The First past the Post Election System, Just How Democratic Is It – a Full Analysis

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One third of the world’s nations use the first past the post election system, and a popular argument against this system is that it is unfair and that the results of elections using this system do not reflect the true will of the people, and that voting can be pointless. The implication in this of course is that it is not a very democratic form of electoral system. The question is, is there any truth in such beliefs?

To answer that question, we need to look at the system and investigate how it works and as I am from the UK I will focus on the U.K.’s use of the system to do that. With this in mind, we need to first have a little look at the history of democracy in the UK.

A short history of democracy in the UK

The first victory for democracy in the UK came in 1864 when men who owned property in the city (about twenty-five percent of men) finally won the battle with the establishment to be given the right to vote. The election system which was utilised was a sort of block vote system which was not wholly democratic as it included partial votes — for the purposes of this post it is too confusing and long-winded a system to explain.

The next victory came in 1884 when men who owned rural property (about twenty-five percent of men) won the right to vote, meaning all men who owned property could now vote which equated to about fifty percent of the adult male population. With this victory, the first past the post election system was introduced.

Before explaining how that system works, to continue the short history. The next victory came in 1918. The majority of men who were in the trenches during World War I did not own property and so were not allowed to vote, and because no women could vote still at this point, the women who worked in the munitions factories were not allowed to vote. This was seen as an outrage, and so the government were basically forced to give the fifty percent of men who could not yet vote the right to vote along with granting women the right to vote.

Meaning a rather little-known fact, in the UK it was not just women who finally got the vote on the back of World War I, it was men as well, and a specific type of man at that, a man who did not own property – or rather a working-class man which at that time was pretty much the majority of men.

This means, unlike as history portrays it, it was not just women fighting for the right to vote prior to the war, it was the majority of the male population as well. Meaning it was not men stopping women from voting, it was in fact the establishment which though led by men acted not just against women but against the majority of men.

It was only through the majority of men and women fighting together over a fifty-year period to be given the right to vote that all men and women were finally on the back of World War I given the right to vote. Notice the power of men and women fighting together.

Anyhow back on subject, the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1928 which meant that everyone of adult age in the UK could now vote. And with that little history lesson out of the way, on to the first past the post system.

The first past the post election system explained

The way the first past the post election system works is simple, the nation in question is broken up into constituencies, each constituency has the right to elect one Member of Parliament (a representative to sit in the House of Commons. Voters in each constituency vote only for their local MP, meaning they do not vote for the leader of the nation.

The party that wins the most constituencies – or as they are better known as seats – wins the election. And in winning the election, should they have also won over half the available seats, then the person that the party has anointed as the leader of the party becomes the Prime Minister and thus leader of the nation.

However, on the flipside that means that should a party win an election but not win over half the seats then the result would be a hung parliament.

In this situation what happens is that the winning party is required to form a coalition government with another party – or as many parties as is needed to gain control over enough seats to form a government. If this is not possible, they either need to attempt to lead with a minority government or call another election.

For example, in the UK there are 650 constituencies, meaning to win a majority in the UK a party needs to win 326 seats. If no party makes this number, which happened back in the 2010 general election, then the result would be a hung parliament and thus a coalition government would need to be formed – which the Tories did back in 2010 forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

And it’s as simple as that, or as complex as that – whichever way you wish to look at. With that said, the question remains, just how democratic is it? Before answering that we first need to consider both the benefits and downsides to the system.

The pluses and minuses of the first past the post election system

In the UK general election of 2017, 13.8 million people voted Tory which equated to 42% of the vote, while 12.9 million people voted Labour which equated to 40% of the vote, in the prior election (2015), 11.3 million voted Tory which equated to 37% of the vote, while 9.3 million voted Labour which equated to 30% of the vote.

To understand both the biggest upside and the biggest downside of the first past the post system we need to see how these figures translate to seats won. To start, in 2017 the Tories 42% share of the vote won them 318 seats while Labour’s 40% won them 262, but in the 2015 election, the Tories 37% share of the vote won them 330 seats while Labour’s 30% won them 232.

In these numbers lies the problem most people highlight with the first past the post system. To explain, the Tories from the 2015 to the 2017 election saw their share of the popular vote increase from 37% to 42%, a 5% rise, and yet they ended up with fewer seats (318 vs the 330 they had in 2015). 

To put this into perspective, that means that the Tories increased their share of the vote by 5%, and yet lost 12 seats. While Labour on the other hand saw their share of the vote jump from 30% to 40%, a 10% increase, which despite putting them just 2% behind the Tories in the popular vote, and netting them 30 additional seats, meant they still trailed the Tories by 64 seats. 

Just to emphasise what this means, Labour increased their share of the vote by 10% and won 30 seats, the Tories on the other hand despite increasing their share by 5% lost 12 seats.

On top of this, even though Labour closed the gap from 7% to 2%, they still ended up with 64 fewer seats than the Tories. This is even though mathematically speaking a 2% gap – if a proportional system was used – would equal 13 seats.

Very shaky maths right there, and what is of further note, the Tories were in total just 287 votes shy of earning a majority, meaning with a tiny swing in votes, they would have won a majority.  That would mean still 42% vs 40% in total number of votes won, and yet the Tories lead over Labour in terms of seats won would have been even greater.

Considering this, it is quite easy to see why people take issue with the first past the post system, but on the flipside, it is also easy to see why it has such strong backing. Or rather the nature of the first past the post system allows for the party who wins the election to be given the best chance of actually forming a functional government.

For example, in 2015 the Tories won the election and won enough seats to form a government, without the first past the post system this would not have been possible. Also, to emphasise its benefits, even in 2010 and 2017 when there was a hung parliament, it was only because of the first past the post system that the winning party, in this case, the Tories were able to win enough seats to be able to form a coalition with a minor party.

If it had not been for the first past the post system in all of these mentioned elections, either another election would have to have been called or a coalition with Labour would have been required.

Meaning there would no longer have been too strong parties, one in power and one in opposition, there would have been a grand coalition – or rather the two-party system would have become a one-party system. The first past the post system is a good defence against this.

So, there are indisputably plus sides, but do these benefits come at the cost of meaning that some people’s votes are worthless to the point that voting for them becomes pointless? To answer that we need to work out just how much a person’s vote is worth, and if some people’s votes are truly worth more than others.

Just how much is a person’s vote worth in the first past the post system?

In the UK 318 seats equate to near enough 49% of the total number of seats available to be won in the House of Commons. That means in the 2017 election, for 42% of the vote share, the Tories got 49% of the available seats, yet in 2015, for 37% of the vote share, they got 51% of the total number of seats.

This means in 2017 they won more votes from the public but ended up with fewer seats in the House of Commons. That means a Tory voter’s vote in 2017 was worth less than that of a Tory voter’s vote in 2015, but more than that of a Labour voter.

That is because in the 2015 election Labour won 262 seats, which equates to 40% of the total number of seats in the House of Commons – meaning for 40% of the vote they got 40% of the available seats. The same happened in 2015 – in that election, Labour won 30% of the vote which translated to 30.5% of the available seats.

This presents an obvious discrepancy, that is to say, a vote for the Tories in the said elections counted for more in regard to seats won than a vote for Labour, and by quite a bit as well, in 2017 it was worth 1.16 times more, while in 2015 it was worth 1.37 times more.

This is not a rare occurrence. Tony Blair in 1997, when he won his record-breaking landslide of 418 seats, which translates to 64% of the seats, did so by winning just 43% of the vote. This means that for just 43% of the vote he won 64% of the available seats, and what really makes this election stand out, the Tories, in the same election won 31% of the vote, but only 25% of the seats, meaning a Labour voter’s vote in this election in regard to seats won was worth 1.85 times that of a Tory voter’s.

This is not the worst example, in the 2005 election Labour won 356 seats for a vote share of 35.24%, while the Tories won 198 seats for a vote share of 32.4%, meaning for winning a vote share of just shy of 3% more than the Tories, Labour won 25% more seats. To put this into perspective, in the said election both Labour and the Tories won near enough one-third of the vote, yet Labour won 158 more seats.

This is still not the worst example, if we go back to 1951, Labour ended up with a vote share of 48.8%, winning 295 seats, while the Tories ended up with a vote share of 44.3% but won 302 seats, meaning they lost the vote but won the election (there were 600 seats back then).

This also happened in the years 1929 and 1974, but in the reverse, the Tories won the vote, but Labour won the most seats; however, they did not win the elections as both the 1929 and the 1974 elections resulted in hung parliaments. So, it is strictly the Tories in the UK that hold the mantel of winning an election while losing the vote.

But it is not the big parties who win or lose big because of this system, it is the small parties.

The effect of the first past the post system on small parties

In the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems won 2.4 million votes, which equated to 7.9% of the vote. Despite this, they ended up winning just 8 seats. That means for near enough 8% of the vote they won just 1.2% of the available seats, which does not seem fair.

It seems even less fair when you consider that the SNP in the same election, who won 1.4 million votes, which equated to 4.6% of the vote, ended up with 56 seats – 8.6% of the available seats.

That means that the SNP won 56 seats off 1.4 million votes, while the Lib Dems won just 8 seats despite getting 2.4 million votes. What further drives the seeming injustice of this home is the fact that this result means that an SNP voter’s vote in this election in regard to seats won was worth two votes, while a Lib Dem voter’s vote was worth just 1/6th of a vote. This means in 2015 an SNP voter’s vote was worth 12 times that of a Lib Dems.

This isn’t the worst of it, for that we need to look at UKIP. In 2015 they won 3.9 million votes which equates to 12.8% of the vote, yet they won just 1 seat. That means despite winning 3.9 million votes, which equates to 12.8% of the electoral vote, they gained just 0.15% of the available seats.

What this means is a UKIP voter’s vote was worth 85 times less than that of a Labour voter, and 170 times less than that of an SNP voter.

Then there is the Green Party who in the same election won 1.1 million votes, which equates to 3.6% of the vote, but also won just 1 seat. Meaning a Green Party voter’s vote was worth 22 times less than that of a Labour supporter’s, and 44 times less than that of an SNP supporter’s.

Just to put this into perspective, that means in the 2015 election UKIP won 3.8 million votes but only got 1 seat, the Greens won 1.1 million votes but only got 1 seat, the Lib Dems won 2.4 million votes but only got 8 seats, while the SNP won 1.5 million votes and got 56 seats.

Now I am not a rocket scientist, but that is some extremely shaky maths right there. At the same time though, if the system had not been used then the only way a government could have been formed in any of the mentioned elections would have been – as said previously – if the Tories and Labour had formed a coalition, which in reality would be a disaster for democracy.

Democracy only works when you have two strong parties, and considering the UK has tried the grand party method before to disastrous effect in the 1930s, the last thing the UK needs is the Tories and Labour being forced to unite in a coalition.

So again, there is a strong benefit to the first past the post system, and that is it makes for a strong two-party plus system.

The evidence that proves that the first past the post system is best

Since the first past the post system was first introduced in the UK back in 1884, only six of the thirty-five elections since have resulted in a hung parliament (1910×2 (there were two elections in 1910), 1929, 1974, 2010 and 2017), and only three times has the party that won the popular vote not won the most seats (1929, 1951 and 1974), and two of those were hung parliaments.

That means that in every election bar six the party that won the most votes was given the mandate to rule. Not only that, but when a party did not win enough seats to rule alone, because of the system, it meant that they still won enough votes to be able to form a coalition with a minor party, thus keeping the status quo of one major party being in power and the other being in opposition.

This means in every election since its introduction the first past the post system has allowed the winner to form a strong government and the second-place party to form a strong opposition.

And this is despite the fact that since its introduction only three times in history has a single party ever won over 50% of the popular vote, and not once has a party done so since 1931, where, in only the second election ever that allowed all men and women of age to vote, the Tories won 55.5% of the vote.

By User:Lofty – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Popular_vote.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4478854

That means if it was not for the first past the post system, out of thirty-five elections, only once would there have been a government that was not a coalition, and of those coalitions, a large number would have seen the two major parties being forced to combine.

Meaning in any system other than the first past the post system it would have been very difficult to create a strong government and a strong opposition.

This is because in any electoral system where there are more than two parties, it is very difficult to secure over 50% of the popular vote.

It is simply the law of mathematics, the more parties there are, the harder it is for a single party to secure over half the vote – which in any system of note other than the first past the post system is a necessity.

It could be argued that this would not be a bad thing i.e. no single party ever winning would not be a bad thing; however, history has tended to show that it is better to have a system where a single party can win an election and be challenged by a strong opposition, rather than for a nation to have countless coalition governments – which evidence seems to show stifles growth.

For example, most European nations use proportional systems, and yet the nations that do tend to struggle more on the growth front than the nations who use the first past the post system.

On a side note, another argument for why this may be is that studies have shown that people tend to make better decisions when they only have two main options to choose from. The first past the post system tends to create such a scenario, while allowing for there to be minor parties who do not disrupt the main two-party narrative – unless they have something special going on. Think Labour replacing the Liberals as the number two party in the UK back in the 1930s.

So, all in all, the evidence seems to show that it is better to have a system that has two major parties, but allows for both of those major parties to be not only challenged but potentially replaced should a stronger party emerge. The best known system for allowing this dynamic to exist is the first past the post system.

With that said, to return to the point raised at the beginning, is it sometimes pointless for some people to vote in the election when the first past the post system is used. Well, the answer is yes and no.

Are some people’s votes worth less than others in the first past the post system?

As said the first past the post system works by splitting a nation up into constituencies, and each constituency is an election in its own right – that is to say, the people in that constituency run an election to elect a representative for that area. So, in the first past the post system, when an election is called is not an election per se, it is an election of elections.

This reality is why some people’s votes appear to count for more than others, along with why the votes of others may at first glance appear worthless.

Appear is very much the word. To explain, let’s imagine a constituency of 60,000 people, in this constituency 31,000 vote Labour, their votes count, but the other 29,000 votes, whoever they are for, technically don’t count outside this constituency.

Yes, they get added to the popular vote, which helps to prove that using the first past the post system works and that the party with the most votes nationwide has actually won, which is important, but other than that, they technically do not count for anything – at least not on a national level.

But so long as the size of constituencies are equal, then technically is the word and the reality is every vote counts the same. The problem is, when constituency sizes are not equal in size, things start to go wrong.

For example, if one constituency has 60,000 people, and another has 40,000 people, then the votes of the 40,000 will count for more than that of the 60,000, the reason being, they both only get one seat.

This is why in the first past the post system it is so important, just so so important, that the sizes of the constituencies are as close to equal as possible. If they are not, then it runs the risk of some people’s votes not counting the same as those of others.

What happens if the constituencies are not all near enough the same size?

In the 2015 general election in the UK, the number of people living in each constituency on average mostly numbered somewhere between 60,000 and 90,000, but some constituencies had as little as 35,000 people living in them while some had over 100,000.

This is a problem and a recipe for injustice under the first past the post system. To explain, let’s imagine two constituencies, one with 60,000 people and another with 90,000 people. If 31,000 vote say Labour in the constituency with 60,000 people, and the rest vote Tory, so 29,000; then 70,000 vote Tory in the constituency of 90,000, the rest Labour, so 20,000, each would have one MP, yet the Tories would have 99,000 votes to Labour’s 51,000, which equates 66% voting Tory, 34% Labour.

To put this into perspective, both would have one MP, and yet the Tories would have in effect won an enormous landslide in terms of votes won. This problem becomes worse when the population variance between constituency sizes is wider.

For example, the size of the Orkney and Shetland constituency in 2015 was 35,000, while the size of the Isle of White constituency in 2015 was 108,000.

This means if say for the Isle of White constituency, 50,000 voted Labour, 51,000 voted Tory, and the remaining 7,000 voted Lib Dem; then on the Orkney and Shetland constituency, 16,000 of the 35,000 people voted Tory, 15,000 voted Labour, the remaining 4,000 voting Lib Dem, then, in this case, the Tories would win both seats, while Labour and the Lib Dems would get nothing.

This would mean that the Tories would have won both seats, and yet Labour would have 65,000 votes to the Tories 67,000, meaning the voices of 65,000 Labour supporters would have no representation, and nor would the voices of 11,000 Lib Dem voters.

Clearly, this would not be a democratic result, and if we took this one step further and added the Jarrow constituency to the equation, it could potentially become even more unfair.  For example, in 2015 Jarrow had a constituency size of 64,000 people, so let us imagine the Lib Dems won this seat with a vote of 31,000, while Labour came second with 30,000, the Tories third with 3,000.

This would mean that Labour would now have 95,000 votes for zero MP’s, which equates to 46% of the vote share, while the Tories on the other hand – despite having only 70,000 votes – would have two MPs. The Lib Dems meanwhile would also have an MP – despite only having 42,000 votes. That would mean that the party with the most votes would have zero seats, while the second and third parties would be the ones in power.

The theory of course is that it all evens itself out, and if you add the first example I made to the second, it would present a more even result. But despite that fact, it is clear that for the first past the post system to be as fair as possible, it is imperative that the sizes of the constituencies are as close to equal as possible.

Final words

It is clear that the small parties either win big off the back of the first past the post system or lose big off the back of it. It is these results that make it difficult to claim that it is a wholly fair system when it is simply not.

It is the best system for many countries – for example, it is indisputably the best system for the UK. But arguably that is only because there are no systems out there that are better than it.

Despite that, it is indisputable that every person’s vote does count, but it is also indisputable that not everyone’s vote counts for the same amount. In reality, under the first past the post system how much your vote counts depends on who you are voting for and just how well-balanced the sizes of the constituencies are. It also depends very much on just how it is you want your vote to count.

So, to answer the question e, is voting in a first past the post election system ever pointless. No, never. But does every vote count for the same amount? No, it either counts for more or less depending on who you are voting for and the sizes of the constituencies. It also counts for more or less depending on just why you are voting.

For example, in the 2015 election, a vote for UKIP was worthless as a vote for gaining seats in the House of Commons but was massively important in regard to securing Brexit. Without those votes, it is highly improbable that the Tories would have been forced to call a referendum.

Meaning in the first past the post system, to make your vote count you have to properly consider what it is you want from your vote. The party you are voting for to win the election, or something else.

That means to conclude, in the first past the post system, your vote will count as much as the thought you put into making it. And that is the power of the first past the post system. And that is why it is arguably the best known democratic system in the world.

So, to round things up, and answer the question at the beginning of this post, is the first past the post system actually democratic. Yes unquestionably. But to paraphrase Churchill’s famous statement about democracy, the first past the post election system is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms.

That’s all from me, thanks for reading!

Published by David Graham

Sci-fi and fantasy writer, blogger and photographer emanating from the north-east of England.

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