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In the News

First past the post not so stable

Mike McCartney

22nd March 2024

In comparison to PR based systems, says new report

A new academic study shatters the myth that our system for sending MPs to Westminster (first past the post, or single member simple plurality) somehow translates into a more stable form of government than in equivalent democracies employing proportionately based systems of elections.

According to the Guardian on the key findings from the study:

"Cabinet ministers in the UK’s post-2019 parliament have lasted in their jobs for an average of just eight months, a report comparing political stability across 17 countries has found, with Westminster also faring badly on a series of other metrics.

The study, Strong and Stable, which looked at 10 aspects of parliamentary and governmental stability in countries using various electoral systems over the past 50 years, concluded that proportional voting did not mean more volatility compared with UK-style systems, and often the contrary.

Perhaps the starkest measure for British politics was the length of tenure for cabinet ministers. Over the 1974-2023 period of the research, the UK average of 2.1 years was the fourth-worst of all the countries, ahead of just Australia (two years), France (1.8) and Italy (1.6).

At the top of the table, the average period in office for a Swiss minister was 6.4 years, and 5.7 years for those in Luxembourg, according to the report, produced for Make Votes Matter, which campaigns for proportional representation.

The longest average cabinet tenure in any UK parliament over the 50-year period, the 2.8 years seen from 1997-2001, was still less than the lowest such number for Germany, the 3.1 years seen in 1994-98."

The report from the group Make Votes Matter is here.

The arguments more generally for fptp are listed below.

The arguments for scrapping the simple plurality system for the House of Commons go something like this...

  • PR would produce fairer results since it could convert a share of the vote equally into a share of the seats. Currently fptp does not do this.
  • According to campaigners, the introduction of PR for Westminster would bring to an end the system of ‘disproportionate representation’ we have at present under fptp.
  • Opponents of the fptp system would argue that the inherent faults within the system depress turnout and because PR would mean all votes count then people would be more inclined to vote.
  • Supporters of proportional electoral systems argue that fewer votes are wasted than under the current system. Under fptp many of the votes cast do not matter since they go towards a candidate other than the winner, or they are surplus to the number needed to elect the winner.
  • On a related point, what pro-PR campaigners call ‘safe seat syndrome’ means that turnout is likely to be lowest in the safest seats, and highest where the votes is likely to be close.
  • Only a tiny percentage of the electorate have the power to influence the outcome of the General Election.
  • The current system for Westminster elections is said to lead to the under-representation of women.
  • In conclusion it is clear that, as the ERS argue, “in a modern democracy fairness, accountability and a real choice for voters should not be compromised.”

However, defenders of the system argue that

  • It is a tried and tested system with a certain amount of public acceptance. It is also simple and easy for people to understand.
  • The fptp system has historically been simple, familiar, quick to count, and most of the time produces a clear and decisive result.
  • The close relationship between MPs and constituencies is a vital feature of the current system.
  • First past the post has the effect of keeping out small, extremist parties by discriminating against them - the UK is alone among European democracies in never having elected a fascist to its national legislature, for example
  • 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.
  • There is usually no need for coalitions since the natural mechanics of the system produces single party governments with (in recent times often large) overall majorities. This avoids the need for wrangling amongst coalition partners over what policies are to be introduced – usually behind closed doors, and in smoke-filled rooms.
And then the argument we have just challenged fits in here...
  • Finally, first past the post, by contrast, tends to delivers strong, single party government with a clear electoral mandate.

Mike McCartney

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

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