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First-past-the-post: simple, decisive, and fair

John Baron MP
July 1, 2024

In recent articles, I have been examining how the House of Commons operates, how MPs arrange and organise themselves there and what personalities serve in it. More fundamental is how these representatives achieve their office in the first place and become Members of Parliament. Britain has used the ‘first past the post’ system for centuries, and it remains a vital and sound system of electing MPs to our Parliament.

One key virtue of the first past the post system is its simplicity, transparency, security and immediacy. All that is required is that a candidate secures the highest number of votes. At every General Election, counts are held at civic centres across the country. Once the number of votes in each ballot box is tallied with the number of ballot papers issued at that polling station, votes are sorted by candidate into bundles of 100.

As the count progresses, a physical manifestation of the result is seen by everyone at the count as these bundles are piled up on the tables reserved for each candidate. Usually the result is known by dawn, and as the individual results are returned from the 650 constituencies across the UK, the shape of the coming Government usually becomes clear quite quickly. Continuing the system, the governing party is the one which can command a simple majority in the House of Commons.

Of course it is possible that no single party may achieve this threshold. When this does happen, as recently took place in 2010 and 2017, an arrangement with another party can produce a government with a majority. Yet this is still a rare outcome – first past the post overwhelmingly tends to produce strong governments, with clear lines of accountability, which can pass the legislation promised during the election campaign. At the end of the Parliament, voters can also decisively turf the Government out of office, should they wish.

A common criticism of first past the post is that many votes are ‘wasted’ – that all the votes for the non-winning candidates are ‘ignored’ and ‘do not count’, and that these votes should instead be used on a nationwide level to apportion MPs accordingly in a system of proportional representation. A common complaint from UKIP candidates in 2015 was that they received more votes than the SNP, but only a single seat whilst the SNP took virtually every seat in Scotland.

Put this way, a system of proportional representation seems reasonable. Yet, apportioning MPs along these lines would weaken, if not dissolve altogether, the constituency link between an MP and his/her constituency, as it would not be clear (or at best, would be less clear) which constituency they represented.

Some models are available which attempt to address this shortcoming, such as the mixed-member system for the Scottish Parliament. However, this can lapse into confusion – such as Alba’s (largely unsuccessful) attempts to ‘game’ the system at the last Holyrood election by trying to over-inflate the number of independence-supporting MSPs by attempting to manipulate the voting system’s characteristics to balance out votes. One of the best arguments for changing the voting system for the London Mayoralty from a form of proportional representation to first past the post was that many voters did not appreciate the complexities of the ranking system.

The decisive nature of first past the post allows voters to turf out unpopular incumbents, both governments and individual MPs alike. By contrast, proportional systems greatly favour the emergence of coalitions, as it is much less likely that one single party wins more than half of the available seats.

This arrangement is quite common in Europe, where proportional systems predominate, and it is not uncommon for the election to be the start of the process of the formation of a new government, rather than the act itself. Parties engage in policy horse-trading behind closed doors, and the signature policies which might have swung votes are traded away in favour of a lowest-common denominator compromise.

This process often takes months – it recently took over six months for the new Dutch Government to be appointed, and Belgium infamously went over 18 months without a government – and it means incumbents can remain in office despite their party losing considerable support.

In 2010 it took five days for the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition to be established, which voters and markets found testing, and voters made their view of the Lib Dems’ decision to enter that coalition at the 2015 election. The decision to increase tuition fees, which was in the coalition agreement but which the Lib Dem manifesto (and their leader) pledged not to do, hung heavy upon them.

It is true that first past the post demands a high bar for election – parties must concentrate their support, and parties which receive wide but shallow support find it very difficult to win parliamentary seats. This is a desirable function of the system – it ensures that minor parties, some of which can be extreme and distasteful in their views, are able to fully participate in the democratic process but rarely become elected. In this sense first past the post is a bulwark against extremism.

This stands in strong contrast to the proportional systems in Europe, which are increasingly allowing these extreme elements in, first of all into parliaments and then into governments. Those in favour of proportional representation in Britain must acknowledge that Nigel Farage and his ilk would almost certainly have had senior government roles over the last decade if we had had such a system.

Reforming the voting system in favour of proportional representation has been a longstanding demand of the minor parties, and indeed the coalition agreement in 2010 required a referendum on abandoning first past the post and employing the Alternative Vote system instead. This is towards the milder end of the systems of proportional representation, and had duly been described by the Lib Dem leader as a ‘miserable little compromise’ some time previously. The change was decisively defeated in the 2011 referendum, surprisingly little remembered now, and for the time being at least this has taken the wind out of the sails of change.

Yet there is discussion of other reforms to voting. Labour is apparently interested in reducing the voting age from 18 to 16, which is already the case for the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. At the Westminster level this would be a nakedly political move, capitalising on polling which overwhelmingly suggests younger voters favour left-wing parties, whilst also not addressing the fact that turnout amongst younger voters is already much lower. Efforts would be much better expended encouraging more 18-24 year olds to turn out on polling day than eye-catching reforms such as this.

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John Baron is the former Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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