First past the post is not democracy


by Steve Gabell

We’ve just had another election under first past the post (FPTP), and, once again, the distribution of seats is wildly different to the parties’ share of the vote. We are told that we live in a democracy, and that every vote counts, yet the dirty secret of the archaic FPTP system is that some votes are worth much more than others, and the geographical distribution of votes won is much more important than the total number of votes won. FPTP may have been a suitable electoral system when England started electing the House of Commons back in the 13th Century with highly limited suffrage, a small electorate, and candidates who would have been known to the electorate. It is not a suitable system for a modern country with a multiparty system. Which other facets of 13th century life are still used today?

At the time of writing (September 22), the Liberals are the biggest party in the House of Commons, with 158 seats (47%), but they won only 32.3% of the popular vote. The Conservatives scored highest in the popular vote, winning 33.9%, but only won 119 seats (35%). Meanwhile the Peoples’ Party of Canada won over 800,000 votes (5.1%), yet did not win a single seat, but the Bloc Quebecois won 34 seats (10%) on 1.26 million votes (7.8%). To put the figures another way, it took around 33,000 votes per seat for the Liberals, 46,000 votes per seat for the Conservatives, and 187,000 votes per seat for the Greens.

Between them the NDP, Greens, and PPC won over 25% of the vote, yet have just 8% of the seats in Parliament. All this on a turnout estimated to be around 60%. And this is not even a particularly egregious example: in the 2005 UK general election, the Labour party won 36.1% of the vote, yet gained 56.5% of the seats and 100% of power. One may disagree vehemently with the PPC’s political views, yet still see it as outrageous that they can gain 800,000 votes without winning any representation in Parliament.

FPTP is a highly divisive and adversarial system. Thanks to many seats being safe seats, a large number of voters are effectively disenfranchised – just look at our local riding. Looking at a map of election results gives the impression that the Prairies are uniformly Conservative, yet it is uncommon for candidates to win over 50% of the votes cast, let alone win more than 50% of the electorate. If we look at our local results, Michael Barrett won 50.8% of votes cast, but only 33.8% of the entire electorate voted for him – so almost two-thirds of the local electorate are not represented by our local MP.

Arguments often made in favour of FPTP are that it is a simple system that delivers governments with majorities; proportional systems are often argued against based on complexity and the frequency of coalition governments. Yet the supposed simplicity of FPTP hides much complexity. Many voters are reduced to voting against a party rather than for a party, and have to vote tactically based on their assumption of how others will vote – so an NDP or Green supporter may decide to vote Liberal in a Lib/Con marginal out of fear of letting the Conservatives in. In a proportional system, voters can simply vote for the party that best represents them. FPTP also leads to coalitions within parties, and in a number of recent elections, both in Canada and the UK, has not even been able to deliver a majority government. The UK Labour party was able to accommodate both the neoliberal, centrist Tony Blair, and the more traditionally socialist Jeremy Corbyn. The UK Conservative party was able to accommodate both the pro-European, One-Nation Tories such as Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, as well as the rabidly Eurosceptic John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg. How is a vote for a party supposed to be interpreted when there is such a range of views within that party? Under a proportional system there would likely be a wider range of parties available to vote for and there would be a need for a more cooperative style of politics than we enjoy today.

Given the distorting effects of FPTP and the gathering of the large parties in the centre of the political and economic spectrum, it should be no surprise that turnout is disappointingly low. We need to make three key changes to reinvigorate our democracy. Firstly, the archaic FPTP system must be consigned to history and replaced with a modern system in which every vote truly counts. This would lead to more coalitions or minority governments, but FPTP isn’t delivering governments with majorities anyway, which is supposedly one of its strengths. Secondly, we should follow the example of Australia and make voting compulsory, with election day being a national holiday. If voters are not enamored of any of the choices presented to them, there is still the option of spoiling the ballot. Thirdly, we cannot simply see democracy as something we do once every few years by casting a vote. Democracy needs to be an ongoing process we are all involved in on a frequent basis. We have communications capabilities which would have been constrained to the pages of science fiction novels just a few decades ago – we should be making use of this. We can also follow examples from other countries when dealing with particularly contentious issues; for example, the way Ireland used a Citizens’ Assembly to navigate legalising abortion.

Fair Vote Canada are an organisation campaigning for electoral reform, and I would also encourage readers to raise the need for electoral reform with their elected representatives.


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