AV is FPTP – so what’s all the fuss about?


I have never understood how on earth our current electoral system became known as “first past the post” (FPTP)? The metaphor implied is clearly that of some sort of race to a winning post, and the first one past it wins. The problem is, there is no winning post in our system. Or at least, not one that makes any sense.Here’s a simple question that illuminates the problem nicely – what is the minimum number of votes you need to get elected in a British parliamentary constituency assuming there is more than one candidate?

The theoretical answer is simple: two. If two or more candidates stand and only the candidates bother to turn out to vote, and they all vote for themselves except for one who votes for another candidate – let’s them Gerry – then Gerry wins.

Clearly this is an absurd example, but not quite as absurd as you might think. Mr Russell Johnston (Lib Dem) was elected MP for the Scottish seat of Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber in 1992 with just 26% of the votes cast. Just a tad over one quarter of the good folk who turned out voted for Mr Russell and almost three quarters voted for his opponents. Since 1945, around 30 MPs have been elected to the House of Commons on less than one third of the votes cast. The number of MPs that get more than 50% of the vote – which most people would think of as the winning “post” – falls to around a third at every election.

So calling our system “first past the post” is bizarre – the “one out in front takes all” (OOFTA) would be a better name, or as the Financial Times suggested, “winner takes all” (WTA). But FPTP is clearly isn’t.

The Alternative Vote (AV) on the other hand is a FPTP system. The system of transferable votes means that someone does end up passing a very specific winning post – 50% of those voting have to support them, one way or another, or they don’t get in.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, I will be voting “yes” to AV on May 5th, but perhaps for different reasons than that it is obviously a slightly fairer system than our current one.

One of the disappointments about all the changes that have been made to our democratic system in Britain since New Labour opened the flood-gates, just a little, back in 1997 is that each bit has been considered in isolation. Lords reform, voting reform, Parliamentary procedure and structures – all have been dealt with in a piece-meal way.

One of the strongest arguments for retaining the present system of voting for the House of Commons is that it mostly – but not always – produces a reasonably strong government that can get things done. One of the reason I support AV is that, unlike strict proportional representation, AV retains the likelihood of strong governments (see Australia).

What is mainly wrong with our system is not having a strong executive, but having a weak parliament – and by parliament I mean both our legislative houses, not just the Commons.

As a revising chamber – the famous “check and balance” – the House of Lords should mainly be elected by strict proportional representation that would almost guarantee no one party would have an overall majority. Moreover, if elected at the same time as the Commons it would give people a chance to vote both for a strong government (Commons) and a strong check (Lords), something which might appeal to many British electors.

Such a system would also allow strong scrutiny of the executive by having the current Select Committees expanded to include members of both Houses – truly Parliamentary Select Committee’s.

The interest next week will focus on the short-term political consequences of the AV vote – whichever way it goes. The real question is surely how do we want to rebalance our political system in the long term to ensure we can have both strong government and checks and balances to avoid excesses in the more pluralist and less tribal political world we are clearly heading into.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to AV is FPTP – so what’s all the fuss about?

  1. jaystar says:

    DPR Voting is arguably a modification of FPTP, but it’s nothing like FPTP. It’s a PR electoral system.
    It would strengthen the legislature. It retains the existing constituency system along with simple voting and counting, and every vote makes a difference to the election result.

    You say you want a system that results in strong government. Shouldn’t that be up to the people and how they decide to vote? Otherwise you could argue it would be simpler to toss a coin.

  2. Teedjay says:

    @jaystar:

    “It would strengthen the legislature.”

    Not necessarily. It could strengthen the party that is the second preference of the most people (the Liberal Democrats, for example). This would just mean the LibDems would be coalition partners of whatever of the other two parties gain a plurality. It strengthens the LibDems, not parliament.

    “You say you want a system that results in strong government. Shouldn’t that be up to the people and how they decide to vote? Otherwise you could argue it would be simpler to toss a coin.”

    Well it would wouldn’t it? The idea that “the people” have a clearly defined collective will that can be discerned well enough to determine if they wish for a strong as opposed to a weak government is absurd. What Colin is arguing is that strong (i.e. ideologically coherent, reasonably stable) government is a good thing in and of itself regardless of what “the people” think.

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