Ditching first past the post would be a foolish mistake

Henry Hill

September 1, 2018

In the unusual event that a Conservative makes the case for proportional representation, a common refrain is that electoral reform is simply applying our party’s free-market principles to politics in general.

We ought, they assert, to treat elections “the same way as you’d take a typical market”. By breaking up the major parties’ duopoly, we could create a fairer and more competitive system and enjoy better, more responsive politics as a result.

But this argument is fatally flawed in one crucial respect, which is that elections do not, in fact, at all resemble the normal functioning of a “typical market”. Rather, their closest commercial parallel is probably the famously flawed process by which the state tenders out passenger rail franchises – and in both cases, the results of rigidly applying free-market nostrums in unsuitable conditions are bad for the consumer.

The crucial difference is this: in a typical market, competing companies can cater to that market simultaneously. Consumers can then choose between them, based on real-world information about how well each competitor is meeting demand.

No such circumstances prevail in elections. Just as there is only one railway line at stake in a tender, so is there only one state. Therefore, only the winning bidder gets to actually deliver on their promises. Their competitors can do little except scrutinise their performance and promise to do better. We don’t each get to live under the rule of whichever party we voted for and then assess their performance against that of their rivals.

Already, then, we find voters at a serious informational disadvantage compared to ordinary consumers in a typical market. PR, far from empowering the political consumer, would actually make this problem even worse by further degrading access to the information voters need to be effective political actors.

Under a majoritarian system, voters are presented with a relatively narrow range of choices but with enough information to make those choices in an informed way. They will generally know which parties are likely to form a government – the decision to back a fringe party is, therefore, a conscious one – and they can easily learn as much from their manifestos as they like.

Coalitions still exist, because every “big tent” party is a coalition, but they are negotiated before the election and their programmes put to the public, who are usually then able to hold them to account because there is seldom post-election horse-trading to muddy the waters of responsibility.

PR simply creates the illusion of greater choice – there is usually a broader range of much narrower parties, each more accurately representing the politics of a smaller slice of the population. But, in reality, it results in power shifting away from the ordinary voter towards elites and insiders.

Most obviously, it does this formally by reserving the process of government formation to after the election. Party leaders meet in private and trade away their manifesto commitments until a government emerges with a programme which has not, strictly speaking, been voted for by anybody. This also encourages parties to exaggerate their manifesto promises during the election, further misleading voters. 

There is also the fact that, if a minor party manages to position itself as a crucial swing vote, it can play a prominent role in government come rain or shine, even on a small share of the vote. This all occurs because while majoritarian systems invite voters to elect (and eject) governments, PR offers them only the chance to vote for a component part of one.

Beneath the superficial appearance of greater choice, it also undermines so-called “low information voters” – i.e. your average casual consumer of politics – in other ways too. 

For example, PR may furnish you with a party which appears more closely matched to your politics than the old duopoly. But to cast your vote effectively you need more information than you do under FPTP. Which parts of its manifesto are solid, and which will be traded away? Which other parties is yours willing or likely to form a coalition with? Which ministries are its top priorities?

These are not facts which people with an ordinary awareness of politics will have at their fingertips. But without them, a vote for a party under PR is scarcely a truer and more powerful expression of someone’s political beliefs than a vote cast in a duopoly.

But none of this means that our current system of first past the post bars minor parties from making an impact. If you doubt it, just look at what Ukip achieved. They, through competitive pressure, forced the bigger parties to “adapt and improve”. And unlike PR, under this system, people who cast their ballot for smaller parties do so with a much clearer idea of their actual role and prospects.

So, the choice between a majoritarian system and a proportional one isn’t between restriction and freedom. Rather it’s between the ability to send strong signals and the ability to make lots of noise; between choosing parties and choosing governments; between expressing your beliefs and giving effect to them. Because an election is not a typical market, and free-market principles do not neatly carry over to representational politics.

Finally, as for the whiggish argument that we ought to implement it because “it’s happening anyway”, I’ll say only that Harold Macmillan embraced “Tory socialism” on that same basis. We can only try to shape the future – it is not ours to see.


Written by Henry Hill

Henry Hill is a communications consultant and Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.


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