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Academic research puts new spin on First Past The Post debate

Mike McCartney

6th January 2022

And it means I have been teaching it wrong

The arguments for and against first past the post all well worn.

I have been studying the topic for over thirty years and teaching it for nearly as long.

And the arguments for and against go something like this...

  • It is a tried and tested system with a certain amount of public acceptance. It is also simple and easy for people to understand. This can be countered by the argument that tradition should not play a part when politics is constantly evolving. Arguably, too, the system no longer works as turnouts are falling and there is disillusionment with party and parliamentary politics. Other than the USA, most developed modern democracies do not use first past the post which suggests it is not considered democratic.
  • The close relationship between MPs and constituencies is a vital feature of the current system. MPs have a close relationship with constituents, meet them regularly at ‘surgeries’, represent their concerns in Parliament and deal with their grievances against government and other public bodies. This, it is argued, is worth preserving. There is little to counter this argument except to say that one alternative – STV – does give constituents a choice of several members to represent them as the system uses multi-member constituencies. It could also be argued that, because most MPs do not achieve an overall majority in their elections, they are not truly representatives of opinion in their constituency.
  • First past the post delivers strong, single party government with a clear electoral mandate. This has been almost always the case since 1945. Supporters say this is democratic because of the clear mandate and the accountability it brings. The two party, adversarial system that it promotes is also supportable on the grounds that the electorate are presented with clear alternatives. Furthermore it creates stability and supporters of the current system point to other systems which use PR and which have been highly unstable, notably Ireland, Holland and Belgium. This view can be criticised on the grounds that two party politics is not healthy, that it restricts choice, creates an unrepresentative duopoly and, above all, that the delivery of large majorities in the House of Commons places too much power in the hands of the executive which is insufficiently balanced by parliamentary weakness.
  • First past the post presents a clear choice for voters but this can be seen as a device for maintaining control over who is elected. The selection of candidates is in the hands of small, unaccountable party committees. Alternatives such as STV and open list systems do give greater choice for constituents, allowing them to discriminate between candidates of the same party.
  • First past the post has the effect of keeping out small, extremist parties by discriminating against them. Thus, parties of the far left (various communist groups) or the far right (BNP) have been denied the oxygen of parliamentary representation. To counter this opponents say that it also discriminates against moderate small parties who do represent legitimate causes and philosophies. The Green Party is a clear example of this (notwithstanding their breakthrough in Brighton in May 2010), as have been parties opposing British membership of the EU, such as UKIP and the Brexit Party.

So, with regards to the final argument, I always say that Britain is alone among European democracies in never having elected a fascist to its national parliament.

But the idea that first past the post keeps out extremists has been challenged in a post recently on the electoral reform society's website.

The blog by Dylan Difford argues that there are politicians who have been elected who hold extreme views, but they have been elected under the banner of "mainstream" parties.

The author concludes by saying:

"It is simply untrue to suggest that proportional representation inherently leads to ‘more extreme’ parliaments or governments. While it may lead to greater representation of non-‘mainstream’ parties, those that are viewed as unsavoury or extreme are largely excluded from power. Something that cannot be said of First Past the Post when major parties, such as the US Republicans, are taken over by political extremists."

So perhaps my class notes need some revising? Is it fairer to say that fptp mitigates against candidates representing parties that hold extreme views?

See the full blog post here: Does First Past the Post stop extremists getting into parliaments? – Electoral Reform Society – ERS (electoral-reform.org.uk)

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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