#FPTP has no place in a representative democracy

19 01 2011

Assuming that the wrangling in the House of Lords doesn’t derail the legislation, this year may see one of the most significant reforms to our electoral system since universal suffrage was granted (fully) in 1928.  Ultimately the long history of political reform in this country (and elsewhere) has been driven by two fundamental urges- towards greater accountability of the executive (and thus a balance of power in government) and towards greater representation.

In 1928 the franchise was finally extended to all adults over 21 regardless of property ownership, qualification, gender, religion etc.  In 1969 the voting age was changed to 18, further extending the franchise.  I make the case that the drive for this was the urge for more representative government.  If more people are entitled to vote, parties seeking election must appeal to a wider audience to get their vote, the resulting government is then more representative.

One cannot fault governments of the past for not predicting the flaws of first past the post (FPTP).  Whilst it’s true that other voting systems were proposed throughout the 19th Century (if not earlier), the weaknesses of FPTP were not then apparent.  Equally, other voting methods were “untested” and thus unreliable.

Maurice Duverger (a French poltician & sociologist) observed in several papers in the 1950s and 60s that a system such as FPTP (known as a “plurality voting system”) tends to favour a two-party system.  That is to say, FPTP encourages a polarisation of the body politic, both in the minds of the people and the institutions of government.  This principle is referred to as “Duverger’s Law.”  In short:

i) smaller parties are unlikely to win, so voters desert them for larger parties
ii) parties with similar agendas split the vote, meaning neither get elected, this encourages parties to merge into larger parties

These two elements tend, over time, to a firmly entrenched two party system.  I contend that two party systems are, by nature, neither representative nor beneficial for their country.  The reason for this is simple- if there are only two options, neither has to be truly good to be chosen, only better than the alternative.  In effect, a two party system is a duopoly of government, and just as bad as any duopoly would be for consumers in the open market.  As for being representative, on the contrary a two party system means that you’re either “in” or you’re “out.”  As such:

i) supporters of the losing party are highly unlikely to have their views represented in government
ii) people whose views are not represented by either party are not represented in government (discouraging voter turnout)

Duverger himself argued that this was not a certainty (we here in the UK have bucked the trend), but merely that FPTP would both “act to delay the emergence of a new political force, and … accelerate the elimination of a weakening force.”  It has certainly done so, with coalitions, inherently representing a greater diversity of views, coming in to existence less than a handful of times in our history.

What’s worse is that this tendency towards polarisation is not the only downside to FPTP: the methodology of FPTP means that any votes for losing parties are discounted, resulting in millions of votes making no difference to the results of elections in “safe seats.”  As it is, the elections are decided by the minority of voters living in marginal constituencies.  This means that the potential governments are fighting to represent the views of these “marginal” voters and not of the electorate as a whole.  This map, based on 2005 electoral data, shows seats that haven’t changed hands for 40 years.

What’s more, the “winner takes all” methodology of FPTP, combined with ever-decreasing turnout means that MPs can be elected with only a fraction of the electorate supporting them.  Only three MPs elected in 2005 secured the votes of more than 40% of their constituents.  George Galloway polled the votes of only 18.4% of his constituents, yet ended up in the House of Commons!

Safe seats such as this reduce accountability of MPs to their constituents- as with monopolistic businesses, these MPs do not have to offer anything resembling a high quality service to continue in post- they are the only option.

So, in summary, first past the post is not fit for purpose as the electoral system of a representative democracy.  It discourages pluralism, restricting voter choice, it discounts the votes of millions of eligible citizens because they live in safe seats and weights unfairly votes from marginal constituencies.

As I said in my introduction, I strongly believe that electoral reform has always been driven towards greater representation of the people by their government.  It’s clear that first past the post only discourages representation.  For the same reasons we needed universal suffrage, we can’t have FPTP.  Democracy means power comes from the people- their views have to be taken into account.  Ours is a representative democracy, so let’s make it representative.

Why people should vote Liberal Democrat

10 12 2010

I’m sure that many seeing this headline will be enraged- the timing, coming so soon on the back of so much (well-earned) resentment towards the party, will surely make people irate.  Now partly that’s good for me- hopefully it means you’ve read this far- but truly, that’s not the motivation.

I’m writing this now because it’s as true now as it was when I joined, and perhaps now is the time when people will be most open to believing it- because they want change.  (If you don’t want to read further, just scroll to the bottom for the summary).

I used to be apathetic when it comes to politics.  I didn’t vote, and I didn’t care to, because I felt that to vote for someone was to give them my support- to say “Yes, I want you,” to represent me, to govern on my behalf.  And I felt that there was no party out there, no option on the ballot that would have given me a candidate that would represent me.  So I didn’t vote.

A good friend of mine said, “we should all vote Liberal Democrat” and I listened warily, expecting some extollment of the party’s virtues; why it was worth supporting.  He said, “if the Liberal Democrats get in, people will be willing to believe things can be different.”  I like to say, “I’m voting for more than just red & blue politics.”

If you are angry, if you think the system isn’t working, if you think that it’s isn’t fair, isn’t just, isn’t democracy as you’ve always imagined it, then that’s why you should vote Liberal Democrat.  Most people understand that monopolies are bad.  What our politics has been since its inception is a duopoly- only two players in the market.  The lack of competition meant that neither truly had to be “good” to win, only “not as bad”: not an ideal I can believe in.  If another party were to win, each of the then three would have to work all the harder to deliver to the populace government that was worth voting for, or they wouldn’t get in.  The Lib Dems had the best chance at this- the current coalition is proof of it.

So I joined, and I’m glad that I did- you might think having read this that I’m a tactical member, but no longer- that was why I joined, but truly, I’m a member now for three main reasons:

1) The Liberal Democrats are the party whose values most closely co-incide with my own

2) Their support of proportional representation means that a Lib Dem majority would allow a change in politics from the current “superparties” to smaller, more representative parties who then form loose coalitions.  This would then mean there could be a party whose manifesto I 100% agreed with- I could finally have my wish to be voting for a an option I felt represented me.

3) In my local party, I feel that what we are trying to achieve are good things and worth working towards.

I hope you’ve read this far, because this is an entreaty, not an article.  Here’s what I want you to remember:


VOTE– if you’re angry, if you don’t like the way things are being done, please VOTE.  I don’t care who for, just VOTE.
VOTE for the party whose values are closest to yours
If you don’t like monopolies, VOTE for a party who support PLURALITY in politics.

I’m not saying I agree with everything the party does, or everything it wants to do; I’m not saying people should vote Liberal Democrat indefinitely & regardless.

People should vote Liberal Democrat because they represent the best option to achieve a system of government that is worth voting for.

Wrongs & Rights

3 11 2010

I’m going to preface this article by explaining my thoughts on “rights” (as in ECHR).  I think it is unfortunate (but perhaps necessary in practice), that people refer to what are, in my mind, privileges that citizens of an ethical society grant to one another as “rights.”  Not because they aren’t right (as in right and wrong) to have, but rather because the language of “rights” is one of intrinsic, natural, “god-given” privilege.  Something that it would be wrong to deny a human being.

When I say they might need to be necessary in practice is because the defence of civil liberties is an ongoing and fundamental struggle.  To treat privileges as rights is to make them more resistant to encroachment, our “rights” are bastions of liberty, designed to keep people free.   When I say it’s unfortunate, it’s because it’s not true.  What we call “rights” are privileges we grant one another, by choice, as part of our social contract.  We have agreed (however implicitly) as a society, that members of that society deserve certain privileges; that to deny members of society these privileges  is to threaten society.  Without free speech, our society would not be safe.  Without the privilege of a fair trial, our society would not be safe.  Our society rests on the freedom of its citizens- from the power of government, and from one another.

We live in a representative democracy- people have a vote by which they influence the choice of their leaders, who act as representatives of the people when making laws for society (taking cynicism aside for the moment).  As such, people consent implicitly to be held accountable to the body of laws of that society.  We get our vote, we get our privileges and in return we follow the laws enacted by this mutually “agreed” body.

Part of the laws we have mutually agreed to be bound by include penalties for members of society who transgress those laws.  Some of those penalties include restrictions of privilege- such as freedom of movement.  We have agreed that some actions, if convicted by due process, deserve the sentence of temporary removal from society- prison.

Prisoners have had their rights (mistakes in the system aside for the moment)- they have had habeas corpus, the right to a fair trial, trial by jury, to not be tortured and so on.  They have the right of appeal, the right to privacy and security of person.  Nonetheless, the rule of law has, by due process, confined them to segregation, the intent of which is to prevent them from negatively interfering with law-abiding member of society, whose privileges they have infringed on.

Prisoners do not deserve the vote for two reasons-

1. They are separated from us to keep us safe from them- the vote gives them influence over our society, which they have been removed from by warrant of their actions.  They do not deserve influence over a society they are not currently part of- similar to how citizens of one country cannot vote in another.

2. Voting, like freedom of movement, is a privilege we grant one another as part of our social contact.  If you break that contract, why should you retain all of your privileges?  Punishment is a necessary disincentive to law breaking.


Taking the argument of prisoners to one side for the moment, and in light of the actual ruling of the Court (surprisingly not linked to in any of the news sites I’ve seen this discussed on </s>), it is pretty clear that argument (2) applies to all felons, regardless of imprisonment.  The Court took issue with the lack of proportionality of punishment (disenfranchisement), with the severity of the crime causing imprisonment (or in the original case, the reason for continuing detainment).  The amusing implication (for me), is that people are up in arms about prisoners voting, whilst I would argue that criminals should be denied the right to vote- in prison or not.