First past which post?

horse race
Picture thanks to Betfair.co.uk

Our voting system is often referred to as first past the post (FPTP). It is supposed to ensure that a single candidate emerges from each constituency and lead to stable governments.

We can imagine an election like a horse race, where each candidate starts off with no votes to a finishing post somewhere in the distance. The first one to get there is the winner.

Only it is not like that. In our system the post is a moveable thing. Unlike in the horse race, the winning post can come closer or move further away during the race, depending upon how many votes are cast. If everyone were to vote then the post would be at the 50% mark of the electorate. If only one person was to vote, however, then the candidate that they choose is the winner.

I know that both these scenarios are unlikely but both are possible under FPTP.

The system we have then is really a highest number of votes cast (HNVC). It returns candidates that do not have the support of the majority of the local electorate. It means that minor parties lose out as people don’t want to ‘waste’ their votes. It means that governments can be formed that do not represent the way people have voted. 

Take for example Bishop Aukland, where the Labour candidate got in with 48.1% of the vote on a 64% turnout, or Scarborough and Whitby where the Conservative candidate got in with 48.4% of the vote on a turnout of 68.5%. Neither got past the halfway post.

The net result in 2017 was a conservative win with 42.3% of the vote on a 68.8% turnout. Once again the country has ended up with the minority in power over the majority. This has been the position since the 1950s.

Yes, our system guarantees a single candidate from each constituency but it is not democracy. We need a new voting system.

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