First past the post isn’t working any more

In 2010 Britain had a referendum on its voting system, and rejected a switch to the Alternative Vote system. Until Brexit came along and blew it out of the water, it was the most depressing moment in British politics that I can remember. It was depressing because, like the EU referendum, campaigns were run on hysteria and lies rather than balanced arguments. But the chief argument deployed by the NO to AV campaign was this: “Our current tried and tested voting system gives everyone one vote and delivers clear outcomes.”

You can still read that statement on the archived NO to AV website, but it’s even less true today than it was then. First past the post – the ‘tried and true’ system they applaud, has now failed to deliver in three successive elections.

In 2010 FPTP gave us a coalition government. In 2015 we scored a farcically disproportionate parliament and a Conservative government with such a slim majority that Theresa May called a snap election this year to increase it. That backfired spectacularly, and we now have another coalition, this time between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists.

The last time our voting system delivered a proper working majority was for Tony Blair in 2005. And yet the number one argument for first past the post is that is ‘delivers clear outcomes’.

As the Electoral Reform Society say in their latest report, FPTP fails us as individuals as well as nationally. One in five of us voted tactically, rather than for the person they wanted to vote for. Since the winner takes all, 68% of total votes were wasted – that is, they were cast for candidates that didn’t win. In a simple majority system, these votes don’t count for anything.

Why do we put up with a voting system that keeps failing? Mainly because it serves the two main parties, and they are the only ones who are able to do anything about it. Since it isn’t in their interests to move towards a more proportional system, they have ignored the issue for decades. For all the excitement over Jeremy Corbyn in some circles, he is thoroughly partisan. The Labour manifesto promised to ‘extend democracy‘, but was conspicuously silent on the single biggest flaw in our democracy – the issue of electoral reform.

“The 2017 General Election was the ‘third strike’ for First Past the Post” says the ERS. “Far from being a system that guarantees stability, it is a system based on the false premise that stability means single-party majority government. Westminster’s voting system has failed to deliver even this flawed concept of stability.”

We can do better than this. Britain is the only democracy in Europe that uses the First past the post voting system. Other systems exist, from full proportional representation to systems that count second preferences and give more people a voice. If you’ve never investigated them, have a look at the Electoral Reform Society’s report on the 2017 election. Read the alternative results as they would have been under different voting systems, and see if they reflect the country better. Think about how you voted – did you vote with your heart, or vote tactically for someone you don’t support? Under a different system, that wouldn’t be necessary. You could express your beliefs authentically at the ballot box, and have a much better chance of shaping a government that reflects who we are.

Had a read and a think? Now look at what you can do to help bring about change on this unglamorous but important topic.


  1. This is a tricky subject. The Swedish system is as perfectly representative as an electoral system can be, but we end up with a lot of horse-trading and shifting alliances at times.

    Plato was against democracy – his objection was that it led to the selection of those demogogues who offered the most for the least, and in the end to tyranny. Looking around, one has to admit Plato had a point.

    1. The answer to Plato’s understandable objection is much better education in both politics and critical thinking. Unfortunately we seem to be moving away from both.

  2. I’ve been in favour of the single transferable vote method for many decades. It has been the official policy of the Liberals/Liberal Democrats for even longer. It has the advantage over all other even slightly proportional systems of weakening (a little) the power of parties over elected members, whereas all the others increase it by making people for for party lists instead of for individuals. STV also has the advantage over one member-one constituency systems that if an MP goes missing, for whatever reason, electors have an alternative to go to. You will remember that we (in Luton South) were effectively unrepresented for about a year not so long ago.

    The referendum on the alternative was seriously flawed in the way you say, but also in that it only offered a choice between the exiting dreadful system and one only a little better. Nothing remotely proportional was made available.

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