It must first be said that no voting system is perfect, every voting system runs on some assumption for the electorate and every voting system also has some form of downside which may impact the representation of the electorate. Choosing a new voting system or deciding to remove the first past the post (or FPTP) voting system is not about finding a perfect system but finding a system which best represents the people and builds on the idea of improving the voting system and so the point of this blog is instead to weigh the pros and cons of each voting system and if they would be an improvement to the current system.
First past the post is a voting system which gives each person one vote and follows the idea of winner takes all, if you get the most votes, you will win the majority. Whilst this system does sound fair, it does have its advantages and disadvantages. For example, one advantage of this system would be the highest chance out of any voting system to produce a strong, single party government (a government that doesn’t have a coalition.) This is seen by many to be a major factor to not remove the FPTP system, as a strong single party government is one which would be able to bring the change they claim to through government. This is only further amplified by the simplicity of the system, allowing even those not educated specifically about the electoral system to understand and learn about the system easily without much confusion.
However, this comes at the cost of poorly representing the people’s votes within Parliament. This can be seen through general elections, with one clear example being the 2015 general election which ended with David Cameron and the Conservatives leading the country with 330 seats. This is enough seats for a majority within the House of Commons, as they had more than half of the 650 seats required. Where this becomes a poor representation of the people is through the 36.8% votes towards David Cameron. More people voted against David Cameron being prime minister but despite that he still became it due to the first past the post system over rewarding those who win and punishing those smaller parties who are not as large or popular. This gives the party which wins the power to pass legislation with ease despite not having a majority of votes, including legislation which they may have promised not to pass. This leads to the idea of an ‘elected dictatorship’ in which a party may do almost whatever they’d like with little opposition for 4-5 years.
This can also be clearly seen on a local scale through safe seats, due to people in these local areas feeling they must vote Conservative due to not believing any other party will win. This means the electorate’s votes aren’t as valuable as they should be as their votes will have little impact if they vote for the opposition party. Unfortunately, that is not all either as FPTP also often supports the existence of a two-party system through strategic voting, as rather than voting for the candidate you want you vote for the candidate you believe has the best chance of beating the candidate you hate. Over time this form of strategic voting can create a two-party system as other candidates feel less motivated to gain support or votes as they feel it would be worthless. This can be seen within the UK general elections as it could be argued that the UK itself is somewhat a two-party system. FPTP is shown to be a poor voting system when you look at these facts, however are there really any systems which are better that could replace FPTP?
One alternative which often presents itself would be the additional member system (or AMS.) This system is mainly a mix between FPTP, and another system called proportional representation. It’s used for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and in the London Assembly and is generally considered to be better than FPTP. AMS works by voting for two ballots, one which decides your constituency’s MP, and another which allows the people to vote for a party directly to manage the region. In Scotland, for example, there are 129 seats and 73 of which are elected through the constituencies and 56 elected through the regional ballet. Where this system really shines is through its methods of counting votes. It uses FPTP when deciding who gets elected for your constituency vote, however if one party does exceptionally well within the FPTP system, during the second vote that party will have reduced seats to help fully represent the people.
However, if a party does poorly under the FPTP part of the system, it will be uplifted through the regional votes. Within this system, it well represents the electorate and gives the people more choice when it comes to who they want in charge, without the problem of strategic voting being as huge of an issue (though it still is, it’s just less prominent.) Whilst this system does not offer the same security of a one-party government it does offer a fairer coalition government allowing for better representation for what the majority of people want as seats within Parliament are much more split. This system of voting will prevent a minority rule (a government which did not get >50% of the vote but did get >50% if seats) as it allows for a large political diversity and so coalition governments are encouraged. This can be seen through the methods the Green Party uses to gain more votes, in which they will tell their voters to vote for them on the regional ballot, but not the local one resulting in a higher portion of seats. Whilst this is abusing the system in some regard, it allows for political diversity to exist and for those minor parties which have little influence to gain a much larger influence (although it could be argued these smaller parties maybe shouldn’t have the power that they hold.)
There are some downsides to this form of voting as it does give two categories of representatives, however only one has constituency duties. This could be seen as an issue as it means some arguments could take place over which representative is right or truly represents the people. Whilst this may certainly happen, you must also consider that having two representatives allows for the constituents to really feel connected to their MPs as they, despite possibly not voting for the local MP, did vote for their regional MP and may feel they can talk to them. Unfortunately, much like FPTP, small parties will struggle under this system as they will not have nearly as many representatives and so will have many fewer choices and those few choices may not appeal to the electorate.
When comparing this system to first past the post, the additional member system is much fairer than the FPTP system allowing for better representation within Parliament of what the people vote for, due to the prevention of a minority rule taking place. However, it isn’t all good as it is a much more complex voting system and would require a large amount of money by the government to inform the people of these changes to the voting system, what it means and how it works. Changing to a more complex voting will possibly worsen the turnout rates within general elections which would only further the current political crisis of a worsening turnout rate. So, whilst the AMS system would generally be much better in practice, it also has a risk of lowering turnout rates or a confused electorate.
Another alternative which also often presents itself is the single transferable vote (or STV) system. This idea originated in the UK however is only used by Northern Ireland, Scotland local elections and the Welsh national assembly. It is widely praised for being one of the best voting systems, even being used to elect the European Parliament. STV itself is rather simple for the electorate, simply asking that they rank as many or as few of the candidates in their local elections, and usually having bigger constituencies but having multiple MPs per constituency. This system is designed to always have the electorate’s happiness in mind, trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Because of this, outcomes are usually directly proportional to the actual votes and the MPs elected, unlike FPTP in which it is usually the case that the majority vote against the MP than for. This system allows for the electorate to have a voice much larger than they would get under FPTP due to them being allowed to vote freely for whoever they really like, and not having to worry about strategic voting. Of course, there are downsides to this system, for example the complexity of counting the votes will make it much more expensive for local elections and general elections, on top of a longer time being required to count these votes. Not only this, but due to the possible larger constituencies and multiple MPs per constituency it is highly possible that there would be a weaker link between the people and their representative. This could result in possibly less support for their MPs and could result in unrest over feeling their problems are not being dealt with.
Most importantly, coalition governments are extremely common with this voting system due to smaller parties being represented, possibly too much, and these coalitions have proven to be unstable as can be seen through Northern Ireland governments. Smaller parties may gain only a few seats, but often the largest parties only need a few seats and so this gives these small parties unjust power over the government to create coalitions and get to their agenda. Knowing this, STV can easily be labelled as better than FPTP and will help break the two-party system the UK is currently forced into through a more representative set of MPs.
Overall, when comparing FPTP to STV or AMS it can be seen that FPTP is not really the best form of counting votes. This can be seen specifically through the seats being given being sorely unrepresentative of what people really vote for within Parliament. Other systems work to ensure voter happiness, rather than FPTP which mainly aims to create a strong government at the cost of representation being poor. FPTP also fails to truly give people a choice, as problems such as strategic voting and safe seats are extremely common within the system, and cause many issues of not voting for who you want, but instead against who you don’t want. This can be argued to be undemocratic and as such already a reason to replace FPTP.
However, other voting systems such as STV or AMS require some sort of educated electorate in order to understand the political system, either through campaigns (or a reform of the education system to teach some sort of politics before the age of 18) to allow the electorate to fully understand the voting system.
In conclusion, until the government would be willing to give up the system which put them into power, despite FPTP possibly being one of the worst voting systems, it will stay the voting system whether we like it or not.