How effective an electoral system is FPTP

An electoral system is a system in which voters transfer their votes into seats or positions. There are five main electoral systems which are used in the United Kingdom; first past the post (FPTP); supplementary vote (SV); single transferable vote (STV); additional member system (AMS) and closed party list. It is the First Past the Post system which is employed to elect MPs to the House of Commons and is used for local elections in England and Wales. Under first-past-the-post, the UK or local authority is divided into numerous voting areas, i.e. constituencies or wards. At a general or local election, voters put a cross (X) next to their preferred candidate on a ballot paper. The ballot papers are then counted and the candidate that has received the most votes is elected to represent the constituency or ward.

Evaluating the FPTP system in terms of proportionality, one of its main criticisms is that individuals can be elected and parties can achieve a governing majority of parliamentary seats in Westminster or their local authority even though they have not received the majority of the votes, and -in fact- most members of Parliament are elected with less than 50% of the total votes cast in their constituency. Or take for example the 2005 general election, in which Labour won its third consecutive victory under Tony Blair, but with a popular vote of 32.5%, the lowest of any majority government in British history.

The problem of proportionality links in with the choice which voters have. Another problem with the FPTP system is that it works to the advantage of political parties whose support is concentrated in certain areas, and favours the main two parties. The Labour vote is concentrated in inner cities and industrial regions, with the Conservative vote being across the south-east and rural England. Constituencies in these areas usually develop into ‘safe seats’ over time, and there are three-hundred-and-eighty-two of these in the United Kingdom (more than ½ of the 650 seats up for grabs this election!). Safe seats can lead to laziness from political parties, who feel they no longer have to campaign strongly in an area, and can also lead to people feeling that their voice no longer counts for much in politics, thus, leading to discouragement and potentially voter apathy. There may be low voter turnout in safe seats if people know that their party of preference will never win in that seat. Many feel for such reasons that the FPTP system is outdated, and allows only for a ‘two horse race’, robbing the electorate of much choice.

It is a system which heavily discriminates against the Liberal Democrats (hence the Liberal Democrats’ calling for electoral change in 2010 for AV, a system which favours third parties) and smaller parties, such as UKIP and the Green Party who struggle to obtain seats. The only way small parties can get around this is if they heavily concentrate on one constituency, something which the Green Party did to obtain their seat of Brighton Pavilion in 2010. It is due to this that FPTP can lead to tactical voting, so people end up voting not for the candidate and party who they feel represents them the best (if the candidate is from a smaller party) but rather for the ‘next best’ option or the “lesser of two evils”.

However there are positive aspects to the First Past the Post electoral system. Due to it favouring larger parties, it excludes extremist parties from representation in the legislature (though this can be seen as undemocratic). It is also very simple and easy to understand, so does not deter or confuse potential voters. Prior to 2010 it usually promoted strong, stable governments that could last the full 5 years and pass legislation due to working majorities.

The system also promotes a link between constituents and their representatives because  the outcome is a parliament made up of representatives of geographical area. The elected members therefore represent not only the concerns of their political party but also the sometimes unique concerns of their local constituents, be them in rural or urban areas.

Overall, the electoral system of First Past the Post is a good one, though it has many flaws. While it does lead to strong, stable governments, the 2010 general election proved that even this system can lead to a coalition (due to the rise of the third party), and it is expected that another coalition will be formed in the 2015 general election due to the rise of 4 other parties (UKIP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP). It is not proportional or democratic enough, and the contributor of this article feels it is outdated for the multi-party politics of today.


By Mia Sapla

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