip them in the bud’ does not resemble democracy.
In 2011, an electoral referendum voted strongly ‘no’ to bringing in the ‘Alternative Vote’. However, in light of the result of the election, the need for reform has never been so strong, and action needs to be decisive. Partly due to failed 2011 referendum result, and the sad truth that the current government is served well through the first past the post system, evidently from the election result, electoral reform prospects look bleak. Not all is lost however. With petitions set to reach at least 100,000 signatures, the government will be forced to reconsider. But, only the proposal of a strong alternative, like the Single Transferable Vote, will force the current system to take this important issue seriously. Unfortunately, I doubt that the current proposal of proportional representation will shake the foundation of British politics towards better democracy, which is so deeply needed.