The 2017 General Election was decided using the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system. It’s been used in Britain for well over 100 years. And we’re not alone. It’s also the choice for the US, Canada and India as well as a whole host of smaller countries worldwide. But it’s often criticised for failing to give a fair representation of voters’ selections. And are the other systems fairer? And how would they have affected the 2017 result? Read on as we look at two alternatives to FPTP.
Problems with FPTP
FPTP, quite simply, means that in each constituency, the candidate with the most votes wins and other votes are disregarded. It’s easy to understand, quick to process and gives voters a clear way to indicate who they want to govern. However, the system also has a number of disadvantages:
- Lots of votes are wasted
- MPs can win without a majority of voters backing them
- Small parties with votes spread across several constituencies don’t tend to win many (if any) individual seats
- Voters sometimes resort to tactical voting to oppose their least favourite candidate
Quite aptly, the most popular alternative is the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Voters rank candidates in order of preference – 1 for first choice, 2 for second, and so on, leaving out those they don’t wish to express any preference for. Candidates win if they gain a majority – over 50 percent – of first choice votes. If nobody gets this, the candidate with the least first choice votes is eliminated. The second choices from these ballot papers are then taken into account.
This goes on until a candidate has half of the votes. It reduces wasted votes, because those who cast losing votes can still contribute to the outcome. AV could have changed the result in 2017 drastically. If voters for minor opposition parties, like the Greens and Lib Dems, had put Labour as their second choice, for example, we might well have been looking at a majority Labour government on June 9th.
There are other alternatives though. Some people find fault with both AV and FPTP because neither solves the problem of fair representation. Small parties with their votes spread across the country are ‘let down’ by both these systems, according to critics. An example often cited is that of UKIP, who received 3,881,129 votes in 2015 but gained only one seat. In the same election, the SNP got 56 seats from just 1,454,436 votes.
A popular way to achieve proportional representation (PR) are party list systems, used in a number of European countries like Germany, Italy and Denmark. In these systems, voters choose a party rather than individual candidates. It’s up to the party or public to select who serves as representatives afterwards. Of course, there is usually a minimum threshold to avoid seats being allocated to a party just because they gained 1 percent of the vote.
The biggest issue for these systems, however, is deciding how many seats are allocated to parties following the vote. How do you give a party 26.7% of the seats if this is their share of the vote? Several different methods, such as the d’Hondt formula, Saint-Lague method and Droop quota, are used around the world.
So how would PR have changed the result of the 2017 General Election? Well, the Conservatives achieved just 2.4% more votes than Labour, but were awarded 56 (8.6%) more seats. With PR, this 2.4% would likely put them around 16-20 seats ahead.
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