The necessity for electoral reform


First-past-the-post (FPTP) is so obviously mad that I find it difficult to believe that anyone defending it is doing so in good faith.

The electoral system is broken

The election results show a Con/Lab/Lib split of 36/29/23 in the popular vote, but a split 306/258/57 in the number of seats (with one constituency poll delayed for some weeks). You don't have to want full-blown PR to see this as grossly unproportional, with half the country's votes wasted before they were even counted (of course, that 36/29/23 split isn't fully proportional either, because the FPTP system more-or-less obliges people to vote tactically, but if you were to ask the question ‘whom do you want to form a government?’, the vote split is surely a better predictor of that answer than the seat split).

Looking at a different defect, the per-constituency results show that only 33% (217/650) of the MPs in the new parliament managed to get 50% or more of their constituents to vote for them. Put another way, two-thirds of the MPs were rejected by a majority of their constituents. This is a parliament of rejects.

The arguments in favour of FPTP are:

The first is a respectable argument, but not a good one. ‘Strong government’ is possibly a good thing when it's your side in power, but not when it's the Bad Guys. It's probably not even a good thing when it's the Good Guys in power: quite a lot of the 1997–2010 Labour administration's vices and more stupid innovations were due to there being no friction in the system. Tony decides to tinker with the constitution one rainy Sunday and bingo! we get a Supreme Court.

The second point is an important one, and systems like AMS or AV+ fail it. It's not only that the AMS instructions are confusing (I can't explain them in one sentence), but that you have to understand the counting method before you understand what your vote means.

The third point is not important. As long as I as a voter know how to express my preference, and roughly what that preference means, it doesn't matter to me how complicated the count is as long as it's done correctly. It's also not important because counts no longer have to be done by hand. Electronic voting is still a very bad idea, but that's not the same thing as electronic counting, which (I maintain) worked happily enough for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007.

The fourth point isn't often advanced, as far as I can see. I think it's crucial to the continuing support of FPTP by the Tory party and the old-skool thugs of the Labour party. This advantage is a disadvantage for everyone outside the Westminster village.

Tom Harris, who's the MP for Glasgow South, has defended FPTP. I don't think that defence is remotely convincing – it's mostly a collection of more-or-less apropos remarks, without any particular argument – but it does at least exist. It seems hard to find anyone trying to make any very principled defences of FPTP. That defence interestingly suggests that the Labour Party is itself a coalition, and that it would ‘fracture’ under STV. But that immediately concedes that coalitions can create stable governments, with the only proviso being that this coalition was brokered in secret, without anyone outside knowing what the various factions’ positions were, or being able to vote them up in an election. You don't have to go very far in this direction to start seeing safe seats as broadly akin to pre-1832 rotten boroughs.

So proportional representation?

PR satisfies the two simplicity advantages (including the one that doesn't matter), plus two new ones:

But is the first one that big a deal?

Myself, I don't think that proportionality is a massive good in itself. Certainly, the gross non-proportionality of FPTP is a vice, but that's mostly because it goes against the core principle that the people who govern a community should have at least some reasonably close correlation with who that community wants.

The problem with PR is that it's a bit... passive. I decide that party X is my favourite, toss my vote into the vast ocean of decisions, and then push off for five years, leaving whoever comes top to start the coalition haggling. I can't say ‘I want this mob or that crowd to run the place, but definitely not these goons’, and if things start going wrong, there's no-one I can buttonhole in any meaningful way.

If proportional representation is weak, too, then there's a case for retaining some constituency link, which STV and AV do preserve.

Voting for constituency MPs

AV would result in

What, honestly, is not to like?


There are details of the various systems at

You can also admire a suspiciously late conversion: Gordon Brown promoted the idea of a referendum on voting reform, which was unsurprisingly still-born.

Norman, 2010 May 8