FPTP works — why change it?
Electoral reform is something that has fascinated me for a while. After all, by consistently observing foreign countries, with their weird and wonderful way of translating votes into seats, how could I not develop an interest in exactly how their systems work? However, it’s always fascinated me further to think of how different politics would be in those places if the system that they used was supplanted by First-Past-The-Post (FPTP).
In some countries where two-party politics is prevalent, in spite of proportionality, then the national political stage would have little difference overall; take Germany and Spain as examples of places where the two major parties would win the vast majority of seats, and already do in the systems in place at the moment. In others, the factions present in Parliament would be an utterly bizarre mess; in countries like the Netherlands, you’d frequently have people taking their seats on under 25% of the vote, leading to pretty much the same overall composition that they have now, albeit with nobody being happy.
It’s fair to say that FPTP doesn’t suit every country. However, on the other hand, Proportional Representation (PR) has a similar degree of unsuitability in many places. For example, could you imagine what PR would be like in the United States? Constituencies would almost certainly have to cross state boundaries, leading to some huge “Midwest” region returning only a handful of representatives to Congress. Simply put: the United States would not accept this.
However, to state the obvious, the United States is not the United Kingdom. A Scotland-wide constituency, for example, would be just about reasonable; smaller areas, like Greater Manchester, could also return a slate of representatives without anybody being disenfranchised from their electoral area. People would probably know at least one or two of their local representatives from national TV or just through seeing them out and about in the constituency. If this could be set up so well, what’s stopping us?
The answer is, well, quite a lot, really. The United Kingdom isn’t like a great many other European countries in terms of how it organises its political power. While it could be debated that we should switch to another political model altogether, switching to PR without making the other necessary adaptions simply wouldn’t work. As an example, in Germany, MPs tend not to deal with their constituents a huge amount, despite single-member constituencies existing within the proportional framework. Germany operates a federal structure, unlike the UK; a lot of issues that one would normally discuss with an MP would be handled at a state level. Of course, there is a case for federalism to be made too, but some additional system would be needed under PR to deal with the severing of the constituency link.
Even with the Additional Member System (AMS) or anything similar, MPs simply wouldn’t have time to deal with the huge amount of casework in their constituencies, which would potentially double in size. If all MPs were elected under a purely proportional system, then individual citizens would have no idea about which MP to contact about an issue; some MPs could end up with a lot more casework than others as people find them better than the others, again leading to a lot of work for just one person.
Furthermore, introducing PR would potentially do away with hustings entirely, if the system was entirely proportional; while they aren’t as popular as they should be, they are still a hugely beneficial part of a campaign. Even door-knocking and canvassing would be somewhat different under PR; while it would remain broadly similar with AMS, purely proportional systems would reduce campaigns to being entirely about a party as opposed to any individual candidates (other than maybe the top candidate on the list; even with an open-list system, advertising other candidates could detract from the party’s ‘preferred’ choice, possibly reducing their chances of election).
Of course, a lot of this is somewhat cosmetic, and if we did adopt PR, we’d surely get used to it. However, there would have to be a larger cultural change than that. A major issue with PR is that parties in the UK tend to be fairly tribal, and voters tend not to like parties which break with this tradition to work with other parties (ask your grandparents who the Lib Dems were). If no party achieves an overall majority in a legislature, then obviously, parties are going to have to work with other parties. The problem is that this isn’t compatible with tribalism. Now, I’d far prefer UK politics if it wasn’t as tribal, but the reality is that it is. Labour want to send you to the gulags for thought crime, the Tories want to sell the NHS to Martin Shkreli, the Lib Dems want to make wearing socks with sandals mandatory, the SNP want to force your children to learn Pictish, etc.
It’s only a miracle of the numbers stacking up that the Scottish Parliament has never been governed by an utterly unstable coalition, though the 2007 election does provide an exception, when the SNP were able to govern with the Conservatives helping them on some issues. However, while that may have worked then, just imagine what viable government there would be if the same figures happened today; some parties may well have just decided to work with it, but the political atmosphere in Scotland would have rendered forming any sort of majority government near impossible.
At Westminster, imagine what would have happened if the only possible government would have been a coalition between May’s Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour, as so often happens in Germany — you’d be hard-pressed to find any politically engaged person who’d say this would work fine. (Perhaps the centrist wings of both parties would come together and provide a reasonable parliamentary majority, but just imagine the cabinet!) This isn’t an argument against PR in itself, but if the UK is to adopt it, then we need to change the political culture first, otherwise we’ll end up in the situation Spain finds itself in; seemingly precarious, always on the edge of going back to the polls at any moment due to the vitriolic mood in the Congress, the warring factions temporarily putting themselves at rest.
It’s an assertion by many PR supporters that people tend not to know their local MP. However, if somebody is writing a letter to their MP about an issue, then with FPTP, it’s a simple matter of looking up who it is; you may even know them already, as there is only one person that you’d ever have to remember is your MP. However, if you have several, then which one do you write to? The one closest to your political views? For a start, this would only seem to be perpetuating an echo chamber around them. The one you know from TV? If they’re doing a lot of media, then chances are, they might be pressed for time (especially if it’s a message that needs to go past their office staff). The one you know is good at casework? If they’re known for something, then that would prove voters know their MP; furthermore, if people are sending that MP letters for that reason, then again, they’ll have a lot of it and may be overwhelmed. Casework is not necessarily a huge feature of politics in other PR systems, so the UK would have to adapt how it works in order to use it.
The other major issue I find with PR is the selection of candidates. Sure, pretending that FPTP always produces the best candidate for the job is laughable at best, but then again, at least you know who the candidates are. If voters don’t know who their MP is, then they haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of being able to vote using an open list system; perhaps recognition of individual MPs would increase with PR, but I can’t see why. If voters truly have no idea who their MP is, then any sort of system that asks them to choose between several candidates is out of the question. If a closed list sounds like a better option, then reasonable enough; though at least FPTP allows for voters to pick a single candidate of choice, with the options being limited to the degree that there won’t be a huge amount of voter confusion, while still providing reasonable choice.
Even on top of that, I’m opposed to even the idea of somebody being landed in Parliament because they happen to be on a list that gets enough votes, just as a point of principle. Now, sure, people can get into Parliament just as easily if they get a safe seat, but to do so tends to require a lot of effort, and not to mention that a “safe seat” can very quickly turn into “not a safe seat” (remember Enfield Southgate, Kensington, Finchley, Mansfield, Glasgow North East, etc?). Under FPTP — at the very least — each candidate has had to win their own electoral contest, and can be booted out if voters don’t like them. A candidate can be elected under PR if their number on the list is low enough — that being just about the only requirement. Retaining a high place on the list takes effort too, of course, but this puts far more power in the hands of the party elites to decide the candidates; at least constituency associations can have a degree of control over who they adopt in FPTP.
Besides, with FPTP, you’re only voting for one person; under PR, you’re backing several, even with an open list, as votes are always for a party*. To show how much of a disadvantage this is, imagine having a list where you like the second candidate, but detest the first one; even if the second-place candidate takes loads of votes and wins their seat, the first one will inevitably win too if there are enough votes given to the second-place candidate. This is a huge disadvantage of PR; while the voter does still have a lot of control over the exact representatives in Parliament, they can unintentionally vote for candidates they vehemently oppose. (Under FPTP, this can’t happen to the same degree — voters can simply back the ‘least worst’ candidate.)
As a final point, the assertion is often made that — as PR empowers the voter — it increases turnout. It’s indeed true that PR countries often have high turnout and generally have a better political climate, but this isn’t necessarily due to PR. The one example I can find of a country switching from FPTP to PR is New Zealand, in 1996 — and as we see here, turnout has gone down since then. Of course, this does not mean that PR has caused that downturn, but it at least makes it somewhat dubious that PR does — in fact — give voters a feeling of power. In my view, it just makes them more detached from the process, with list members that they don’t know and can’t get rid of. People may well tend to look at party leaders and make their decision based on them, but honestly, shouldn’t we start treating our legislature, not just our government, with the respect it deserves?
I’m not saying here that PR is inherently a bad system; I’d prefer FPTP for sure, but I’d live with a proportional system regardless. My main point here is that the UK would have to adapt quite significantly in order to adopt it first, and these are adaptations that I think — on balance — we’re not willing to make. In short, most people can understand FPTP and aren’t overly outraged by the results it churns out; in essence, what good reason is there to change with all of these problems in the way?
*This doesn’t apply for Single Transferable Vote (STV), which may be treated as a form of PR; however, I’m not entirely against using STV as it does ensure that each candidate is elected on its own mandate, but I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for it as a lot of other problems I have here still remain, and it’s immensely complicated to explain the system to most people, which can be as much of a disadvantage as anything else in itself.