Monday, 3 May 2010

The Clarion Call for First Past the Post

The Tories are campaigning for “choice” and “change” while Labour claim to want a “future fair for all” and yet both cling to a voting system that restricts choice to a minimum and entrenches unfairness, reported Richard Moore in the Independent on Sunday.

Mr Moore goes on to explain that in 1928 women got the vote at the same age as men and we had to all intents and purposes universal suffrage. Since then there have been 20 General Elections. In three of these: May 1929, October 1951 and February 1974 the party with the second largest number of votes got more seats than the party with the largest number of votes. In three others: February 1950, October 1964 and October 1974 the parliamentary majority of the winner was in single figures. In 1931 there was a National Government led by Ramsay MacDonald, who until two months earlier had been Labour PM, but with the Tories and Liberals had now formed a coalition despite the fact that Stanley Baldwin’s Tories had won an outright majority of seats in the election. So in a third of these 20 elections the first past the post system had not produced a decisive majority for a single party or the strong government which are claimed to be its chief merits. 2010 looks likely to add to that tally.

So what exactly are the chief merits of strong government? A large majority encourages arrogance and complacency. As is evidenced by the Labour landslide in 1997. The last time that PR was on the cards as even Tony Blair had not the confidence before the election to predict a landslide. And who could blame him after the “oh yea” moment from Neil Kinnock in 1993. To that end it was seriously mooted that Paddy Ashdown would have a seat in Cabinet and that PR would be a real option. That was all quickly ditched when the landslide materialised and the Tories were wiped out. This election hubris is quickly spent in the first or second term of a powerful government when a large part of its reform agenda is actually complete.

Then one or more of three things happen: the swollen ranks of government supporters realise how many of them will lose their jobs/seats on quite a small loss of votes and so the agenda switches to holding on to power rather than governing. The government flails around to extend in any way possible its reform agenda usually with disastrous results; the poll tax and railway privatisation spring to mind. And worst of all it begins to run out of talent and searches around for what it can get: I think people will agree that Harriet Harman, Lord Mandelson and Alistair Campbell come into this category among others. All this is made so much worse by an incompetent or ineffective opposition, Labour from 1979-1994 and the Tories from 1997-2010.

In the end panic prevails as we see in the hectic disorganisation of the current Labour Party a trend that I well remember from the mid 90’s infecting John Major's Tories just as much.

So there you are the clarion call for first past the post? Does it work? I don’t think so.


  1. Seems to me Some are advocating 'Strong' Government even if that leads to 'Strong and wrong' Government.......

    do the British people at heart have a masochistic streak are we still in a servant master society.
    Looks like some want to have an old Etonian to bow and scrape to.

  2. Mr MixedPickle: Labour had every opportunity since 1997 to do something about it. Indeed they floated the idea of cooperation with the Lib Dems and presumably PR prior to the 97 election. But then for 13 years when the FPTP system suited them they did nothing. Now it is back on the cards because FPTP is going to suit a Tory toff and not the so called “right” party according to you. That’s part of the problem with FPTP nobody wants to get rid of it when it suits them and nobody can see far enough to the inevitable point when it wont. Do try to remember that the founder of your party, Keir Hardie was an advocate of PR all his life. It was the arch opportunist Ramsay MacDonald that ditched that when FPTP seemed to suit his ambitions (Keir being conveniently dead by then) to become PM. He went on to hold on to that job at all costs by joining with the toffs you hate so much and being drummed out of the Labour Party. All this serves to demonstrate the truth of what I say above about the failings of this system. It happens again and again and again.

  3. muinguin

    The holy grail of British politics is to keep the Torys out of power.

    by Whatever means necessary

  4. Maybe for you Mr MixedPickle but not for the majority of us.

    Considering that you can barely get a ray of sunshine between them I really don’t see the point of your slavish devotion to a party that began to diverge from the aspirations of its founder more or less the minute he was dead.

    You surely don’t think that Keir Hardie would recognise people like Tom Harris as being part or anywhere near the party he founded do you?

  5. Munguin, you site, in your excellent piece, three examples of where the current system has produced government consisting of parties who won fewer votes than their opposition.

    But there are flaws in the system at a local level too. Of course we need to start with the premise that all election systems are inherently flawed, but FPTP seems more unfair than the rest.

    In every constituency there are people who will be disappointed by the result, but in a multi party system presumably quite frequently there will be more people who voted against the winner than for. If the majority is small it will almost certainly not be an overall majority. In my own constituency (from memory) approximately 14,500 voted for the member, 22,000 against. These 22,000 surely have a right to a voice.

    Of course in many constituencies the winner is street in front.

    And this in itself is not a good thing. Complacency in the individual that he is safe for life as long as he keeps in with the local party committee (opening bazaars, coffee mornings, bingo evenings; speaking at the local round table, etc voting with the party and not being too ridiculous with money or matters sexual...although in some cases even that’s OK). A safe seat can breed a lazy MP, as we have seen in the chap that John Mason replaced in Glasgow East, David Marshall. Not only had he allegedly been a bit on the free side with the taxpayers’ money, he had also done no work that anyone had ever noticed.... in Labour’s third safest seat in the country.

    The calls that PR produces weak government are clearly nonsense. Other countries manage perfectly well and produce a far better standard of living for their populations with coalition government. The argument that you lose touch by not having a constituency MP is also nonsense. These people are voted in in a constituency... why would they not be the constituency MP?

    It is probably harder work for the MPs, but then they are paid 2 ½ times the average salary for a job that requires no particular skills or abilities; not one single qualification; no professional membership. Nice work if you can get it.

  6. I'm being a bit Two Faced on PR. It does appear to be the right system because the demographics of the parliament should mirror the way the public voted but the concern I have at the moment is one which the Conservatives have brought up and that is we could be stuck with an unpopular government for decades even though most of us never voted for it.

    Labour have imploded yet ironically they could cling onto power with less than 25% of the vote with the help of the Lib/Dems. It is this very scenario that I want to see an outright Tory victory so there is absolutely no prospect of Labour (in any shape or form) clinging onto power.

    If we had PR for Westminster at this moment then we could be looking at another 5 years of Labour.
    Only voters like Mr Mixed Pickle would like that but the rest of us would probably leave the country.

    PR works well in Scotland because we have 4 main parties and any one of them really do have a chance of either being the government or at least forming part of it. I think in a parliament such as Westminster where 90% of the votes and MPs are concentrated on 3 parties then I can't see PR being right at this moment in time but PR is by far a fairer system.

    The Lib/Dems should be careful on what they wish for because PR could see them lose out in Scotland. According some data if the Lib/Dems polled 13% on election night then they would still hold onto all 13 seats they currently hold.

    For me FPTP for now to ensure we get rid of Labour then PR can be looked at afterwards.

  7. Mr Mixed pickles.

    The holy grail of British politics is to keep the Torys out of power.
    and presumably in Scotland! The holy grail of Scottish politics is to keep the SNP out of power?

    You can't always have it your own way but if you like your own party to be in power for eternity then move to North Korea because Franky speaking some of you die hard Labour socialists appear to favour a communist state where we all work for the party in power and a vote for anyone else is treated as treason.

  8. ALLAN

    The snp are Torys Subrosas support for the snp confirms this.........

  9. Tris: this being in touch with a constituency notion is pretty thin excuse for keeping FPTP. An MP’s main role ought to be the implementation, discussion and revision of legislation which is all done at a national level. The proper channel for folk to take their local problems to is their local councillor. It is there that local decisions are made not at Westminster. If we did have STV and multi-member constituencies we could also beef up the role of local representatives while we are about it.

  10. Allan: you are only saying that because we have had 13 years of Labour thanks to first past the post. And as I say they are unpopular because they have run out of ideas talent etc. But who can say what things would have been like if we had 13 years of cooperation and discussion between the parties and a synergy of ideas and talent instead a constant bickering and vying to be top dog.

  11. Niko, LABOUR are the Tories... as Munguin says, you couldn't get a ray of sunshine between them.

    What on earth does this lot have in common with the Labour of Foot, Wilson, Gaitskell, Benn and Dennis Skinner?

    Is this the party of the working man; the party that condemns the actions of the unions that it takes money from? Seriously?

    This party of the working man that allows banks to get so big that they can't be allowed to fail and so they bail them out with 100 years of debt and then allow them to take bonuses that would feed a hundred poor bairns until they died?

    And then it doubles the bottom rate of income tax and hits the poorest most.

    Is this a Labour party that has cabinet members in the hated House of Aristocrats that in its first manifesto it said it would abolish?

    The party that privatises stuff? The party that in 13 years, 10 of which were unbounded growth didn’t make one single step towards making state pensions rise in line with wages, letting old people fall farther and farther into poverty as they wrecked employers’ pension schemes. We could afford it. Gordon had abolished Boom and bust but he just gave it all to the rich, poured it into management speak executives and administrators with small jobs and big salaries.

    What kind of Labour party is that?

    The SNP is a broad church Niko. There are hard left wing socialists that think Scotland isn’t the basket case that unionists think it is. There are right wing Tories that want their own country; I know some. People who have come from every spectrum of politics in Scotland.

    I don’t pretend to know Subrosa’s politics, but whatever they are she has already said that she disagrees with many of the SNP’s policies. They are just the best way to get our country back.

    I’m a socialist. No bones about it. I’ve seen far too much poverty in my work to be anything else. I’m disgusted by the party of working man. It’s far too right wing for me.

    Nicola Sturgeon described the party who built the first council houses in Scotland since that daft bat Thatcher had the idea of selling them all off cheap, described the SNP as a left of centre social democratic party in nature.

    Tartan Tories is something that might have been true in the 1930s mate. Move with the times. Red Tories for Labour more like.

  12. Allan: before we had PR in Scotland the SNP got a handful of MPs and had no voice now they are the government of Scotland. And if England had had PR in the 1980s they would have four parties as well Labour, Conservative, Liberal and SDP. Introducing it now would encourage the growth of other small parties like the greens.

  13. Allan: In North Korea the Communists are the Tories!

  14. Mr MixedPickle: I support the SNP and I am a republican, how does that make me a Tory?

  15. Muinguin

    Your a Tory i can smell it on ya!

  16. Mr MixedPickle is getting rid of the Queen and her odious brood a Tory thing to do?

    I'm amazed you can smell anything but vinegar.

  17. Mr MixedPickle no comment to make on what Tris says about there being no actual clear difference between the Tories and your lot. Can we take your silence as an admition that it is true?

  18. Niko does not want to change anything despite being kicked in the teeth by, initially, the Tories and subsequently by NewLabour he still regards them both as politicians who work for the electorate rather than the other way round. That's the union benefit.

  19. The one major advantage of FPTP is that it allows an electorate to get rid of a government rather than have the same set of crooks ally with another set of crooks and remain in power.
    The big danger is of course that the government you change too are just as incompetent.

  20. Mr Mxyzptlk

    It cant say much for Labour if some Scots prefer the nasty party to Labour.

  21. Munguin.

    I'm totally for PR and as you rightly said, it hughley benefited the likes of the SNP. My concern is that we need to say a proper bye bye to Labour and FP will ensure this. After this election then PR should be looked at and hopefully at the next election it can be introduced.

    I have never voted for Tory or Labour and both are just as nasty as each other but anything for change.

  22. Quiet Man

    That is one advantage but it does disadvantage smaller parties and the current system heavily favours Labour.

  23. QM: Instead of getting one set of crooks and self servers allied with another set of crooks and self servers, you get a bunch crooks and self servers who are there all on their own.

    BTW just watched last night's leaders debates, and I was proud of the Scots in the audience over immigration questions, which they realised were different from England's situation.

    The other thing that was very very obvious was that the public is still very very angry about expenses. They think they've ficxed it, that it will all blown over, well the public made sure that they were disabused of that notion.

    The words steal, stole and thieves were never that far from that part of the discussion.

  24. QM: If we had fixed parliaments under PR. It would not be a question of one set of crooks propping up another. But rather a group of politicians putting into effect the wishes of the people. It is only a question of crooks at the moment because the strong FPTP system that we have had until now has, allied with the secrecy around expenses, allowed that situation to arise. PR makes them more answerable to the people because there will not be a situation where the majority of seats are safe jobs for life.

  25. Allan: I think it’s a pretty safe bet that we will be seeing the back of Labour in terms of the UK. Whether that will happen in Scotland I doubt. But that doesn’t really matter, as usual we will get the government in London that the English want. Perhaps a Tory government elected by England and not Scotland will benefit the cause of independence. It certainly poses interesting constitutional questions. I also watched the Scottish leaders debate and thought that David Mundell was as usual awful. I sincerely hope that he loses his seat, but I do want a Tory MP representing Scotland in the event of a Tory government. And so I hope that John Lamont will win his seat and take over as the only Tory MP in Scotland. We don’t need a dummy like that being Scotland’s voice in the cabinet and as a republican I disapprove of Lords as a matter of course.

  26. Munguin: Fixed term parliaments are essential. We can't have them with a small majority, or balanced parliament taking the easy way out and trotting off to the palace for another election rather than working hard to make the most of the situation.

    Frankly if they do, I think that the Queen should say NO. Get on with the job that the public gave you and use what few political skills you have to work together.

    The "If you don't like the public's votes make the stupid idiots do it again till they get the result you want" attitude... just isn't good enough. It's not grown up politics.

    And all this crap about hung parliaments and coalitions providing indecisive government is so much rubbish. When did we last have a coalition? During the war. Was that weak and indecisive? Er, no, not even slightly. Did it get things done? Oh yes.

    I laughed like a drain when a member of the public asked the Scottish leaders who they would and wouldn't work for in the event of a hung parliament. Mundane and Morph didn’t give the man, a member of the public, the courtesy of an answer. The warbled on (both saying almost exactly the same) about four days to go, everything to fight for, blah, blah). So I hope the questioner took all that in.

  27. Yes this having elections until you get the result you want just isn't on. Germany has fixed parliaments and PR. An election can only be reheld under exceptional circumstances if the President says so. So they have to get on and work together. We can hardly say that Germany is not a success. Or Canada or New Zealand and on and on and on. Usually the anti PR lot trot out Italy as a European basket case of PR gone mad but forget all the successful places where it works well. No doubt from now on it will be Greece.

  28. Munguin.

    It would further the constitutional question if the Tory party was wiped out in Scotland and at the same time they formed the UK government.

    If most seats after this election are Labour in Scotland and Cameron wins then surely the SNP must say to Scots that Labour has let the Tory party in.

  29. Allan: yes that's true but then for the time being we would be lumbered with a lord as Scottish Secretary. The SNP could say that just as effectively with one Tory MP I think.

  30. The key to the voting system is the historical culture of Punch and Judy politics.

    When Holyrood was set up, it was designed,ostensibly, to produce a form of co-operative multi-party Parliamentary system. That was why the debating chamber was arranged in the for of a horse shoe and not the face-off that is Westminster. It was also designed to ensure a Lab, plus one other, majority ad infinitum.

    Then Westminster decided that they needed to micro manage from afar the day to day directions and decisions at Holyrood,as it was showing up the limitations of the Westminster model.

    So in come the SNP with a real appetite to govern and a just so right to do so.

    Cue the huff from The Lab-Libs who viewed Holyrood as their fiefdom and all the dummies out the pram stuff we have seen fro Labour and the LibDumbs.

    The key is the cosy two party system of Westminster and the absolute requirement of the two main parties, whichever they are, to protect it.

    Clegg, if he replaces Labour as No 2 in votes will push to change any system but, only as far as it suits him and not democracy.

    The 2 party Punch and Judy show will continue as long as the mentality and rewards it engenders exist.

    Only when a fresh start on a clean sheet of paper comes about, by cataclysmic circumstances like WW2 in Germany can it be replaced by an inclusive democracy.

    WRT to the UK, Scotland quitting the UK could give England the opportunity to change Westminster.

    So, independence for Scotland could actually be the best thing for English democracy?

  31. Thanks bugger very true and of course a republic!

  32. The Conservatives are very different from Labour. In education the Tories have a radical manifesto agenda. In the NHS, we are the only Party pledging to protect the NHS from a cuts agenda, in terms of broader socio-political environments the Tories stand for a big society; it being different from the big state.

    The Tories would devolve power to local government for the first time since the 80's when they were stripped of authority and power. Labour wouldn't do that, they believe in a massive state.

    There is a heck of a lot of different between my lot and the Liebour Party. I personally take offense that anyone would even think that I and my Party are just like the current shower!

  33. And as to the constitutional dangers if there is a Tory government with only a handful of Scottish MPs...I think people need to remember their historical trends a little bit more!

    It is true to say that the corrolation between the SNP doing well and Liebour being in power is obvious. Look at 1990- the SNP had overcome their internal divisions and still only got 14% of the vote- why? Because to get a tory government out in Scotland everyone knows to vote tactically for Liebour.

    The SNP will not succeed just because of a Tory government, if anything, a Tory government will be good for Liebour in Scotland.