First-past-the-post is bad all-round

 

First-past-the-post is bad for national government

 

The system's crucial flaw lies in the number of ineffective votes locked inside single member constituencies, either as useless surplus votes cast for the winning candidate or as wasted votes cast for losers. There is no way of utilising them in a national context or of recycling the constituency votes to obtain a more representative outcome locally. A national result can turn, not so much on how people vote, but where they live. The Power Commission of 2006 catalogued an increasing awareness among voters of this systemic waste and a realisation that general elections were yet another postcode lottery. This does not inspire confidence in, or support for, any government elected in this way.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for the Union

 

Reference has already been made to the undemocratic result in Scotland where the Scottish Nationalists took 59% of the seats with just 37% of the vote in 2017. As bad as this mismatch is, the result at the previous general election in 2015 was much more distorted, with the ScotNats taking 95% of the Scottish seats with just 50% of the vote, thereby weakening the Union which a majority of Scottish voters had resolved should be maintained in the independence referendum the year before.

 

First-past-the-post has undermined the Union on a previous occasion, just over 130 years ago, when Ireland was still part of the UK. In the 1885 General Election, thanks to the use of First-past-the-post in newly created single member constituencies, Charles Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party eliminated all shades of Unionism in the South of Ireland with just 68% of the Irish vote. Nothing could be done in Westminster afterwards without taking Mr. Parnell and his 85 MPs into account. Moreover, the pocket of unrelieved Unionism in the North East of Ireland, also elected in 1885 courtesy of First-past-the-post, laid the foundations of the conflict which still festers on the streets of Northern Ireland to this day.

 

While there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn between Ireland and Scotland in terms of era, culture and politics, First-past-the-post seems to have a tendency to brutalise political debate; it accentuates differences of opinion; it fuels geographical tribalism; it overstates the majority and discriminates against the minority, even to the point of eliminating it altogether. Accordingly there is a case for suggesting that our First-past-the-post voting system is contributing to the destruction of our union with Scotland in much the same way it helped destroy our union with Ireland.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for local government

 

While First-past-the-post could in theory enable one political party to take every single Westminster Parliamentary seat in a 3-cornered contest with just 34% of the vote, the UK’s varied demographic ensures that this remains a very remote possibility and that each general election offers the prospect of a change of government. But what is unlikely in Westminster politics is commonplace in local government. Thanks to the continued use of First-past-the-post in council elections for England and Wales, there are many examples of one-party fiefdoms who rule forever, in many cases inefficient, complacent and corruptible, being untroubled by any meaningful opposition. For example, Rotherham's Council was in the news some years ago for its systemic failure to address widespread child abuse between 1997 and 2013. During this period, the entire council was up for election in 2004 and the result was as follows:- 

 

Rotherham Council Elections 2004

% Votes

% Seats

Labour

53

84

Conservative

18

11

Liberal Democrat

17

  0

Independent

  8

  5

Others

  4

  0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labour's taking 84% of the Council seats with only 53% of the vote deprived Rotherham Council of a viable opposition, which might otherwise have been more effective at holding the Labour administration to account. Notice also how the Liberal Democrats fared compared with the Conservatives.

 

The reason why these disparities are magnified in local government elections using First-past-the-post is because most councils are divided into multi-member wards, so the dominant party in a ward will usually win all the seats there. As a result, some ward residents will enjoy several councillors of their political persuasion, while remaining residents won’t have any, even if they are in the majority. To take an example, in the 2014 "all up" round of elections in the Cray Valley East Ward of the Borough of Bromley, the Conservatives took all 3 seats, even though their vote total of 3,612 represented only 35% of the 10,264 votes cast in the ward. These local distortions impact on the party political makeup of a council as a whole. For example, in the 2015 round of Manchester City Council elections, Labour took 100% of the seats with just 59% of the vote.

 

Distortion of representation in local government can take other extreme forms: In 2007, a British National Party candidate was elected in the Abbey Green Ward of Stoke on Trent with only 27% of the vote. The reaction of the 73% of those ward residents whose wishes were thwarted by the system can only be imagined.

 

Note: For simplicity's sake, the local government figurework in this section uses totals of votes actually cast. Some information sources take account of the fact that some parties do not fight all the seats in some wards, so they "consolidate" the figures to give a more accurate council-wide picture of party strengths, thereby accentuating the distortion of First-past-the-post even more.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for voters

 

When you vote in a UK general election, you will be instructed to sign away your democratic rights with an X - the mark of illiteracy. You've only got one go; if you vote for a loser, you won't get asked about other choices. It's like going into a corner shop, asking for a Diet Cola, being told they haven't got any, and then being asked to leave the shop before you have the chance to choose another drink.

 

Another consequence of First-past-the-post is that voters who live in safe seats are less likely to be subject to any meaningful engagement by political parties since the result is a forgone conclusion, and so parties will be concentrating scarce resources in more marginal seats. By contrast, voters living in these marginal seats will be subjected to a torrent of populist propaganda and will be prevailed upon by the front-runners to vote tactically rather than "waste" their vote on a candidate who perhaps was their first choice. Clearly, a system which failed over two thirds of those who voted in 2017 is bad for voters.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for parties  

 

In their endeavours to win as many single-member seats as possible and avoid alienating any faction, parties will be inclined to put up safe, mainstream candidates, which is why the House of Commons is customarily awash with white, middle-aged, middle class males. This puts parties out of touch with the nation's poor, its young, the female population, and ethnic minorities. Some parties try to address these imbalances by imposing, for example, women-only shortlists on  constituency associations selecting their parliamentary candidates, but this can alienate both local parties and local electorates, and in any case addresses only part of the problem.

 

Moreover, the promotion of populist policies in marginal seats can backfire if these policies are not, or cannot, be implemented. As a result, voters become disenchanted with parties and elections, and a process of disengagement between the governors and the governed gradually eats away at the fabric of our democracy and civil society. This is evidenced by falling levels of participation; for all the media frenzy, turnout on June 8th was a mere 68.7%. The last time we had a general election turnout of 70%+ was 20 years ago and the 83.9% turnout of 1950 is but a distant memory of a time when people believed that their vote could actually make a difference.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for the Country

   

The phrase "First-past-the-post" conjures up visions of a horse race. Certainly, political parties are apt to treat an election as if it were a sporting contest, thanks to our Victorian voting system. First-past-the-post encourages adversarial campaigns in which candidates selected for little more than their gift of the gab trade insults with their counterparts in rival parties and attempt to deliver the political equivalent of knockout blows in ten second sound-bites, rather than debate policy sensibly and honestly.

 

Democracy is, of course, not a sporting event lasting minutes; it is a process for governing by popular consent, round the clock, year in, year out. What's more, our world is changing at bewildering speed as hundreds of millions of people in a host of developing nations demand a standard of living that we have taken for granted for decades. If we Brits are to survive, let alone prosper, in this challenging environment of shrinking resources, burgeoning populations and highly competitive markets, we need the very best government we can elect, and we must use elections as an opportunity to debate complex issues of the day, rather than treat them as if they were the political equivalent of the Grand National.

 

First-past-the-post is knackered!

 

To claim that First-past-the-post is fit for purpose just because it is simple to use and is easy to understand is just plain bonkers. You might as well advocate using Stephenson's Rocket to haul trains on the HS2. No captain of industry would tolerate the continued use of such an inefficient museum piece in an industrial process, nor the waste evidenced in the aforementioned statistics on a company balance sheet. Why should we tolerate it at the ballot box?

 

 

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© David Green