The Tories are defending FPTP

My past pugilistic parter, @ByrneTofferings has attempted to defend Britain’s broken electoral system. I assumed he must have good reason to do so yet sadly the defences he offers are rubbish.

I thought I’d do him the favour of picking a fight.

Thomas, I like you, but you’re an idiot if you think First Past the Post is an electoral system worth defending. There is a lot wrong with our electoral system and I am worried that an affable chap like Thomas would defend it.

His post starts badly with a link to Tom Harris. He explains that we must ignore the calls for electoral reform from those excluded from the current system because those currently excluded will gain something. Thomas Byrne seems to be trying to phrase a defence of FPTP as a brave stand against vested interests. I must admit this is a brave mood, as it is doomed to failure.

Each electoral system has flaws but we should still pick the least worst one.

That many in politics like the current system is not defence enough in itself, not least because systems as complex as ours are likely to suffer from Status Quo Bias. Those that oppose the system from the outside are not to be written off because they may gain from a different system. From a good capitalist like Thomas Byrne I must admit a little concern for his sudden renunciation of the rational self-interested man.

His post acknowledges that our current system has flaws, and that some votes are indeed wasted but argues that a proportional system would create a new unfairness. It is this “new” unfairness that I suppose it is to this that I should address the bulk of my response.

I call it “new” because it is not a new problem with electoral systems at all, but merely something made explicit in proportional systems.

One of the alleged great strengths of FPTP according to Thomas Byrne is that we are given the opportunity to choose a government. Even if a majority of electors do not pick our final administration at least a relatively large number of them are happy with the one we end up with.

When 40% of the electorate gave the Tories 52% of the seats this was fair because that offered by alternative electoral systems would have been worse. Thomas explains what may have happened under a proportional system:

If 40% of electors vote for party A and 20% for party B, a post-election coalition of the two parties does not enjoy the support of 60% of electors. It enjoys the definitive support of nobody, esepcially as since as people like to shout, the parties are so different in Britain. (At least the members do, the public on the other hand…)

In Thomas’s world coalitions represent a subversion of the democratic will of the electorate as even less than the 40% who chose the Tories in 1992 support this new coalition.

Thomas makes a massive mistake here. In comparing the 40% who voted for a Tory Government and the 60% who voted for our AB coalition he ignores the political reality of each situation.

No one is happy with all aspects of any Government which is elected precisely because they are coalitions of disparate groups forced together by political expediency.

The Labour Party is a coalition of Trade Unionists, intellectuals and so on; the Conservative Party is a coalition of Landowners, Business and so on; the Lib Dems are clearly a coalition – coalitions are a result of any democracy, they  are not the result of proportional democracy.

Thomas does (almost) have a (small) point, when you consider Arrow’s impossibility theorem. There is no “middle ground” for parties in a coalition to meet over only a series of compromises.

But I again refer to my own point; it is more open, more accountable and more democratic that these compromises are out in the open rather than in smoky smoke free Party back-rooms.

Democracy works best when decisions are open to scrutiny and proportional systems offer more of that than FPTP does.

Over to you Thomas. You can capitulate now if you like.


[That is the substance of Thomas’s post dealt with but there were two other things I would raise.

  1. Firstly there is the conclusion with reference to a Party List election system. This is an electoral system with little support amongst those supporting electoral reform for reason which I suggest Thomas Byrne probably opposes it too; it hands a huge amount of power to central party bureaucrats. I feel it is a straw man in a post on electoral reform which, although I disagree with, was entirely honest up to that point.
  2. Thomas also argues that “A report carried out by Richard Rose for the Electoral Reform Society found no consistent link between electoral systems and economic performance.” If this is true than that is a relief. If even limited democracy is good for growth then even badly resourced developing countries can aspire to an electoral system which offers them good growth. But in the developed world a great deal matters as much as economics, for example, human rights such a free speech and habeas corpus. Do proportional systems protect these better than FPTP? On this Thomas is silent. There are a great many policy areas which would be better addressed in a proportional system and it appears that economics matters will be addressed no worse.]

5 thoughts on “The Tories are defending FPTP

    1. You should respond at some point, it’d be nice. But I know how blogging can be when you’ve got your heart set on a series.

      At your leisure, but remember, the longer I remain unrebutted, the longer I win ;)

  1. I’d question whether these coalitions actually bring things out into the open, whether there’s influence to be had as we’ve seen in the EU it’s merely led to more (And we actually see less of them.)

    The coalition cannot claim a ‘majority mandate’. It may craft a majority, but it cannot claim a mandate for something for which not a single elector has voted.

    I do not feel ‘represented’ if my fourth or fifth choice ends up being elected. I have variously voted for a losing candidate. I may be on the losing side but I do not regard my vote as wasted. I have demonstrated my support for my candidate and party and that gives me contentment. In the UK, constituency MPs seek to represent their constituents regardless of the party (if any) for which they voted.

    I support FPTP though as well, because I broadly see Parliament as a body that shouldn’t be doing very much, making few laws, with more power pushed down which makes it difficult to support without other measures like the local mayors we’re introducing being explained (I gave up on the series or it would take a month.) obviously someone who things that central bodies should be more active would take a different view.

  2. I’m not sure Party List systems are that bad. Closed-list ones are, definitely, but open-list gives the voters plenty of opportunity to push out individuals they dislike (unless the parties only stand as many candidates as they can get places, but STV has the same weakness there). It’s also a much simpler ballot paper for the voters, which in an election with potentially 20-30 candidates is an advantage. (though the Australian solution where you can vote for a party-line preference macro rather than writing out preferences individually is ingenious)

    I’d certainly be happy with either STV or one of the open-list systems.

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