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Why FPTP voting is dead across the world


5:46 pm - August 23rd 2010

by Sunny Hundal    


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The Australian election is the final nail in the coffin of the Westminster based First-Past-the-Post system of voting, says research by the LSE Politics and Policy blog.

Every key ‘Westminster model’ country now has a hung Parliament, following Australia’s ‘dead heat’ election – says Patrick Dunleavy.

The Australian general election held under the Alternative Vote has produced an evenly divided Parliament where a handful of independent MPs from the outback now hold the balance. As a result there are now no large ‘Westminster model’ countries left in the world with single party majority governments.

They cite evidence from India, Canada, New Zealand and Australia to point out that all these countries – thanks to political fragmentation – are heading to a permanent state of coalition politics.

Country (and population) Current Parliamentary and government situation Electoral reform position
India

(1,187 million people)
-Hung parliament including a large number of parties (perhaps 45, depending how you count them).

-The government is an 18 party coalition, headed by Congress; the rival BJP bloc also includes many parties.
-Political movements for the Dalit people (“untouchables”) are campaigning for proportional representation, and reform is backed by the Indian Communist Party. However, electoral reform debates are still at an early stage.
United Kingdom

(62 million people)
-Hung Parliament

-A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is in power.
-A referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote electoral system will be held in May 2011.

-The coalition government will announce plans for a wholly or mainly elected upper house, reforming the House of Lords, in January 2011.

-PR elections are already in place for Scotland, Wales, London and electing Euro MEPs.
Canada

(34 million people)
-Hung Parliament across three general elections

-A Conservative minority government is in power.
-There have been significant efforts to change from FPTP elections to PR elections in several provinces, so far unsuccessful
Australia

(22 million people)
-Hung Parliament and two top parties neck and neck – whoever forms the government will depend on the votes of Independent MPs -The Alternative Vote is used for the lower house, and STV for upper house elections.
New Zealand

(4.4 million people)
-A coalition government is in power, and no party has had a majority in balanced Parliaments since the voting system reform in 1996. -New Zealand adopted an Additional Member system of PR in 1996, following two referendums for reform.

The LSE blog adds:

For the first time in history, the Australian outcome means that every key ‘Westminster model’ country in the world now has a hung Parliament. These are the former British empire countries that according to decades of political science orthodoxy are supposed to produce strong, single party government.

Following Duverger’s Law their allegedly ‘majoritarian’ electoral systems (first past the post and AV) will typically produce reinforced majorities for one of the top two parties.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


“are heading to a permanent state of coalition politics”

This is a bold claim (do you have a crystal ball?), especially in Australia’s case where the “coalition” options that are being discussed mean one major party with three or four independent MPs, all of whom would vote with the government for different reasons. I’m not sure that really qualifies as coalition politics. There is no reason why Labor would fragment in Australia (neither do I see Labour or the Tories fragmenting here in the UK, and the AV referendum is far from won).

2. movingturtle

Slightly tangential this… I don’t understand is why coalition governments are seen in Britain as such a bad thing. Surely the experience of the rest of Europe shows that coalition governments are sufficiently stable to be an effective mode of governance? The current coalition in the UK hasn’t provided the balanced government we were hoping for but this says more about the spinlessness of the Lib Dems than about the weakness of coalition governments.

That said FPTP definitely needs to go I just don’t think this is the strongest arguments against it.

I must agree with Tim F. At no point in the article do the authors conclude that FPTP politics is dead or that coalition politics is likely to become inevitable. Indeed in Australia I have doubts over whether coalition politics is likely to become even vaguely regular, after all, just a tiny swing would give either party a majority. Britain is also not certain to remain hung by any means, though I agree hung parliaments are increasingly likely. FPTP is not dead yet by any means. We need a lot more of this before we can start declaring the end of FPTP.

It’s AV not FPTP. With some poorly calibrated warning shots to Labour probably contributing to the result. The idea that a coincidence of “balanced” parliaments on a range of similar systems is the death of FPTP is hilariously fallacious surely? Five and ten years ago the same comparatives could have shown FPTP to be excellent at getting clear results.

This might be the case again in five years also. What the situation does not prove is that some real PR system – also likely to bring post facto not manifesto bound coalitions – is inevitable or better. It doesn’t prove the opposite either. These patterns mean very little. They may be a fluke. They may reflect a certain amount of political convergence economically. They are not necessarily a function of the voting system that begets them.

Real life voters game whatever voting system they’re given. Not always successfully.

I’m not sure that really qualifies as coalition politics. There is no reason why Labor would fragment in Australia (neither do I see Labour or the Tories fragmenting here in the UK, and the AV referendum is far from won).

Tim f – the main reason for the death of FPTP is the rise of third parties. In Australia – the rise of the Greens will eventually kill the system. They polled 11% of support and got just 1MP – it’s obvious that people will want to see votes reflected more accurately.

The same in the UK – the Libdems and rise of smaller parties, coupled with lower voting percentages means no one party is likely to win a majority at elections.

Couple of points – “spinlessness” for “spinelessness”!

We would also do well to remember that the Liberal/National block is itself already a coalition of four entities. Does Gilliard have a chance of detaching one of those elements – some stripe of urban liberals perhaps ?

Sunny, the thing with Australia is that it has an upper house elected by STV, where the Greens have much representation, and usually hold the balance of power. The Senate is pretty much co-equal with the House. Many Australians consider this to be an acceptable compromise, and there is no reason to suspect they will cease to feel this way.

Australia has not used FPTP since 1918.

9. Snowplow Floater

You’re overstating the case here. Yes, in India coalitions are likely to be the norm in the future, and probably also in Canada (though they seem to prefer single-party minority governments). But the cases of Australia and the UK are far less clear-cut.

In the Australian election, just 5 seats out of 150 went to candidates from outside the big two parties (counting the Liberal-National coalition as one party). That’s hardly political fragmentation. Meanwhile the percentage of the vote going to parties outside the big two was actually lower than it has been at some other recent elections (eg 1998 and 2001). It needed the two main parties to be virtually tied for there to be a hung parliament. If the election had been held at pretty much any time in 2008 or 2009 it would almost certainly have produced a big Labour majority.

And I don’t think the fact that the Greens got 11% of the vote and just one seat makes the introduction of PR inevitable. In 1990, the centrist Australian Democrats won 11% of the vote and not a single seat, and that didn’t lead to reform. Perhaps if the Green vote keeps increasing then AV will eventually become unsustainable, but we have no means of knowing whether it will. Third parties in Australia have a tendency to come and go.

As for the UK, yes it’s true that over time the percentage of votes going to the Lib Dems and smaller parties has tended to increase. But it’s too big a jump to say, just because the last election produced a hung parliament, that future elections will keep on producing them – especially when current polls suggest that, at least for the moment, Britain is moving back towards a two-party system. We simply don’t know what the situation will be by 2015 (or whenever the next election is held). On one possible scenario, if the Tory/Lib Dem alliance becomes permanent, Britain could be left with a party system very similar to the Australian one: a right-of-centre coalition up against a single main (nominally) centre-left party. That arrangement has proved to be very stable in Australia, and might end up being so in Britain also.

Of course, most MPs in the UK Parliament are very comfortable with the FPTP electoral system in which the outcome for some 400 seats at general elections is utterly predictable.

Why most of the electorate should feel content with this situation is another matter.

Does this all not show the vibrancy and choice available in a FPTP system?

Just playing devil’s advocate – but it does seem a little ridiculous to suggest occasional hung parliaments are a reason to move to inevitable hung parliaments.

12. Charlieman

@9. Snowplow Floater: “As for the UK, yes it’s true that over time the percentage of votes going to the Lib Dems and smaller parties has tended to increase.”

The LibDem vote had a big lift when the SDP-Liberal Alliance was formed in the 1980s. Since that time, the UK parliamentary result has fluctuated in the range ~17-26% of turnout. The Greens have had a lift too, but their results in non-UK-parliamentary elections have flattered them. Ditto the other small parties.

Where we are now is a UK where the LibDems (and nationalists) win a share of the vote that is inconsistent with a “winner takes all” parliament. We have been where we are for 25 years.

The suggestion that the Tory/LibDem coalition becomes permanent is unlikely. The right wing liberals in Germany have retained a separate identity from the Christian Democrats for decades. As Sunny noted in another thread, liberals are liberals.

13. Snowplow Floater

@ 12

I wasn’t saying it was likely, just that it was one possible scenario. And it is possible – several times in past British history, the Tory party has managed to swallow at least part of the Liberal party (eg the Liberal Unionists of the late C19th and the National Liberals after each of the two world wars). I was trying to illustrate the general point that you can’t simply assume, as Sunny seems to be doing here, that just because the most recent British election happened to produce a hung parliament, that this will now be the norm for all future elections.

“Where we are now is a UK where the LibDems (and nationalists) win a share of the vote that is inconsistent with a “winner takes all” parliament. We have been where we are for 25 years.”

True. And given that it is in the interest of both main parties to preserve the current situation, it’s quite likely that we will stay where we are for many more years yet. Unfortunately.

“The right wing liberals in Germany have retained a separate identity from the Christian Democrats for decades.”

Er… no. The usual pattern is that they rely on borrowed votes from the CDU, unless they’ve been in opposition for some time.

Or… it shows that in these uncertain times, people don’t know which way they want to go. Both sides make convincing arguments for economic recovery and the people are split as to which they want.

Or… it shows that there is practically no difference between the main parties, who have spent so long chasing after the ‘centre ground’ to win elections that they’ve alienated what would be termed their core support. There are a lot of voters out there who want a low tax, small government. What a shame no party is brave enough to go after those voters.

15. Mark M:

There are a lot of voters out there who want a low tax, small government.

There are more who don’t.

Sunny:

The Australian election is the final nail in the coffin of the Westminster based First-Past-the-Post system of voting, says research by the LSE Politics and Policy blog.

LSE Politics and Policy blog:

These developments do not mean that the whole of the ‘Westminster model’ concept should be ditched quite yet though.

I used to wonder whether Sunny read the links he posted…

18. Charlieman

@14 Alun: “The usual pattern is that they rely on borrowed votes from the CDU, unless they’ve been in opposition for some time.”

The German list system is theoretically proportional but provides for gaming. In the part of the vote that elects constituency members by FPTP, it is likely that the big parties (SPD, CDU/CSU) will get a disproportionate number of seats. Proportionality is provided by topping up from a list, based on share of the vote in the second ballot. The ballots are conducted concurrently.

Thus, if your party is going to poll strongly in the FPTP ballot, it is beneficial for some of your voters to vote for your preferred coalition partner (Green, Free Democrat) in the second ballot. It means that the secondary coalition partner is slightly stronger and the dominant one slightly weaker. It is a risky strategy, but that is why it is called gaming.

When I picked the FDP as an example, I was conscious that they are much more free market than LibDems or even many members of their historic coalition partner, the CDU. At the same time, they have helped defend Germany from authoritarians (much of the CSU). I think that the FDP are a good example that liberals are a poor target for conversion to conservatism.

I’m puzzled as to why a country (Australia) that uses AV and another (New Zealand) that uses AMS are among the evidence you cite for FPTP being dead, if by dead you mean (as you appear to) incapable of producing single-party majority governments (and if that is what you mean by dead, then PR systems are dead in most countries too – though I appreciate that allowing for majority governments is meant to be one of FPTP’s advantages).

Of course, AV has a lot in common with FPTP and the fact that the Greens won only one seat (on 11% of the vote) doesn’t necessarily give huge support for those who claim or hope that AV in this country will give a big boost to minor parties. After all, UK Greens have one seat, already, too – and like in the UK, the Australian Green is his party’s first victorious candidate in lower-house elections. AV has given Australian politics remarkably little variety party-wise, with only three significant parties, two of which (Liberal and National) are difficult to distinguish and sometimes aren’t distinguished (and have already merged in some states).

@19. Richard P: “I’m puzzled as to why a country (Australia) that uses AV and another (New Zealand) that uses AMS are among the evidence you cite for FPTP being dead…”

I suggest that you start off with the LSE paper itself: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/?p=3781

The paper is observational. Something about events that occurred in countries that traditionally used UK FPTP when they switched to different voting systems. Something different happened, but nothing was measured?

Brilliant subject , I really am trying how to make my weblog this topical !

you’ve a wonderful blog in this particular article! do you want to make a number of invite posts on my blogs?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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  2. EdH

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  3. sunny hundal

    Australian election shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  4. Anna

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  5. Darren Bridgman

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  6. paulstpancras

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  7. Ralf Grahn

    RT @paulstpancras: RT @sunny_hundal: Australian election shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  8. Steed

    RT @libcon: Australian election shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  9. sdv_duras

    RT @sunny_hundal Australian election shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd (evidence doesn't support this)

  10. Therese

    RT @sunny_hundal: Australian election shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  11. Katie Sutton

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  12. Philip Hunt

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  13. The Election Blog

    RT @sunny_hundal: Australian election shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  14. david farrell

    Er. They don't use FPTP @theelectionblog @sunny_hundal: Australian elec shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  15. david farrell

    & FPTP isn't er 'dead' @theelectionblog @sunny_hundal: Australian elec shows why FPTP voting is dead across the world http://bit.ly/dxNQjd

  16. Paul Marr

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  17. Henry Stockdale

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  21. Matt Lodder

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  22. Liz K

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