On the first past the post system in the UK- is it fit for purpose? (My thoughts)

(Edited from a post on the Powerswitch forums)

With election time coming up, and with it being a messy one in which many people are hoping or wishing that minor parties might have some chance to influence things in parliament, some people are questioning whether an alternative to the first-past-the-post electoral system (in which people make a single vote for who they want to be the member of Parliament for their local constituency and the person with the most votes wins, then the party which wins the most seats gets to form a government) might have helped those parties do better. UKIP are polling even higher than the Liberal Democrats and yet (perhaps due to a fall in support) are, according to some sources, unlikely to win even some of the seats they were gunning to get, such as Farage’s hopes for South Thanet. As for the Greens, well they’re polling lower, but some want them to have more influence as an alternative to the same old politics which even UKIP isn’t much of an alternative to (if not, in their view, even worse). Perhaps an alternative: AV (rejected by the majority in a referendum as being too confusing), STV or even full-on proportional representation, might help to stop the same old same old ruling the show every time?

But is it really the right way to go?

The reality is that the first past the post system is definitely fit for purpose if we understand how it’s designed to work.

Basically people are so obsessed by the party system they fail to see it’s about voting for the person as well as simply the party. What is really not fit for purpose is that we have no real separation of powers between the legislature and the executive- the latter being made up from whatever sitting MPs lead the party with the most seats or whatever coalition is formed that can gain the confidence of the House (and the Crown). In something more like the American sort of system, where the executive is elected separately from the legislature, only with the difference of having direct election of the head of government rather than the questionable electoral college system that exists Stateside, we would not need to worry about FPTP with respect to electing members of parliament.

Now certainly if we were to maintain this lack of separation of powers, some sort of alternative voting system which still allows us to have a specific local MP who is directly accountable to the electorate in a given locality might be a worthwhile compromise, but a full proportional-representation system would not be something I could support, as it removes that link and does not give us any idea (beyond party leadership) who are the people who will be elected to Parliament.

Thoughts, criticisms, elaborations most welcome.


3 thoughts on “On the first past the post system in the UK- is it fit for purpose? (My thoughts)

  1. The thought of introducing a wholly proportional representation voting system does sound somewhat appealing, I live in probably one of the most safest Labour seats in England which has been Labour since 1983 I believe and pretty much has a 100% chance of being Labour whenever an election comes around. However, at the same time, to myself personally, the idea of introducing a proportional system would more than most of the time give way to numerous coalition after coalition government whereby politicians have to keep selectively trading their manifesto pledges and throwing them out the window in an effort to appease the other party in the coalition. I do believe to some extent the system is broken, but deep down I think a proportional system would be broken even further in terms of accountability. When I elect a government I want to be able to trust their manifesto pledges and hold them to account on them, with a coalition as i outlined above I wouldn’t know what to trust in their manifestos as it could easily be written off within the next few days after the election. In other words, i do like the stability of having a government under FPTP in that sense. My decision on the matter is not 100% set in stone though, I haven’t really categorically made my mind up on it yet.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I suppose the impact of more common coalition governments would erode accountability further, it is true. I think somehow the idea of full PR does appeal if you’re considering a system where parties are of paramount importance, which in the eyes of the public and media seems to be the case. As I said my issue is this focus on parties limits our understanding of the persons who make up the party, in which the party leadership alone seems to get any attention, as if the party is more than the sum of its parts and not individuals with views that may differ and fit the party line to differing extents. What I think is needed is for there to be more of an understanding of who we are voting for, not merely what, and for there to be some sort of personal link between communities and government which allows the concerns of voters to be heard directly. What are your thoughts on this?

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