Saturday, 20 February 2010

Voting Reform 1: What's wrong with FPTP?

MP's recently voted to allow a referendum on electoral reform. That is to give us the option to finally send the outdated and unrepresentative First Past The Post (FPTP) to the scrapheap.

The option on the referendum (if it gets through the House of Lords, no mean feat given that parliament will be dissolved within the next 4 months) will be a straight choice between FPTP and AV. For this, the first blog entry in this series we are going to look at why such a change might be considered necessary. In the second I'm going to ignore the curiousness of the timing of this bill and instead try and explain what you will be voting for, or against in the Alternative vote system. In the final installment I'll go over 'what we could have won' (and what we should IMO get behind) Single Transferrable Vote (STV).

To understand what's wrong with FPTP we first need to quickly go over how it works.

The United Kingdom is currently split up into 646 constuencies. In each one of those we elect one representative; our MP's. When a general election is called, each constituency is polled to select their MP. Candidates for each constituency will be either nominated by their parties, or decide to stand independently. Everyone of voting age that lives in a constituency then votes for one of the representatives standing. All of those votes are counted, and the person with the most votes becomes the MP for that area.

That all sounds very simple and fair doesn't it? I mean, the person with the most votes wins so no-one can complain about the result.

Well... There are actually a number of problems with this system. The first is in the form of a four letter word in the previous (small) paragraph. There are no swears in there, so it's not immediately obvious that the troublesome word is wins. Yes, the person with most points (be they votes or questions answered or whatever) in a contest should win it. But why are we treating an election as a contest?

The point of an election is to elect a representative. If someone manages to "win" an election with 35% of the vote in that constituency, 65% of the people there could argue, reasonably, that they are not being represented.

Of course, although the aim is to elect a representative, we normally go the polling station and vote for the party who's policies we like. But what do we do in the situation where we support a party, but their representative in our area is an abomination? Imagine for example that Nicholas Winterton was standing for election once more? Would the Conservative supporters hold their nose and put an x in the box of an outdated absurdity? Thankfully they won't have to find out, but in the wake of the expenses saga there must be some voters with a similar choice to make.

There is another problem to consider on a wider scale. As the election approaches, there are polls taken that try to predict the share of the nationwide vote that each party will get. If you look at the polling graphs available on the BBC website, you will see very few points when any political party would actually satisfy the majority of the electorate. Apart from approximately a year surrounding Blair's election and the odd poll around the time of the Falklands war, no party has polled higher than 50%. If less than 50% of the people vote for a party, that party surely can't be considered a representative government all of those people!

It's an interesting situation we are left with. We vote for people we don't like and end up with MP's that represent as little as 35% of their constituency (or at least those that bothered to turn up and vote, that's another rant) forming a government that could represent just as few. If we are looking for a way to select a government that represents the population, this doesn't seem like the ideal way do do it.

My next post in this series will look at the Alternative Vote (AV) system and how well it solves the problems that are apparent in FPTP, if it solves them at all.

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