Written by Classical Liberal
[Please read Part 1 here]
Distortions in geographical representation provide incentives for parties to ignore the interests of areas in which they are too weak to stand much chance of gaining representation, leading to governments that do not govern in the national interest. Further, during election campaigns, the campaigning activity of parties tends to focus on marginal seats where there is a prospect of a change in representation, leaving safer areas excluded from participation in an active campaign. Political parties operate by targeting districts, directing their activists and policy proposals toward those areas considered marginal, where each additional vote has more value.
Wasted votes are those cast for losing candidates and winning candidates above the number required for victory. For example, in the UK general election of 2005, 52% of votes were cast for losing candidates, and 18% were excess votes—a total of 70% ‘wasted’ votes. On this basis, a large majority of votes may play no part in determining the outcome. This winner-takes-all system may be one reason why ‘voter participation tends to be lower in countries with FPTP than elsewhere’.
Gerrymandering is more likely in an election under FPTP because FPTP permits many wasted votes. Gerrymandering occurs when electoral areas are designed deliberately to increase the number of seats won by one party. Maps are redrawn so that one party has a small number of districts in which it has an overwhelming majority of votes (whether due to policy, demographics which tend to favour one party or other reasons), and many districts where it is at a smaller disadvantage.
The presence of spoiler candidates often gives rise to suspicions that manipulation of the slate has taken place. A spoiler may have received incentives to run. A spoiler may also drop out at the last moment, inducing charges that dropping out had been intended from the beginning.
Under FPTP, a small party may draw votes and seats away from a larger party that it is more similar to and give an advantage to one it is less similar to.
FPTP within geographical areas tends to deliver a significant number of safe seats. Safe seats shelter a representative from any but the most dramatic change in voting behaviour; this applies, particularly to larger parties. The ERS estimates that more than half the seats can be considered safe. MPs involved in the 2009 expenses scandal were significantly more likely to hold a safe seat.
The Constitution Society published a report in April 2019 stating that, ‘[in certain circumstances] FPTP can . . . abet extreme politics, since should a radical faction gain control of one of the major political parties, FPTP works to preserve that party’s position . . . This is because the psychological effect of the plurality system disincentivises a major party’s supporters from voting for a minor party in protest at its policies, since to do so would likely only help the major party’s main rival. Rather than curtailing extreme voices, FPTP today empowers the (relatively) extreme voices of the Labour and Conservative party memberships’.
According to the political pressure group Make Votes Matter, FPTP creates a powerful electoral incentive for large parties to target similar segments of voters with similar policies. Political diversity in a country reduces because FPTP incentivises the larger parties to coalesce around similar policies.
Many countries which use FPTP have active campaigns to switch to proportional representation. Most modern democracies use forms of PR. In the UK case, the movement to scrap FPTP has been ongoing since at least the 1970s. Changes to the UK system have been proposed. The Jenkins Commission examined alternatives in the late 1990s. After forming a new coalition government in 2010, it was announced that a referendum would be held on switching to the Alternative Vote (AV) system. However, the AV system was rejected 2-1 by British voters in a referendum held on 5 May 2011.
Reform campaigners face the obstacle of large incumbent parties who control the legislature and have an incentive to resist any attempts to replace the FPTP system that elected them on a minority vote – turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
The laws regarding state funding of political parties (including short money rules) complicate the campaign to scrap FPTP in the UK. The Labour Party, for example, receives significant funds from the UK state by retaining its status as the Official Opposition party: in the 2018/19 financial year, the Labour Party received £7,880,000, equivalent to 79% of total state funding, despite receiving only 40% of the popular vote in the prior general election. Under proportional representation, Labour’s status as the Official Opposition party would be vulnerable. Therefore its level of state funding would also be at risk, thus providing a financial incentive for Labour to retain FPTP. The Conservative Party benefits considerably from the same effect when in Opposition.
Scholars rate voting methods using mathematically derived voting method criteria, which describe desirable features of a method. No ranked preference method can meet all the requirements because some of them are mutually exclusive.
The majority criterion states that ‘if one candidate is preferred by a majority (more than 50%) of voters, that candidate must win’. FPTP meets this criterion (though not the converse: a candidate does not need 50% of the votes to win). Although the majority criterion is met for each constituency vote, it is not achieved when adding up the total votes for a winning party in a parliament.
The mutual majority criterion states that ‘if a majority (more than 50%) of voters top-rank some candidates, then one of those candidates must win’. FPTP does not meet this criterion.
The Condorcet winner criterion states that ‘if a candidate would win a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, that candidate must win the overall election’. FPTP does not meet this criterion.
The Condorcet loser criterion states that ‘if a candidate would lose a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, that candidate must not win the overall election’. FPTP does not meet this criterion.
The independence of irrelevant alternatives criterion states that ‘the election outcome remains the same even if a candidate who cannot win decides to run’. FPTP does not meet this criterion.
The independence of clones criterion states that ‘the election outcome remains the same even if an identical candidate who is equally-preferred decides to run’. FPTP does not meet this criterion.
The more I learn about FPTP and other forms of representative democracy, the more convinced I am that the people of Britain deserve direct democracy. Direct democracy becomes ever more feasible with advances in technology that make holding referendums much more accessible now than when FPTP was introduced centuries ago.
It’s time to consign FPTP to the dustbin of history as a relic of the past.
[Please read Part 1 here]