14 June 2010

First-Past-The-Post

This is the first of a series of posts with my unique take on different voting systems. I start with the favourite system of dictators the world over - first-past-the-post.

First-past-the-post is used to elect councillors to local government in England and Wales and of course to elect our MPs to the UK Parliament in Westminster. It is also used in Canada, India and the US, and a host of other semi-democracies and dictatorships around the world.

For those who don't know how it works, in general elections the country is divided into a number of areas called constituencies with each electing one MP. The voter is provided with a ballot paper with an alphabetical list of candidates standing in their constituency next to the name of the party they are standing for (if any) and the voter 'simply' places an X next to the candidate they want to vote for. The voter is allowed one vote. The candidate with the most votes in that constituency is elected its MP.

In local government a smaller area called a ward is used and usually (for no reason that I can ascertain) 2 or 3 councillors are elected for each ward. The voters are allowed the same number of votes as the number of councillors to be elected in their ward - so put Xs by the 2 or 3 candidates they are voting for. Depending on how many are to be elected, the councillors who come in the top 2 or 3 places in number of votes become councillors.

This all sounds beautifully simple and democratic and we can see why voters on first inspection might think there is no need to change any of this. Only when they realise that most votes have no impact on the actual results and that most voters can spend their entire lives electing no-one, do people start to think something is not quite right.

People listened with incredulity at this election when they were told that the Lib Dems could top the popular vote but get only half the seats of the Tories in second place and less than half the seats of Labour in third.

Such a result is obviously absurd and people immediately think that this must be down to differences in electorate size between constituencies (because this is the only unfairness the Tory press highlight - David Cameron did it again this week at PMQs comparing the Western Isles with 30,000 constituents with the Isle Of Wight with 110,000 - you will hear a lot about the Isle of Wight because it is so unique - indeed it was the Tories who opposed it being split into two constituencies and made smaller at the recent boundary review before the 2010 election. A cynic might wonder whether this example is so useful for them that that is precisely the reason they have kept it so large. There are only a handful of seats that have more than 80,000 constituents, the target is 68,000, it makes little difference to the bias in the system - which is explained below)). But constituency sizes are actually already relatively equal (despite what is implied by the Tories) and they could actually be completely identical in size and produce the same ridiculous results.

It is the system itself that discriminates mainly against those parties unable to get over 30% of the vote and this accidental bias can also happen between the two big parties this system favours, no matter how hard you try to draw the boundaries fairly. Of course, if the 'gerrymandering' is deliberate the possibilities for unfairness are even more enormous. Enlarging the boundaries as the Tories are proposing to do, is one way of making gerrymandering easier.

Where you draw the boundaries can have a huge influence on the result under FPTP - the gerrymander wheel demonstrates how by just moving the boundaries around a 'winning' party can win 80% of the seats or 40% of seats without changing a vote or moving a single voter and crucially without altering the size of constituencies either, which always remain completely equal. For the smaller parties even 20% of the vote can vary between 0% and 20% of the seats by just changing boundaries. This is the power of the boundary commission under FPTP.

Which brings us to the crux of the unfairness about first-past-the-post - boundaries. There are 'independent' quangos instructed by parliament to do this 'fairly'. As already noted this is an impossible task even with the best will in the world, but inevitably there is tremendous pressure from political parties as to where these boundaries are drawn and the big two parties dominate proceedings. The current rules dictate quite sensibly that county boundaries, geographical, administrative and social ties should also be taken into account when drawing up boundaries - so for instance wards should be wholely contained within constituencies and not divvied up. This makes sense because people vote on a variety of issues including how well their local council is performing. This all helps keep the 'constituency link' real, and this is supposedly one of the main strong points in FPTP's favour. There are many considerations that have to balanced when designing an electoral system and one of these is a link between a geographical area and an MP - the 'constituency link'. Peculiarly FPTP puts this consideration far above ALL other considerations including the fairness between representation and votes nationally. Geography is the only factor that really counts under FPTP, even who wins the popular vote nationally is unimportant. Yet even this geographical link is illusory as where you draw the boundaries is so important and yet so arbitrary - most people do not realise how important the boundary commission is for our democracy - politicians know how important it is though. FPTP is a strange beast indeed as we shall come to see.

The Tories in particular (and also Labour MPs in safe seats) regularly trundle out this mythical link as a strong point of the system. Yet it is the Tories that want to enlarge boundaries weakening accountability and the Tories also want to disregard the current boundary rules that give the link any semblence of credibility. New constituencies will not be tied to administrative boundaries or within city limits. You may want to throw out your MP, (or support them), only to find they have been 'moved', even after just one parliamentary term. This makes a mockery of being able to 'throw them out'.

Your vote will no longer be able to show what you think of the party running the local area, because your MP's constituency could easily be moved elsewhere by the next election. The Tory proposals mean the regularity of change and fluidity of where the boundaries will be drawn in the future will destroy any pretence of a constituency link. All of this is being done at a large cost to accountability. It will be much harder for MPs to build local support (it is already pretty clear that national issues and party leaders have a bigger impact on voting behaviour anyway but it is still just possible to build support locally to some extent under the current boundary sizes).

We need to remember that since 1945, the adult population has grown by a third, but the number of MPs has remained the same. So constituency size has risen from a manageable 50,000 per MP to around 75,000 and will go over 85,000 if the Tories have their way. Imagine wanting to stand as a candidate and being faced with the huge task of 40,000 doors to knock on - it would take many years for an MP to meet all their constituents. Face to face contact is perhaps the only way the smaller parties and independents can make an impact.

Under the new rules, boundaries will change more regularly and smaller parties will be particularly hard hit as canvassing an even larger area will take even more resources. The Tories are doing all this for one reason only - 36% of the vote in this election 'only' gave them 47% of the seats.

This might sound pretty generous towards the Tories, but as any Tory will tell you, 36% of the vote gave Labour 55% of the seats in 2005. The only way the Tories can achieve this same distorted result in their favour is to to drastically change and enlarge the boundaries. I hope people following this can see what is being done here and it hasn't got anything to do with fairness and democracy. To say a system is 'unfair' to a party that gets 47% of the seats with 36% of the vote is beyond parody. The real unfairness is obviously that 35% of people turnout to vote for parties other than Tory or Labour but only get around 10% of the seats in parliament to represent them (and even that representation is skewed - for instance, there is only one MP (Caroline Lucas - Green) in England who is not Tory, Labour or Lib Dem, despite around 10% of votes going to other parties and independents).

Why does Labour do even better out of this system than the Tories? I don't want to bore you with too much detail on this but basically there are 3 factors that have increased bias over the long term - vote concentration, differential turnout and surburban drift, in that order of importance.

Firstly, Labour's vote is more concentrated - this is crucial if you want to win seats under FPTP.  Labour waste less of their votes in seats they cannot win - mainly in rural areas. The Tories problem is they have significant amounts of votes in southern urban areas, the North of England and Scotland, but not enough to win many seats in these areas - this effectively wastes millions of their votes.

Secondly, urban turnout is much lower. Labour win most of their seats in urban areas and this lower turnout means they get less votes in doing so. Tories can pile up masses of votes in rural seats that they will win easily anyway.

Thirdly, and this is the only argument you will hear from the Tories about 'unfairness'. Urban constituencies tend to 'shrink' over time and rural seats 'grow' as people move out to the suburbs and rural areas. This means that without more frequent boundary reviews (there are major reviews every 10-12 years), urban constituencies will tend to be smaller (by about 4,000 potential voters on the electoral register (or around 5-10% less than more rural seats). This actually is by far the smallest factor in why Labour do better, making maybe 5 to 10 seats difference nationally. The other two factors are far more important making around 50 seats of the difference (Labour can get the same vote share as the Tories but around 60 seats more. If you think that is unfair compare the Tories to the Lib Dems where equal shares of the vote for these two would deliver the Tories around 200 seats more and no jiggling of the boundaries will change that). Note also that because registration is lower in urban areas - the actual number of over 18s is actually probably fairly similar between Tory and Labour seats. In fact Labour seats tend to have more people overall because they contain more under 18s. This is probably why the Tories oppose votes for 16 year olds and want to introduce more stringent registration procedures which will deter over 18s from registering - the lower the registration the bigger the constituency size as boundaries are drawn on registered voter numbers not by how many over 18s entitled to vote it contains). The MPs with the biggest constituency workload are in urban areas because they have more poverty, social problems AND more people. Tories don't win these seats and so would not appreciate this.

The actual main advantage of first-past-the-post probably has nothing to do with the 'constituency link' at all, it might actually stem from one of FPTP's perceived weaknesses. The fact that FPTP reduces the number of voters that can affect the overall result to a few thousand voters in key marginals and that modern targeting techniques can find them, might mean it is easier for the main parties to argue their case in more detail. Perhaps having fewer voters that count will allow for a more informed 'electorate that matter'. This is a doubtful argument, but probably the only one that is legitimate when talking about the advantages of our present voting system.

Under a more proportional system these swing voters would be in every area of the country,  and run into millions, making it harder for the parties to win their vote. Under first-past-the-post, a few thousand voters in a certain type of area can be 'targeted' with numerous mail, telephone and face to face canvassing. It could be argued that maybe a higher level of debate could ensue, although the mushiness and risk averse policies of the major parties under FPTP undermines that argument. Maybe more proportional systems do encourages more radical debate even though more voters need to be persuaded.

If we were to keep FPTP, one way of improving it would be to have more MPs and smaller constituencies not less and bigger. Maybe go back to 1945 when each MP had no more than 50,000 constituents compared to the current 75,000. MPs would have more time to contact constituents and be closer and potentially more accountable. Smaller parties and independents would stand more chance of bucking the national media trends. It would also mean that the executive would be proportionally smaller in parliament and backbenchers better able to hold them to account. Instead in the name of democracy, the Cameron Tories are proposing the opposite. I wonder why that is then?

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