First Past the Post

The main electoral system in the UK, known as first-past-the post, is a plurality system. It is used for elections to the UK Parliament, and to English and Welsh local government. It is also used in the USA and India. The UK remains the only democracy in Europe to use First Past the Post (FPTP) to elect its MPs

How it works

A simple plurality system means that the winner is the candidate who gains the most votes. The winning margin need only be one vote; quite often it is less than 50% of the votes cast.

Voters simply put an 'X' in the box, indicating their choice. There is no order of preference.

The UK is divided up into 650 constituencies. These are single-member constituencies, that is, only one MP is returned per constituency.

The 'winning post' in a constituency is determined after all the votes have been counted; whoever gets the highest number of votes wins the seat. The winning margin could be as small as one and or as huge as over 20 thousand.

The winning post required to form a government from the results of these constituency elections is, however, fixed. With a total of 650 seats, if one party gains 326 MPs this gives it a majority of two over all others. In May 2010, no party reached this total.

Apart from a few exceptions, all adults over 18 years of age and who are UK citizens are allowed to vote. Exceptions include most prisoners (this has become a controversial issue, with the European Court of Human Rights ordering Britain to allow them to vote in a 2010 judgement), and those certified with serious mental illness

The continued use of FPTP for Westminster elections has aroused controversy for decades.

In modern times the UK's parliamentary system has been based on single-member representation: each constituency elects one MP. Until 1948 some constituencies returned more than one member (for example, several Lancashire towns, including Blackburn and Bolton, were dual-member constituencies).

The average number of voters in a constituency is roughly 70,000, but there is considerable variation. The size of constituencies is regulated by an independent Boundary Commission, which recommends periodic changes based on movements of population. In 2005 the number of Scottish constituencies was reduced from 72 to 59 to bring its representation more closely into line with that of the rest of the UK. Before the 2015 general election it had been agreed to reduce the number of constituencies in the UK from 650 to 600. This reform was delayed owing to disagreements within the coalition government, but the election of a Conservative government put it back on the agenda again. It is expected to involve an extensive redrawing of constituency boundaries. Among the planned changes is the splitting of the Isle of Wight, which currently has 110,000 voters, into two separate seats.

The Boundary Commission for England published its proposals for new constituency boundaries in June. A consultation ends in August, which will be followed by revised proposals in 2022 and final recommendations in 2023.

There's quite a lot of variation between different regions of England. Broadly, the South is getting more seats whilst the North will have fewer. Leading experts said the Conservative party would have won an additional five seats at the last election 2019 under new draft parliamentary constituencies.

A new map of proposed constituencies in England will be published on 8 November 2022 by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE), giving members of the public a final chance to have their say on proposals for new constituencies in their area. Consulation will end in JUne 2023 and the new constituencies will be in place.

Under the Boundary Commission for England's proposals, England will have 10 additional House of Commons seats overall once the changes have come into effect. Scotland loses two and Wales loses eight.

Advantages of FPTP

· Speed and simplicity FPTP is easy to use, with voters making a single cross and choosing one candidate. The result is usually known early in the morning after polling day and a new government is rapidly formed, allowing a swift and orderly transfer of power. The May 2010 general election was an exception, when negotiations between the prospective parties of government did not produce a result for 5 days. This would be the norm under a proportional system. The outcome of a general election would be determined by horse-trading between the party leaders, which can take time. After the 2010 general election in Belgium, which uses a proportional system, it took almost 18 months to form a government. Admittedly this is an extreme example, but the fact remains that proportional systems are far less decisive than FPTP. The ease and familiarity of FPTP help to explain continuing public support for its retention. When voters were given the opportunity to replace it with the Alternative Vote (AV) in a referendum held in May 2011, almost 68 per cent of those who voted chose to retain FPTP. Another example of the delay in forming a government is the federal elections in Germany which were held i 26 September 2021 to elect the members of the 20th Bundestag On 23 November, following complex coalition talks, the SPD, FDP and Greens formalized an agreement to form a traffic light coalition, which was approved by all three parties. Olaf Scholz and his cabinet were elected by the Bundestag on 8 December.

· Strong and stable government FPTP tends to promote a two-party system, which gives voters a clear choice. At general elections it usually gives a clear majority to one party, which then has a mandate to carry out its programme. The government can be removed at the next general election if the voters disapprove of its record. For example, it enabled Margaret Thatcher to carry out her plans for the reduction of trade union power and privatisation in the 1980s, and allowed Tony Blair to undertake extensive constitutional reforms after his 1997 victory. Supporters of FPTP argue that, by boosting the significance of smaller parties, proportional systems give them undue influence. In Germany between 1969 and 1998, the Free Democrats never gained more than 10 per cent of the popular vote but were able to hold the balance of power between the two largest parties. They sustained the Social Democrats in office until 1982, when they switched their support to the Christian Democrats or German conservatives. Proportional representation is far more likely than FPTP to produce a coalition government. This means that the government's programme will be worked out behind closed doors in negotiations between the party leaders, without the voters having the opportunity to give their verdict on it. In addition coalitions are sometimes unstable and can break up if one of the coalition parties has a fundamental disagreement with its partner.

· Exclusion of extremists Although critics of FPTP point to the way it under-represents smaller parties, the advantage of this is that extreme parties — which may feed on racism, xenophobia and other extremist views — are much less likely to gain a foothold.

A strong link between MPs and their constituencies The relatively small size of most FPTP constituencies, and the fact that a single MP is responsible for representing those who live within the constituency, are often seen as strengths. MPs handle correspondence from their constituents and hold surgeries at which they make themselves available to those seeking help and advice.

Disadvantages of FPTP

· MPs and governments can be elected on less than 50 per cent of the vote More than half of MPs typically do not command majority support within their constituency. This is because they do not need an overall majority of the votes cast, but can win by gaining just one more vote than the second placed candidate. It is quite possible for more votes to be cast against rather than for the winning candidate.

· At national level, FPTP regularly produces governments elected on a minority of the popular vote. The lowest percentage was recorded in 2005, when Tony Blair was re-elected on 35.2 per cent of the vote. This weakens the mandate enjoyed by the winning party, especially as general elections since 2001 have been characterised by low voter turnout. This feature means that significant numbers of voters feel that the system lacks legitimacy.

· Lack of proportionality FPTP does not translate the number of votes into seats for each party with any real accuracy. The system favours parties whose vote is concentrated, rather than those whose support is spread across a large geographical area. A party may come second in a large number of seats, but FPTP does not reward this because only one candidate can win in each constituency. For example, UKIP won almost 3.9 million votes in 2015, but only one seat. By contrast the Scottish National Party replaced Labour as the largest party in Scotland, taking 56 out of 59 seats with 50 per cent of the vote, because it campaigned only in one part of the UK. FPTP does not reflect the fact that the number of people voting for the two largest parties has been in decline for some time. Between 1945 and 1970, on average ten MPs from smaller parties were elected in each Parliament. By 2015 that figure had risen to 87 MPs.

· The winner's bonus The winning party under FPTP enjoys a share of the seats in excess of the share of the vote it receives. This occurs if a large number of seats are marginal between the two main parties. For example, in the elections of 1983 and 1987 Margaret Thatcher won majorities of 144 and 102 respectively, on 42 per cent of the vote. In the 2015 election the winner's bonus was much less marked, with David Cameron winning only a 12 seat majority, but there was still a mismatch between votes and seats. The Conservatives won 50.9 per cent of the seats with 36.9 per cent of the vote.

· Limited voter choice FPTP limits the choice for voters in several ways. Each party puts forward a single candidate, so there is no choice between individuals representing different shades of opinion within the party. The prevalence of safe seats means that many voters have little hope of seeing their favoured candidate win. This can depress voter turnout, as people feel that there is no point in voting for a candidate who cannot hope to be elected. Alternatively, people may resort to tactical voting — voting not for their favourite but for the candidate most likely to prevent the party they dislike from winning. In 2015 a number of vote-swapping websites were set up. These enabled people living in constituencies where their vote would be wasted to swap with someone in an area where it would make a difference. This is not illegal (unless inducement or pressure is applied) but it does shed a light on the way that the UK's system of representative democracy works.

· Votes are of unequal value In a small constituency a vote usually counts for more than it does in a larger one. Votes are said to be 'wasted' if they are cast for a losing candidate, or if they are cast for a winning candidate, in excess of the plurality needed for him or her to win. The Electoral Reform Society calculated that 74.4 per cent of votes cast in the 2015 election were wasted, compared to 71.1 per cent in 2010.

FPTP produces another kind of distortion known as 'electoral deserts': areas of the country where one party cannot win seats. South-east England is an electoral desert for Labour. An area that is an electoral desert for one party may be described as a 'heartland' for its opponent. For example, north-east England, Merseyside and South Wales are Labour heartlands

Another symptom of Westminster’s electoral system are candidates winning with huge majorities – piling up votes far beyond the amount needed to claim victory. Though indicative of a party’s support in specific areas, such large winning majorities mean that thousands of votes have no effect on the overall outcome.

The Winning margin-i.e. extra votes- in the safest seats 2019 Election

  • Knowsley 39,942 Labour

  • Bethnal Green & Bow 37,524 Labour

  • Liverpool Riverside 37,043 Labour

  • Bootle 34,556 Labour

  • Hackney South & Shoreditch 33,985 Labour

  • Camberwell & Peckham 33,780 Labour

  • Hackney North & Stoke Newington 33,188 Labour

  • East Ham 33,176 Labour

  • Lewisham Deptford 32,913 Labour

  • Sleaford & North Hykeham 32,565 Conservative

'First-past-the-post elections did what they will always do in a multi-party system, favouring parties with spatially concentrated vote shares, and discriminating massively against those whose support is spread more evenly across the country. We can thus see 2017 for the disproportionality blip it was. In 2019 normal service has been resumed.' Patrick Dunleavy Professor of Political Science at LSE

If First-Past-the-Post is unfair, why hasn’t it been replaced?

Although there has been significant opposition to FPTP over many years, it remains the system that is used for UK Parliamentary elections. Why is this? One obvious reason is that if FPTP helps one of two main parties to get elected at each election, then neither of these parties have an incentive to get rid of it. FPTP often produces a majority for a particular party in Parliament, meaning they can form a single-party government on less than a majority of the overall vote. It is hard to see why this party, now in government, would change the system to make it more likely that at the next election they would lose power, or have to form a coalition government with a smaller party.

There are other reasons FPTP for Westminster elections has not been replaced. To start, there is disagreement on what electoral system should replace it and a number of possible models to choose from. In 2011, there was a referendum to replace FPTP with a system called the Alternative Vote (AV), which was unsuccessful. Although there are some significant differences, AV is a majoritarian system like FPTP rather than a proportional system. Some proponents of changing the electoral system, who would have preferred a proportional model, therefore found it difficult to support the Yes to AV side in the campaign.

Others would say that we still have FPTP because it is the best system for UK Parliamentary elections. They argue that the most important feature of an electoral system is not whether it produces a Parliament that most accurately reflects the political attitudes of the electorate, but whether it produces an effective government that voters can hold to account. As we have seen, proponents of FPTP say that it produces single-party, majority governments which can carry through a distinct political agenda more effectively than coalition or minority governments. Voters are given a clear choice of government – typically one of the two main parties – who they can then vote out of office at the next election if they don’t deliver. Supporters of FPTP propose that this is preferable to confusing and ever-changing coalition and minority governments that may manage to cling on to power with the support of smaller parties, despite being rejected by the voters.