Are we too slow for Electoral Reform? Pt.1

Nick Clegg - UK Deputy PM

"Waaah! It's not fair I want reform"

This one’s been banging around inside my head for some time now. If you are reading this blog post from any country that has ever been colonised by the British (a’right, calm down, we can have that discussion later), including all of North America and India, then the likelihood is that in your most important elections, your nation uses the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. One notable exception is Australia, whilst other, non-colonised nations also use FPTP. So Read This Post as it is surely relevant to a massive segment of the world’s population.

I figured there was something up with the FPTP system quite some time ago when someone mentioned that it was possible for a government to win an election without gaining the support of the majority of voters. Hmm, I thought, that don’t sound much like the democracy they tell me about at school. So you get an idea how long this has been rattling around in there for.

Shamefully, despite having been politically active for at least a good few years, I never really bothered to get my head around what was going on with the electoral system. Equally shamefully, I suspect that the vast majority of the eligible voting population also has little idea. On the one hand, the premise seems innocuous enough – the guy who gets the most votes wins the election. Seems fair enough. So how does the situation occur that a party can win an election without a majority?

Well, shock horror, it turns out that it ain’t quite so simple. Things get an added layer of complexity when you factor in constituencies. If the whole country went to the polls and voted for one party or t’other without them, then FPTP would work fine. However, we do have constituencies, albeit with varying names and definitions globally.

David Cameron - UK Prime Minister

"No, it's not fair, but in just the right way, HaHaa!"

Imagine a situation like this (or, if you live in the UK, no need to imagine): Each Constituency elects one member of Parliament. The Candidate who polls the most votes (not necessarily a majority – there may be several Parties and Candidates) will win the seat in Parliament for that constituency. Let’s say there are 100 constituencies, and 10,000 voters in each – a total of 1,000,000. Now let’s suppose there are two parties only. Party One wins 5,001 votes in every single constituency (oh, come now, I’m just trying to elucidate the point), whilst Party Two receives 4,999 votes in all constituencies. Right, so clearly according to the rules Party One has won all 100 seats in Parliament. Party Two, however, gets no representation in Parliament whatsoever, despite gaining 49.99% of the votes. If you further the analogy and throw in a third party, then things can become even more skewed and so on.

From this simple, although admittedly extreme, example one can deduce most of what is wrong with FPTP. I will defer to the wisdom of the Electoral Reform Society. The problems are thus:

  1. Representatives can get elected on tiny amounts of public support, especially in poly-party candidacies.
  2. It encourages tactical voting, as voters vote not for the candidate they most prefer, but against the candidate they most dislike.
  3. FPTP in effect wastes huge numbers of votes, as votes cast in a constituency for losing candidates, or for the winning candidate above the level they need to win that seat, count for nothing.
  4. Parties on the winning side are disproportionately over-represented and vice-versa

There are other issues, of course, but these are my pick. Point 1 is understandable – if the vote were split between five popular parties, then its gonna be one helluva task to get an absolute majority. That said if the issue can be solved, then great. And it can. On point 2, this particular form of tactical voting can be prevented, but perhaps not all forms. Points 3 and 4 are the real kickers for me, with point 4 being exemplified earlier. But point 3- well, Wow!

According to ERS, in the UK:

“In 2005, 70 per cent of votes were wasted in this way – that’s over 19 million ballots.”

Boy, 70% of our votes wasted! How come no-one told us about this? I’ll tell you why – one point not mentioned in the list above is that FPTP tends towards a two party system (by way of disproportionate representation in Parliament). Now, if you were one of the two largest parties (I’m looking at you, Labour and the Conservatives), why on earth would you want electoral reform when the current system favours you? Equally, if you were one of the smaller parties, why wouldn’t you want electoral reform? So you see, this reform issue is not, as far as the politicians on all sides are concerned, a matter of differing opinions on fair representation for the people. It is a purely political means to gain/keep a grip on power.

This issue is far too big for one post, but I can assure you that I will be blogging on this topic again, as it is one that really requires that we fight against the established parties. So what do we do? Well, you could tinker about with having multi-member constituencies for example, but it starts to get rather complex and the subtleties are hard to fathom for anyone. Thankfully, most of the hard work there has already been done for us. I shall be back to discuss what we can do to improve the system, and how you can help to push that change forward.

On a final note, I found these principle arguments for FPTP quite amusing. The ERS claim that,

“It’s [FPTP] simple to understand …and doesn’t alienate people who can’t count.”

and that,

“People are often fearful of change and slow to adapt, thus as we’ve got it now, so we may as well keep it.”

Really? Well I’m most glad that Prince Philip and Jordan are able to vote. But for the rest of us, these argument holds no water. People who can’t count? Where are these folk, living in a rock at the bottom of the English Channel (teehee, see the irony, water, channel. How delightful!)? And how about we’re too slow, please don’t change stuff to help us! Drivel, I tell you.

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6 thoughts on “Are we too slow for Electoral Reform? Pt.1

  1. All well and good, but what are the alternatives? One of the main problems with most AV schemes is that they lead to fragmented, minority party representations in government, resulting in majority decision making becoming difficult or impossible for all but the most straightforward policies. Look at Belgium and the Netherlands. They both use open-list PR (use Wikipedia) and have had great difficulty forming a working parliaments, holding the records for longest period between election and an effective government (208 and 196 days, guess which was which) for the country.

    Andrew.

    • yeah, of course you make valid points here. However, you are jumping the gun a bit here. My post hasn’t even got that far yet. Solutions to this problem will be discussed in part 2, as noted.

      However, I will amend the subject header to reflect that it is part 1. I didn’t really want to do that as I think this topic will go to many parts

    • It’s probably a good thing to have a government that can’t push through majority decisions easily.. we would go to war less; sell off less national assets; restrict draconian security policies etc. etc…

      I would much rather have a government that took it’s time over stuff like this, instead of the sweeping changes back and forward every time the other party gets in; which ends up wasting so much… this government seems bent on ending the welfare state/nhs etc… we need it, so the next left wing government that gets in will end up bankrupting the country yet again rebuilding what we lost. it’s far cheaper to keep something as it is than change it all the time…

      Majority rule is a major factor in creating this swinging boom bust economy. We need to grow up and work out how to find consensus instead of this childish back and fro we do every few years.

      • Agreed. The Europeans have shown that coalition governments don’t necessarily destabilise a nation or it’s economy. I think it is of far more significance to the economy that we rid the business elites of their wholly-discredited of deregulated free markets. That’s a big issue, given how entrenched this view has become in both the business and political elites, and the fact that our politicians respond more quickly to the requirements of business than they do to the needs of the people.

        This situation is, I believe, one of the great arguments for better proportionality. Politicians will only listen to the public if they are more directly accountable to them.

  2. The FPTP can even mean that the party with the greatest number of votes won’t necessarily win.

    If you take you example of 100 constituencies with 10,000 voters in each: Party 1 could win 5001 votes in 51 constituencies and win the majority of seats in the parliament with 255, 051 votes; whereas party 2 could win all remaining votes (744, 949 – i.e. nearly 3 times as many votes) yet would be the minority party in parliament.

    Another thing to consider is that it isn’t even majority rule; Tony Blair’s ‘landslide victory’ in 1997 was won with 43.21% of the vote: meaning 56.79% of votes were against him. and when you factor in the people that didn’t vote (71.3% turnout): it was only something like 30% of possible votes that gave them their ‘landslide’ majority. (i.e. almost 70% of the country didn’t want him) – hardly democratic in my mind…

    • Too true. And that doesn’t even bring the number of wasted votes into the equation. What we’ve got here is little more proportional than before suffrage was extended to all adult males. Not encouraging.

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