First Past the Post is the past; AV is its final outpost: let’s draw a finishing line for them both!

The present First Past the Post voting system used for UK-parliamentary elections is the post that is propping up the whole crumbling House of Westminster. It’s like one of those wooden buttresses that are used to hold up the remaining outer walls of part-demolished buildings: a common sight on post-war bomb sites. ‘We should have demolished the old girl and built a new house from scratch’, the locals were wont to say; ‘but we’ve grown attached to her – she reminds us of the good old days’.

So it is with the Houses of Parliament: once the epicentre of a vast estate, now a shadow of her former self. First she lost all her lands, which she reluctantly had to hand back to their original and rightful owners; now even some of her choicest and most palatial rooms have been knocked down. ‘Devolution’, they called it, though it seems more like a demolition. All that’s left is Little England. But we won’t let on; we’ll carry on pretending that we’re still mighty Blighty, Great Britain, and that Westminster is the seat of an immense power.

And First Past the Post is one of the things that props up that illusion. It does so by indeed conferring great power on the government of the so-called United Kingdom (well, we can’t call it ‘England’, can we!) by ensuring that it does not need to suffer the inconvenience of being accountable to anything such as voters or ‘the people’. House of Commons it may be, yet it’s not for the common people but only for those who would be the Lords of Westminster’s manor. The said Lords are known as the Executive, and they exercise their power by commanding the loyalty of their servants, who are known as MPs. So long as a majority of the MPs are willing to continue serving their masters, those masters can hold on to their power, and the MPs do their bidding and enact their decrees.

Every now and then, the servants put themselves up for election by the commoners they are supposed to represent. But one needn’t suppose that the different factions into which the servants are divided – known as parties – are elected in proportion to the support they receive from the commoners. Oh no! That would make the power of the Lords of Westminster dependent on the support of the commoners rather than the MPs. No, one or other of the two largest parties needs the votes of only the largest minority of commoners to win big majorities of MPs; and so power can be swapped between the two parties from time to time, but the system of power itself remains unchanged.

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the voting method that allows this marvellous, time-honoured system of Executive rule to be perpetuated. Under this, the candidate obtaining a plurality – sometimes as low as 30% of the vote – is elected as MP, i.e. becomes the sole representative of his or her commoners, or constituents. This is replicated at national level, whereby the party obtaining the plurality of votes wins absolute power, sometimes known as an ‘outright majority’.

Now, some while back, the MPs and even the Executive itself heard mutterings of rebellion from the commoners to the effect that this voting system was somehow ‘unfair’. Indeed, there were even suggestions that it might be replaced by a system that did ensure that the number of MPs elected from each faction corresponded to the number of votes each faction had received. This raised the horrific prospect that only MPs elected in Little England should help the Executive to rule England. By contrast, under the existing system, MPs from a former province known as West Lothian were imported into the House to further prop up the majority of one of the two largest parties, known as the Labourers of the Estate. But as the number of English MPs elected was out of all proportion to the number of votes they’d actually received in Little England anyway, no one seemed to mind – or, if they did, the members of the household didn’t care.

These mutterings of rebellion grew so loud they even led to a third party that championed the cause winning so many votes that the FPTP system for once failed to deliver an outright majority to the party that won the plurality. That particular party, known as the Conservators of the Estate, incidentally handled the episode with exceptional grace: firstly, by taking the MPs belonging to the third party – the Liberty Takers – into their confidence and combining with them to form a new kind of majority known as a coalition that the Conservators were able to control; and secondly, by allowing the commoners to choose whether to keep the First Past the Post system or replace it with an alternative, conveniently called the ‘Alternative Vote’.

The Alternative Vote (AV) is superficially a rather complicated system. But its complexity serves essentially to obscure its primary function, which is to ensure that, at constituency level, a candidate must obtain a majority – or as near as possible to one – in order to pass the post and be elected. I suppose the thinking is that FPTP fooled the commoners for many years into thinking that enough pluralities at local level added up to a legitimate majority at national level; so that when MPs need to win actual majorities at local level, we’ll accept that the outright majorities their parties will continue to enjoy at national level are, well, legitimate.

AV performs this sleight of hand by dismissing the first votes of many of the commoners, which is their only vote under FPTP – making the FPTP winner, in effect, the one who first passes the first and only post. Under AV, if no candidate obtains a majority of these first votes, then a sort of virtual run-off election is held in which the candidate finishing last is eliminated – so that, effectively, they’re not even allowed to cross the finishing post at all – and the second votes, or preferences, of the commoners who gave that party their first votes are then assigned to the parties remaining in the race. This process is continued until, finally, one of the candidates obtains a majority of the votes or until these run out. The winner, therefore, is the one who first passes the final post: the one who wins most votes in the final virtual run-off ballot, whether the total number of votes they obtain constitutes a majority of the votes of all the commoners who bothered to turn out or not.

So, AV replaces First Past the (first and only) Post with First Past the Final Post. Superficially, these systems are so different that most of the commoners won’t notice that the end result will be the same in virtually all the constituencies: the same candidates will be elected under either system, and they’ll mostly be people that are not supported by a majority of voters. Except, AV will cover up this fact by adding the non-first-preference votes of the commoners who voted for the smaller parties to the first-preference votes of those who voted for the larger parties and calling them the same thing. This then creates larger pluralities and majorities for the same dominant parties. Genius!

And so the cherished hope of the Westminster Estate is that whichever system is chosen – FPTP or AV – will continue to prop up its crumbling walls and sustain the illusion of democratic legitimacy with which it has held the commoners spellbound for so long. However, I suspect the foundations of the edifice are shot, and any electoral fix is only a short-term solution. In fact, I don’t think we, the commoners, should play along at all: we shouldn’t vote either for First Past the Post or First Past the Final Post and thereby allow the MPs and the Executive to lord it over us any more. We should tell them where to stuff their buttresses (the clue is in the name) and pull those supporting posts from the side of the building.

Then perhaps we can start building that new House from scratch: a little English castle not a lordly palace.


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