First-past-the-post’s big advantage, its proponents say, is that it is supposed to deliver clear government, but as we can see in this election it does not always do that. Britain now has what the British in doom-laden fashion call a hung parliament. They seem genuinely shocked that they may have to negotiate ‘behind closed doors’ and many excoriate against ‘back-room deals’ of coalition. It is as if single-party-governments do not do back-room deals. The nature of cabinet government is that decisions are made in secret. The Labour party’s period in government was characterised by deals and wars between Blairites and Brownites. John Major noted wisely that his Conservative party government was a coalition on its own – the faction on Europe was the most obvious but there were others. At least in formal coalition voters have a chance to distinguish between the different factions. No voter ever got a chance to choose a Blairite candidate over a Brownite one. So the argument against changing the electoral system on the basis of clear, decisive and transparent government is open to all sorts of criticism.
First-past-the-post actually works quite well in two-party systems like the UK had in the 1950s, but as soon as you add a third or fourth choice into the mix it produces results that appear perverse. Those who are in favour of keeping it perhaps wish there were only two parties, but it is unlikely that the two main UK parties will go on to take ninety or more percent of the vote in the next ten years, if ever. So keeping FPTP will run the risk of continually producing odd results.
An electoral system that is incapable of accommodating more than two views seems less than ideal and then leads one to consider what would be better for the British. There is an understandable demand for proportional representation. Though proportional representation gives parties proportional numbers of seats within parliament, it does not necessarily distribute political power proportionally (nor arguably does any other system). In the current UK parliament the Liberal Democrats are in as powerful a bargaining position as the Labour party – even more powerful if you consider where the LibDems are positioned politically. In a parliament where the number of seats is distributed between parties A,B & C as 45, 40 & 15. Party C with just 15 percent of the seats (and under PR, 15 percent of the vote) has the same bargaining power as party A that received three times the number of seats (& votes). This hardly seems fair. If we are concerned about proportionality, we should probably be concerned about where it matters – in government.
The LibDems want to adopt the Irish system of PR-STV even though some Irish politicians want to drop it. Any proponent of reform should be conscious of what is achievable. Proposing PR-STV, whatever its merits, may end in a referendum defeat – once The Sun gets wind of the Gregory method or the Wright system of surplus distribution, it’s curtains! It appears however that there could be some compromise and have STV without the PR, through the Alternative Vote. AV is STV with single seat constituencies. It has the advantage that it maintains the link between MP and constituency, something of an issue for the British.
While we don’t know that much about AV – just Australia uses it regularly- theoretically we can see that it is less likely to facilitate the election of micro parties. A party needs to have high enough support in the constituency to be around for the distribution of votes and broad enough support to get those second and third preferences when they are being distributed. In Australia it is estimated that 90 percent of the time the same party will get the seat as would have been given under FPTP. However because you need to get support from people who support other parties it should incentivise parties to appeal beyond their base. There should be less extreme politics.
AV also has the advantage that it’s good (or less bad than FPTP) for the LibDems. We can assume that many Tory and Labour voters would give the LibDems their second preference. LibDems increased the number of constituencies they’re in second place, and are in a striking distance of taking a seat in more constituencies. As Anthony Wells in UK Polling Report points out the “notional 2005 figures had the LibDems holding 62 seats and in second place in 188. Following the 2010 election the LibDems hold 57 seats, but are in second place in 242. On the 2005 notional figures the LibDems were within ten percent of the winning party in 31 seats, now they are within ten percent in 45 seats.” The LibDems are more likely to be the next preferred party for most voters.
Of course that may change with their entering government.