The British electoral system is based on the “First-Past-The-Post” (FPTP) system. In recent years, reforms have occurred in places such as Northern Ireland where a form of proportional representation has been used in elections and in the devolution elections surrounding Scotland and Wales. However, for the most part, Britain has used the tried and tested FPTP system.
In the past, this system and the whole structure of elections, created absurd anomalies with the existence of “rotten boroughs” such as Old Sarum, Dunwich and Gatton. Old Sarum was by local reckoning “one man, two cows and a field” and yet returned two MP’s to Westminster! Gatton, a village in Surrey, returned one MP yet had just one voter in it.
The 1832, 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts changed a lot of the more absurd abuses that surrounded the electoral system so vividly described by Charles Dickens in “Pickwick Papers”. However, the principle of FPTP was kept.
What is FPTP and what are the arguments for it?
In a ‘normal’ British national election or by-election (i.e. excluding the newer formats that have been used in recent regional elections for devolution), those who wish to fight an election register to do so. When the election takes place, for example a by-election for a constituency MP for Westminster, the person who wins the highest number of votes within that constituency, wins that election. FPTP is as clear and as brutal as that. Only in the very rarest of cases has a re-count been ordered due to the closeness of that specific result, but in the vast majority of cases, FPTP allows for a clear winner.
As an example; a by-election for the constituency of Make-Up. The three main candidates are from the three most prominent national parties. The result is as follows :
Candidate A (Labour) : 22,000 votes
Candidate B (Tory) : 17,000 votes
Candidate C (Lib Dems) : 13,000 votes
In this example, the clear winner is candidate A with a majority over Candidate B of 5,000. FPTP is a cheap and simple way to hold an election as each voter only has to place one cross on the ballot paper. Counting of the ballot papers is usually fast and the result of a British general election is usually known the very next day after polling. Ballot papers are usually simple (though they can drift towards being confusing if the number of candidates is large) and the voter only needs to put one clear mark on their paper which should be easily counted thus removing the prospect of the confusion that haunted the American 2000 election which degenerated into “when is a mark not a mark ?”
The speed of the process usually allows for a new government to take over power swiftly or if the incumbent government wins the general election, allows for a swift return for the continuation of government without too many disruptions to the political life of the nation.
FPTP has created within Great Britain a political system that is essentially stable as politics is dominated by just two parties. The chaos of the political systems of Italy and Israel is avoided using FPTP. Minority governments have occurred in the UK using FPTP, but the life span of those governments was limited. In recent years, governments have been strong as a result of the clear mandate given to it using the FPTP system.
In a constituency, one MP is elected and therefore, the people of that constituency will know who to ask or pursue if they have a query etc. In a multi-member constituency, in which a number of parties are represented, this would not be as easy.
Arguments against FPTP
As the above example shows, FPTP questions the whole issue of “democratic elections” in that the majority will of the people within one constituency may be reflected in the electoral outcome. But in overall terms, if more people vote against a candidate than for him/her, is this democratic in terms of popular representation in Westminster?
In the example above, 22,000 voted for the candidate that won that election but 30,000 voted against the winner. In recent years, national or by-elections have frequently thrown up the instance of the winner having more people vote against him/her. Therefore, that victor cannot claim to have the majority support of the people within the whole constituency concerned. Therefore, the total popular mandate for the winner does not exist. A counter-argument against this is that one of the over-riding beliefs in democracy is that the winner should be accepted by all and the losers should have their concerns listened to by the victorious party.
The same is true at a national level. If the national government does not have the majority of the nation behind it (as expressed in the final votes for that government) it cannot claim to truly represent the people of that nation. In 1951 (Tory) and in February 1974 (Labour), the nation voted in governments that had less people vote for them but won more seats than their opponents. Neither government could claim to truly represent “the people”.
In the 1997 election, the victorious Labour Party gained 43.2% of the total votes cast and won 63.6% of seats at Westminster. The combined number of votes for the Tory and Liberal Democrats represented 47.5% of the total votes (nearly 4% more than Labour) yet between them they got 32.1% of the seats available at Westminster.
In the 2001 election, Labour got 43% of the total popular vote whereas all the other parties got 57% – yet Labour maintained its very powerful position in Parliament with 413 MP’s out of 659. The same trend was seen with the 2005 election result.
It can be claimed that such a percentage of votes should not have given Labour such large Parliamentary majorities – but the workings of the FPTP system allows for just such an occurrence. In fact, no government since 1935 has had a majority of public support as expressed through votes cast at a national election.
Lord Hailsham once referred to this system as an “elective dictatorship” in that a powerful government can be created with overwhelming Parliamentary power which can usually push through its required legislation – but with only a minority of the country supporting it.
An argument put forward against FPTP is that it might put people off of voting in an election for a minority party as they know that their vote will be wasted. This discriminates against minority parties who will lose out as a consequence of this. It is possible that minority parties might have greater political support than their election figures show.
FPTP has discriminated against the Parliamentary power of the Liberal Democrats at national elections. Both the Tories and Labour have benefited from the system.
At the 1997 national election, the Liberal Democrats gained 16.8% of the votes but only got 46 seats. The Tories gained 30.7% of the votes but gained 165 seats. Labour won 43.2% of the votes and gained 419 seats. At a proportionate level, the Liberal Democrats should have got around 106 seats in Westminster if their representation was based on similar support for the Labour Party.
In the 2001 election, the Lib Dems got 52 seats and 19% of the total votes cast. Using the most basic form of proportional representation, 19% of votes cast would equate to about 120 seats in Parliament.
The continuation of the FPTP system can only favour the Tory and Labour parties and work against the Liberal Democrats – so it is argued.
In polls carried out between 1999 and 2000, more than 60% of the people asked claimed that they would favour a system of proportional representation (PR) to make the electoral system more fair and the results more representative. But would a party in power that benefits from such a system introduce something that could only damage its own political power?