Arimathean Essay


Reforming First-Past-the-Post is an Each Way bet.

Reforming First-Past-the-Post is an Each Way bet

(By ‘Elijah Luce’, May 2010)

Once again we are hearing the inevitable call by politicians, following what has been a bruising General Election, to reform our “unfair”  ‘First Past the Post’ voting system.  As a member of a smaller national party that has been poorly served by FPTP, I have some sympathy with these calls, however the reason I joined the UK Independence Party, back in 1994 shortly after its inception, was because of my concern for the democratic process in Britain.  For that reason I am opposed to Proportional Representation in any of its forms, even though it would give UKIP a number of seats in Parliament.  I believe that those who support PR (and the ‘Alternative Vote system’ currently being suggested) for their own party advantage, are ignoring the incalculable damage that these systems would do to British democracy.  It seems clear to me that the last group of people who should be allowed to inflict a new voting system on us are politicians whose motivation would inevitably be to introduce a system which is in the interest of their political party, not one which is truly representative of the desire of the electorate.   When however a Commission was set up under Roy Jenkins, which reported back in 1998 with a suggestion for ‘AV plus’, the idea was rejected by almost all members of Parliament.

For me, perhaps the most important aspect of our parliamentary democracy is that we have representative government in Britain, in other words each constituency votes for a person to be their representative in Parliament.  The electorate in this General election have understood this and have rejected candidates with dodgy records and voted back good constituency MPs.   Any form of ‘Party List’ PR system removes this fundamental aspect of our ability to state which individuals we want to represent us and replaces it with representation by a block of faceless politicians with far less personal accountability to the electorate and therefore with more opportunity for corruption.  It also mitigates against independent candidates representing issues which may be of local importance in favour of large national political parties and groupings. 

‘Preferential voting’ including AV and the single transferable vote is complex, generally taking days if not weeks for it to become clear who has been elected, and the electorate are denied the opportunity to unambiguously select a person to represent their views.  AV does preserve the important aspect of constituency representation, however the fact that second and third choices cast by voters for the parties which are eliminated in the early rounds are counted to give another candidate an overall majority means that it is perfectly possible that a candidate who does not have the largest number of first preference votes could still go on to win the constituency.  The fact that one is obliged to vote for candidates who you don’t want (as clearly the candidate you actually want to represent you is your first choice candidate) seems to me absurd, particularly as it means that this vote for a candidate who is not your first preference to lead to them being elected.  The complexity and lack of transparency of this system makes it one of the worst solutions for the electorate. There is however one aspect of ‘Preferential voting’ which I find appealing, which is the opportunity it offers to elect more than one MP to represent a constituency; but why do we need the inevitable complexity and horse trading of PR and AV to give us this outcome? 

The ‘Great Reform Act of 1832’ was a glorious moment of true reform of a corrupt and “rotten” system, as Pitt the Elder had called it.  Subsequent reforms such as the ‘Representation of the People Act 1867’ did much to clear up other anomalies, as well as beginning the process of moving towards universal suffrage, however it also started the process of restricting each constituency to returning just one member to Parliament.  Before 1867 it was common for each constituency to return two (or more) representatives via a form of ‘First Past the Post’ system (or maybe that should be an ‘Each Way’ system to continue the racing analogy).  This is commonly used in various other arenas where it is necessary to vote for more than one person and is generally referred to as a ‘multiple member first-past the post ballot’.  The weakness of this however is that if a voter still has just a single vote there are still many wasted votes although the increase in the number of candidates elected increases the chances that his vote has counted.

I would suggest that a modern and reformed version of this system would firstly require a halving of the number of constituencies, making each one larger, possibly based more on county or regional boundaries (as was suggested by the Jenkins Commission for the ‘top-up’ portion of AV plus).  A further improvement of the usual method of ‘multiple member first-past the post’ ballots would be to enable each member of the electorate to cast two equal votes (in other words, not simply a first and second choice) and would permit each political party to put up a maximum of two candidates in each constituency.  Naturally any independent candidates who also wished to stand would additionally be able to stand, possibly representing issues pertinent to that particular constituency. 

One may surmise how the electorate are likely to use their two votes.  It is of course likely that each elector will give one of their votes to a representative of a political party which for social or ideological reasons he or she has habitually voted, however they also have to opportunity to use their second vote either to vote for the second candidate from the same political party or alternatively for another individual candidate with views which they may also support.  They may even use their second vote to attempt to prevent a candidate they do not wish to represent them from being returned.  This ‘tactical voting’ is commonly derided, but has been seen in the last General election as being a powerful tool in the hands of electors who are eager to vote ‘corrupt’ politicians from office.  The negative element of this, as it is manifested in normal FPTP polls is mitigated by the fact that the elector is able to make a positive statement of his preferred candidate with his first vote.

I am convinced that this would provide an opportunity for smaller parties and independents to be elected to parliament (on the strength of having the ‘second choice’ vote on their side) whilst still giving the main parties the chance of forming majority governments if their policies are truly popular with the electorate (on the strength of being permitted to put up two candidates for each constituency).  It would also make it less likely that any voter would feel that they were disenfranchised as there would always be the possibility that their ‘alternative’ MP could represent their views if they feel that the other representative is politically unable to do so.  There would also be far fewer wasted votes, either through candidates polling high numbers but still not winning in the FPTP race, or through excessive votes being cast for a winning candidate as the ‘spread’ would be larger.

This system retains the blissful simplicity and transparency of direct personal representation without the smoke and mirrors of transferring votes or the necessity of voting for a party political block, which divorces the electorate from the direct process of choosing their personal representatives in parliament.  It would still be possible to calculate the winning candidates the moment the votes are counted without the need for numerous unpredictable rounds of shuffling preference votes back and forth, enabling a new Government to start work as soon as the polls are declared.

There is one problem with a system that offers greater political advantage to smaller parties and independents and that is the increased chance of our current problem with hung/balanced parliaments.  This can be avoided by one measure, which could be enacted at once, - the abolition of the whipping system.  Parliament is made up of debating houses, so why not allow every measure brought forward by the government to be presented to the house for cross party approval.  Let the force of argument dictate whether each measure has the support of our parliamentary representatives, not party ideology or grubby deals done between desperate and duplicitous politicians.   But that is just another of my little bug-bears which should probably be dealt with in a future essay.