The British 2010 election proves just how awful first-past-the-post is.

The British first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP; often referred to as single member plurality) is long past its sell by date. The most recent wave of democratic consolidation across East and Central Europe, Central and Southern America, and parts of Africa have witnessed an explosion of interest in electoral system design. And some established democracies – like New Zealand, Italy and Japan – have gone through processes of electoral reform. In not one single case has FPTP been the electoral system of choice. The trend has been clearly, unequivocally in the direction of some form of proportional or semi-proportional system. This fact alone should give some pause for thought to those proponents of such a system for Ireland.

What is it about FPTP that makes it so unpopular? Perhaps it’s because it’s so obviously unfair in how it translates votes into seats. Take this British election result as a great example:

Votes Seats Difference
(%)       (%)      (%)
CONS     36         47       +11
LAB        29         40       +11
LDem     23           9        -14

The fact that the LibDems won far, far less seats than Labour despite having only 6 percent less votes is surely an indictment of this system in failing to treat all voters as equal. This is the exact opposite to the core democratic principle of ‘one person, one vote, one value’.

But to the proponents of FPTP this election result is really not a problem, because – they argue – this is the cost of guaranteeing ‘strong government’, of always ensuring that one large party has a clear and undisputed majority of seats and thus can form a single-party government. The phrase often used here is ‘getting the rascals out’, the idea being that the day after the election (literally) the losing prime minister is turfed out of Downing street.

Well, …. after what has just transpired in the UK now we know.

One thing surely cannot any longer be in doubt and that is that this is not an electoral system for Ireland.

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