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Study Notes

FPTP - Advantages

Level:
AS, A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 31 Aug 2017

In this study note we explore the key strengths of the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system.

One key advantage of FPTP is that it is simple and easy to operate. All that is required is that an ‘X’ is placed in the box corresponding to the desired candidate; a clear and unambiguous choice is offered, causing little voter confusion. Each party puts forward one candidate and there is only one winner. Unlike AMS, the ‘hybrid’ system used in elections to the Scottish Parliament where 3.5 per cent of votes cast for MSPs using AMS were spoilt in 2007 (that is, there were 140,000 spoilt ballot papers), FPTP is uncomplicated and enables all citizens to approach the process with confidence.

A related strength is that FPTP is efficient and therefore quick to produce a constituency result. There is no delay and elected members and governments are soon in place. This efficiency is so engrained that even a Hung Parliament in 2010 required only a five-day process before a Coalition Agreement had been drawn up and signed following cross-party talks (although admittedly the confidence and supply arrangement between the DUP and the Conservative government following the Hung Parliament in the 2017 general election took 2 weeks to negotiate).   The north-eastern constituency of Houghton and Sunderland South has for the past six elections been first to declare its results, and usually does so in under an hour. This is not a trivial advantage; although extreme examples, supporters of FPTP point out that Belgium took 541 days to form a government following an election in June 2010 and it is not unusual for coalition negotiations to continue for several weeks and even months. In a July 2012 report on the timing of election counts, the Electoral Commission stated:

“Voters should be able to rely on election results being both accurate and timely. Elections can result in swift changes in government, traditionally overnight. When a formal election campaign begins, debate in the public domain about when votes are going to be counted should be unnecessary. Voters should be able to focus on what the election is about. Broadcasters should be able to plan well in advance how they will communicate the election results.”[1] 

Perhaps the most commonly cited advantage of FPTP is that governments elected under this system are normally stable and cohesive and able to serve a full term. There have been short-lived minority governments in the past (in particular Harold Wilson’s 7 month minority government in 1974) and of course the recent Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition can be cited as a further exception, although this two-party alliance did result in a government serving a full five-year term, longer than any of the previous three Labour terms of office; neither was 2010 an especially ‘stable’ time, given the recent recession, ongoing security concerns and the low status of politicians following the previous year’s expenses scandal. Still, with a clear working majority to pass their legislation, the system often produces strong governments at Westminster with a firm mandate and a good prospect of serving a substantial term (now five years, although this will be reviewed in 2020), allowing for proper planning and policy implementation. Governments have the strength and conviction to carry out major decisions and the radical reforming agenda of Thatcher (economic reform) and Blair (constitutional reform) point to the decisive outcomes that result: things get done.

By contrast, PR systems typically produce coalitions and, the UK example notwithstanding, these are viewed by many as weak and unstable, and unsuited to the British political context of government and opposition. Critics argue coalitions lack transparency and accountability. The AV referendum was unpopular and resulted in a crushing defeat for reformers; that it happened at all, in relation to an issues which had never generated much public interest, was due to the deal-making process forming a coalition inevitably involves. Britain has had some experience of coalition government; both world wars saw an all-party coalition in place and a National Government held power between 1931-40, although this is better understood as a ‘government of all the talents’ rather than a strict alliance between parties. Aside from this and prior to 2010, a brief attempt by Edward Heath’s Conservatives and Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals to work together in 1974 and the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-78 are the only examples of coalition government in the UK since 1900. This style of government is not a natural ‘fit’ for Britain, as perhaps was also apparent in the ferocity with which the electorate punished the Liberal Democrats for their compromise on tuition fees.

FPTP helps underpin representative, parliamentary and pluralistic democracy in the UK in a number of other ways. The system maintains the MP/Constituency relationship and preserves and nurtures an important geographical link in doing so, connecting communities to central politics, something likely to be lost under PR. This allows for a close and productive constituency representation, providing a visible channel of communication between an individual and a region. MPs are there to represent their constituents’ interests to government; this might happen in a parliamentary debate but there are numerous other access points to decision makers which MPs make available to citizens. MPs hold weekly surgeries and many feel so strongly about their constituents’ views that they are willing to oppose the party line, even to the detriment of their own careers. Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith made good on an election promise to trigger a by-election and re-stand as an Independent if his party allowed the building of a third runway at Heathrow; by the time of the vote in December 2016, the landscape had shifted and a concerted Liberal Democrat effort in a strongly pro-remain constituency assured his defeat, and withdrawal from political life, at least until the unexpected 2017 general election. This is itself an example of the clear lines of accountability MPs must live within; transparency and accountability are more difficult to achieve in large, mixed-member constituencies of the kind created under PR. Mandate democracy also means, of course, that MPs have their post confirmed if they perform well. Similarly, governments have their terms renewed if the public are content, whereas if the public are unhappy the government can be ‘thrown out’, as were the Conservatives in 1997 and Labour in 2010.

Some criticise FPTP for reducing the role of smaller parties but too broad a set of representative outcomes will only lead to fragmentation and, ultimately, to less stable and secure government. The system produces a clear choice for the electorate and for many the two-party format mirrors the natural divide in society, although the current travails of the Labour Party amid talk of ‘realignment’ and UKIP pivoting as the party of the working class does rather challenge this point. It is however apparent that general elections provide the cohesion and impetus for party politics to take place and this contributes to the strength, unity and stability which results. In promoting two traditional parties with broad support bases (for all the current uncertainty, it was in the recent past that Tony Blair courted Middle England and Cameron softened his party’s image with talk of ‘compassionate conservatism’ and the ‘Big Society’) the system also performs the vital function of keeping extremism at bay. Minority parties with extreme views, that is, parties likely to damage the democratic system and create further division, are denied representation by their inability to concentrate support in fixed geographical areas. More radical parties only need a foothold and they begin to gain credibility, their views ‘normalised’; we have seen this in the Netherlands, with Geert Wilders’ Freedom party, and in France with Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Less extreme but still rather peripheral parties like UKIP can still win seats in the UK but broad national representation is not available to them, and groups like the BNP are entirely without a stake in the system and are easily isolated.

Finally, the recent result of the national referendum, where FPTP was endorsed with 67% of the vote, proves that there is little public support for the current system to be changed. The public are in the main content with the electoral system and a low turnout of just over 40 per cent also implies there are many issues currently of a more pressing nature to citizens than voting reform. Moreover, although turnout is relatively weak, this has also been the case where other voting systems are used in the UK and clearly the public belief in the effectiveness and efficiency of FPTP has been key to their recent support of it at the ballot box. This corresponds to the traditional conservative understanding of FPTP as a ‘tried and tested’ system which has served UK democracy well; as the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

[1] http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/149511/Timing-of-election-counts.pdf

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