Representation Over Representativeness: The Case for First-Past-the-Post

Aside from the arguments around its traditional place in our political structure, there are several arguments in favour of FPTP. Whilst the clamour for electoral reform has continued to grow, the case for it isn’t as black-and-white as it is being made to seem, and it is about time that those of us opposed to it make the case against it.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour pursuing campaigns against high profile Tory MPs like Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Iain Duncan-Smith, Tory efforts to unseat Tim Farron, Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson, and various other MP-specific targets, it is clear that parties and voters enjoy the opportunity to target individuals with a record they dislike. Under PR systems it becomes much more difficult for individuals to be specifically targeted, as strong MPs will be placed high up the list or placed in seats where the number of members elected is sufficiently large that they would be safe without a massive landslide against them. If we believe that all MPs should be accountable to voters, whether they are the Prime Minister or a backbencher, then we need a system where all individuals are directly elected, essentially eliminating all but the more complex and unworkable of list-based systems.

Additionally, useful studies from AMS systems (where there are both list and constituency MPs) shows that constituency-based MPs are more likely to attempt to influence policy which benefits their constituents, whereas list-based MPs tend to attempt to influence policy which benefits their party’s chances of re-election. What we see from this is that FPTP systems tend to produce MPs who better represent and respond to the interests of the electorate; whereas the only way for list-based MPs to secure their positions and gain promotions is to back the party and the party-line. Therefore, constituents are more likely to be able to successfully lobby their MP in a constituency system, as MPs are more representative and accountable. FPTP provides the smallest constituency size of all possible constituency systems and therefore gives individual electors the most influence over their representatives.

FPTP is also the best system for localised campaign issues. With larger constituency sizes, it becomes more difficult for independents and single issue local campaigners to secure sufficient votes to take office and to be able to fundraise sufficiently to campaign across an entire electoral district. Even the most successful single-issue campaigners under FPTP can struggle to get upwards of 20,000 votes, which would massively limit their ability to get elected in larger constituencies. Likewise, local campaigns with the support of 1,000 or so voters are likely to be much more successful in influencing an MP with a smaller number of constituents than one with a larger number, enabling ordinary people to start campaigns and influence policy, rather than having to rely on more professionally organised campaigns.

Another benefit of FPTP is that it tends to produce strong and stable governments. Whilst this has not, admittedly, been the case in two of the last three elections, majoritarian systems like FPTP have a solid record of delivering majority governments. Why is that a good thing? Well, we’ve seen the popular outcry at the compromises required to make a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition and a Conservative/DUP confidence and supply deal work in 2010 and 2017 respectively. People don’t like compromise on manifesto commitments that they voted for in Britain. If we stick with FPTP then there will be fewer scenarios whereby a major party has to sacrifice key sections of its platform to form a government.

So why don’t people like First-Past-the-Post?

One of the most common arguments against FPTP is that it incentivises tactical voting by supporters of smaller parties and thereby unfairly disadvantages those groups. This is because FPTP generally creates constituencies where historically between one and three parties have had a shot at winning the seat. What it doesn’t take into account is a simple premise: if voters voted for the party they supported, rather than tactically, then a smaller party might become viable in a specific seat. As that is the case, it seems that major parties have done a fairly good job of campaigning for those votes, particularly given the fact that a number of smaller parties have won seats after sustained campaigning under FPTP. Furthermore, a quick glance at AMS elections finds that the number of votes gained by parties in the constituency and list ballots tend to not be particularly dissimilar, suggesting either that tactical voting isn’t a particularly significant problem in constituency seats, or that tactical voting is not dependent on the system being used.

Indeed, there also doesn’t seem to be a credible argument that tactical voting is specific to First-Past-the-Post at all. If the conditions are the same under an STV or AV system then it doesn’t seem any less likely that a voter would vote for the one of the major parties that it preferred. Ranked systems are easily manipulated by tactical voting, whereby voters give their least favoured majorn party candidate the lowest ranking and bump the most likely candidate they can support up the list so as to prevent their least favoured candidate from achieving office. Likewise, in a list system with a threshold there is still a similar incentive for voters to misrepresent their preferences in order to achieve the least-worst realistic outcome. If a voter typically votes for a party that falls below the threshold, there seems to be no reason for them not to cast their ballot instead for their favoured major party, in order to increase that party’s chances of winning more seats, as they would under FPTP.

Finally on tactical voting, it is worth considering systems like AMS where there are constituencies and then top-up lists. Constituency seats are obviously going to be subject to the same tactical voting pitfalls as FPTP, so the only plausible difference here could be in the list system. Lists are prone to tactical voting naturally, as mentioned above, but they have an additional problem under top-up seat systems, which is that larger parties generally do disproportionately badly from the top-up list than smaller parties. Therefore there is a huge incentive for voters to cast their ballots for small parties allied to their major party preference, in order to increase the number of seats gained by their favoured ideological grouping, but creating yet another distortion of preferences.

Representativeness is the other main argument against FPTP, that is to say that the number of seats allocated to parties tends to vary quite significantly from their proportion of the national vote. This is a fairly strong argument that is difficult to rebut. Often it results from local disparities and is therefore difficult to put right with regionalised list systems. The only viable solution for representativeness would be a national list system, but that would be incredibly problematic for individual legislative accountability and lobbying on local issues. If people would prefer poorer accountability and representation in favour of a feeling of Parliament being more representative, then there is a conversation to be had. But if people feel that representatives representing them is more important than them being representative of them, with the policy-making benefits that come with it, then FPTP is the only choice.

Other criticisms of FPTP include the fact that votes are wasted, which is again true to an extent, but this is true for nearly every electoral system. Under list systems there are thresholds, under ranked systems the second preferences of small party voters are considered but major party voters’ ranking preferences are wasted – this is more an issue with the fact that in a democracy someone has to lose an election than FPTP being a bad system. Another criticism is that it creates an effective elective dictatorship with large majority governments, but given the increased accountability every MP has to their constituents under FPTP, poor policies are unlikely to get through Parliament, regardless of the size of the majority.

So, what are the alternative systems?

There are closed and open list systems, both of which promote party loyalty amongst representatives over constituency representation, without solving the problems of tactical voting and wasted votes. There is AMS and other mixed-member proportionality systems, which have exactly the same problems as the list systems, but with extra confusion and more wasted votes, and the problems of collusion whereby major parties campaign for minor parties that they are allied with to mop up the maximum number of top-up seats and create a massive majority. Then there are the ranked voting systems like AV and STV, which give extra weight to the opinions of small party voters, who get eliminated first and encourage tactical voting to an even greater extent than FPTP (rankings mean that voters can place a greater distortion in their preferences to negatively impact their least favoured of the major parties). Ranked systems are also much more complicated than FPTP, which brings massive educational and infrastructural costs in implementation and management.

Overall, FPTP is a simple, effective, cheap system which leads to better local representation than any other. Electoral systems that enable good representation are far more important than ones that are solely about representativeness. We need a system that balances those two goals, but if we have good representation everyone gets represented, regardless of whether or not they voted for their MP.

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There is No Moral High Ground

Politics has become incredibly adversarial. The abuse of people on all sides of the political spectrum is concerning and detrimental to constructive debate. If we are to have the mature discussions we need on the pressing issues of the day, then we need to clear up this misconception that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ side in politics.

Unfortunately, a lot of political debate has descended into dismissing the legitimacy of people’s perspectives because of the rosette that they wear. Nuance has been thrown aside in favour of black and white principles; pragmatism and consensus politics cast out in favour of virtue-signalling and grandstanding. Politics has generally become an unwelcoming environment.

Here’s the thing, you may think that politicians and activists in other parties propose policies that ruin people’s lives, that make them worse off, that make society a little bit worse, but that’s part of politics. Of course you don’t agree with the prescriptions of people from different ideological backgrounds, because everyone views society differently, everyone perceives there to be different problems that need addressing, and everyone comes up with a different solution to those problems.

Yes, you make think that the problems they identify are wrong, or the solutions they come up with are harmful, but they aren’t in it to be harmful. They are trying to make society a better place, they are trying to help people, and treating them like they are scum is unlikely to contribute much other than to hinder political discourse and to make them less willing to change their perspective.

By all means, debate policy with your opponents, but don’t descend into personal attacks because they have a different idea of what people need to improve their lives. Don’t cast doubt upon their desire to help people because of the rosette that they wear. There is no moral high ground in politics, there is no right answer in politics, there are only people doing their best to make people’s lives better, and you help absolutely no one by abusing and belittling them.

Politics is tough. People who are self-serving or who don’t want to help others are extremely unlikely to put themselves through it. If you are self-serving, then being in politics makes no sense, because you could earn far more and gain far more power in the corporate world than as a politician. If you don’t want to help others, then you are unlikely to dedicate the kind of time to politics that it requires to become an MP and even less likely to want to take on the 24/7 work of being one.

Ultimately abusing and dismissing people because of their politics makes society a much worse place. Abusing politicians and activists means that fewer people will try to engage in politics, and thus prevent a national conversation about anything. That will, in turn, lead to far more people who vote for parties other than your own staying quiet about their beliefs, making it much more difficult to convert them to your cause as you won’t know where they are coming from.

Furthermore, dismissing someone’s argument because of their party does nothing for policy-making. The best policies come from taking ideas from across the political spectrum and finding common ground. We all see ills in society and we all come up with solutions. If we work together to refine those solutions and identify those ills, we will make far greater improvements to people’s lives than if we yell past one-another.

Political disagreements tend to boil down to a few main differences: outcome vs opportunity, social liberalism vs social conservatism, socialism vs capitalism, etc. You don’t have the moral high ground if you are on one side of those differences. You don’t have some claim to being superior, or even correct, if you are on one side. There is no right and wrong in politics, there is only a collection of nuanced views on how to make the world a better place.

We need to stop trying to make politics into a question of who is helping people, and we need to go back to making it about how we help them.

We need a Conservative Youth Base

The 2017 General Election saw an unprecedented increase in both youth turnout and support for the Labour Party amongst the young. This was the result of more factors than simply a manifesto aimed at students, it was the result of a combination of Labour’s main strength and the Tories’ main weakness. Labour has a very good campaign machine, capable of turning out vast numbers of activists, they have exceptional social media presence and have been able to seize control of the narrative. They have also, crucially, managed not just to turnout young voters, but to turn them into active party members.

If Labour’s young supporters can be turned into activists and members at anything close to their current support rate amongst this group, then the Conservative Party will have a significant generational problem, with voters tied to the Labour Party through personal connections. We Conservatives need to urgently tackle this problem to build up our activist base and support amongst the young, or else our chances of winning majorities will continue to decline.

For starters, we need to recreate a youth wing to allow us to engage directly with young people. A youth wing, led by young people, can find ways to target young supporters and convert them into party members and activists, that a wider party organisation couldn’t. Focussed attention on young voters could spell a new generation of party activists that will enable us to take back the fight to Labour, on the ground and on the internet. A youth wing would also help to tackle the perception that young people are unanimously left wing, which would in turn reduce the effects of shy Conservatism, which acts as a form of activist suppression.

To get young people to buy into party membership, we will need to do more than just re-establishing the young wing though. Once it has been re-established, we will have to equip it with things that will enable it to turn people from conservatives to Conservatives. One of the main things young people want is a reason to join the party, and to feel like they are being listened to. A simple device to encourage young people to join the party, then, would be to create Youth Policy Forums where young people feel like they can influence party policy. We can also offer youth-specific networking events and other opportunities that will attract young people into the party, which require few resources but can build up a strong package to offer potential members.

We also need, as a party, to reclaim a social media presence. Students and young people are ideally placed to take a leading role in this, and a youth wing could have its own dedicated blog site for young Conservatives to share ideas. We’re a party of free speech, so encouraging ideological debate and discussion amongst young members will show people the diverse views held by Tories and open up a wider spectrum of conservatives to party membership. Young people having material to share in their social media spaces will also help to combat the left wing news sites which have become popular, such as The Canary, amongst this core demographic of voters.

Finally, we do need to provide more for young people in terms of policy. We need better ways of selling our existing policies, and we need to turn to low-cost yet more beneficial alternatives to Corbyn’s platform for the young. Examining ways that university and non-university education can be improved for young adults, improving opportunities for young people, encouraging house-building and supporting home ownership, and generally looking for pragmatic policy solutions to regain the support of vast swathes of young people.

If we do not act now, we risk a serious long-term problem for our party. We need some low cost, common sense approaches to improving our engagement with young voters. Most importantly, we need a youth wing again.

Educating People for Society, Not Just the Workforce

School is supposed to prepare you for the real world. Theoretically it gives you the skills and the experiences needed to survive and thrive in adulthood – otherwise why would we subject people to it? Except it doesn’t really prepare you for the real world. Remember that time you went to work and you spent all day listening to someone talk at you, while sat in a compulsively neat row of tables and chairs? No? What about that time you had to write down everything you knew about something that you were told eighteen months ago, without being able to use any notes or predict what exactly you would need to know? That doesn’t happen in the real world either?

At least school taught you useful things like how to rent a house, get a job, budget, apply for a mortgage, generally survive in the real world, right? Oh wait, it didn’t do that either. The schooling system isn’t there to prepare people for real life – if it is, it does a terrible job – it’s there to teach useful academic knowledge in an overly complex way and rank children with a number that indicates to an employer how valuable they are.

Exams are detrimental to education. They provide students with three months of stressful revision in order to condense two or more years worth of teaching into a handy two hour snippet of what a child can splurge onto a page. When you get mock exams or practice essays back, you aren’t told how to become a better writer, you don’t read the in-depth comments, you look at the number you get given: if it’s high enough, you pat yourself on the back and keep going how you were; if it’s too low you learn the mark scheme slightly better to score points off of pointless academic nuance that’s irrelevant to how well you know your topic.

The numbers exist so that employers and universities can score you. There’s a standardised (or roughly standardised) curriculum so that they can rank you against your peers. It provides a quick shortcut: universities and employers can look at those numbers and decide whether or not you are good enough. If you took away the numbers, what would the risks be? Children would be less stressed, they’d gain two or three months of extra teaching, the curriculum could be more varied and more difficult subjects taught at a more leisurely pace. The main risk seems to be demotivating people, but if you take away ‘reach x number of pupils getting x score’ from teachers’ objectives, then they could come up with ways to tailor their feedback and teaching to each student.

Employers and universities would have to do a little bit more work, true. They might have to read your personal statement or your covering letter in more detail, perhaps ask for an example of your work, maybe even come up with their own entry exam that reflects the skills needed at that institution, but that doesn’t seem a reason to subject children to being mere data entries on the great spreadsheet that is our education system.

You may, I expect, be wondering what the point of all this is? Well, as the BBC recently reported, students are emerging from the spreadsheet woefully under-prepared for university, and (I hypothesise from my own experience) the big wide world that they get thrust into the instant a piece of paper indicates they are ready.

That’s not really a surprise though, is it? Very few people emerge from the schooling system having learnt how to adult. Adulting is something that we are supposed to learn from our parents, or from our mistakes. They have a part to play, but our education system needs to do more to tackle our futures than sit us in a room and watch a teacher awkwardly tell a group of teenagers that sex is dangerous and drugs are bad.

PSHE is important, don’t get me wrong, it’s just inadequate and mal-managed. It teaches some stuff, but leaves you laughably unprepared. Proper life skills: what to expect at university, how to balance a budget, register for a doctor, rent a house, get a job, buy and cook healthy meals, register to vote – I could go on, but this would turn into a long list of things I’m not very good at, as opposed to an article arguing for serious reform – are things that remain largely absent from education, but seem to be necessary skills for people to have.

This is in part because of the skills that it aims to deliver, as mentioned, and in part because the environment isn’t suited to the delivery of such skills.

One of the main problems faced by life skills initiatives is that it only takes one disruptive pupil to reduce the benefit received by the other members of the group. Therefore the education system would have to come up with some way of ensuring maximal participation while at the same time allowing those pupils who have no interest in attending (and therefore would have received no benefits from simply being present) to not go. A shockingly revolutionary suggestion I know, but perhaps those, for whom it would be no benefit, because they wouldn’t listen, could go and do sport, or a library session, or simply choose another workshop that they are interested in. A little choice can make a massive difference, even if education largely precludes significant choice until you are old enough to get married.

Another revolutionary idea, but maybe not everything in school needs to be delivered by a teacher? I know, you’ve always wanted that guy who taught you ICT to teach you about drugs, but he doesn’t look like he wants to be here and, frankly, he stopped saying anything useful about 4 minutes into the first lesson. Sessions delivered by volunteers who actually wanted to be there and are passionate, rather than by teachers who were being forced to deliver something as dictated by the curriculum, would be conducive to students actually gleaning real-life hints and tips and getting a better understanding of key skills and issues.

It could be supported by events and practical sessions which gave real meaning to them and provided some form of end goal. The possibilities are endless and they would impart real benefit to young people and ensure that they leave the education system with at least a little bit of preparation for the real world.

Ultimately the problem faced by many is that they come out of education with academic skills and a lovely data entry on the spreadsheet at the Department for Education, but without the practical skills that they need to thrive in the real world. It is time that we started educating young people to be members of a society, rather than just educating them to be a part of a workforce and yet another data entry. If we treat them as individuals and give them vital skills that they can use for their whole lives, then we might see a real improvement in the lives and mental health of young people in our society.