The Lunacy of First Past The Post

I’ve written before about why we need a fair voting system in a democracy, and this has been highlighted by the recent rash of opinion polls which place the Liberal Democrats ahead of Labour and not so far behind the Tories. Now, I should add a disclaimer here. I think the opinion polls are far too volatile to read too much into surveys taken amid the rosy afterglow of Nick Clegg’s clear victory in this week’s Leader’s Debate, but nevertheless I’m going to use this data to paint a couple of ‘what if’ scenarios.

There are a number of online swing simulators (BBC and UK Polling Report are probably the best) which can be used to demonstrate how a uniform swing would be reflected in seats won in the House of Commons. Of course, the key word there is ‘uniform’ as such simulations don’t take individual local factors into account. That said, they still give a useful indication of roughly what might happen – they also clearly demonstrate how antiquated and ill-suited to modern politics our voting system is.

Let’s take the latest Harris poll from the Daily Mail as an example. Using the BBC’s Election Seat Calculator the headline figures of Con 32%, Lib Dem 32%, Labour 26% translate as 249 seats for the Tories, an astounding 248 for Labour and a mere 124 for the Lib Dems, this despite their polling at the same level as the Conservatives.

The disproportionality is probably best displayed by the following (entirely hypothetical) scenario. This time using UK Polling Report’s Swing Calculator, I’ve worked on the basis of 30% support for each of the three main parties and 10% for ‘Others’. In this case the following results came up: Conservatives 208 seats, Labour 305 and the Lib Dems on 106.

It can clearly be seen that the current First Past The Post system exaggerates Labour support and, to a lesser extent, Tory support while penalising the Lib Dems because their vote is more evenly distributed.

Now, there’s every chance that this most recent series of polls have picked up more of a snapshot than a full-blown trend, but suppose the seemingly impossible happens and the Lib Dems out-poll Labour or even the Tories on 6th May. If this ridiculous seat distribution results, and the complexion of parliament bears no relation to the actual votes cast, then how much legitimacy would any new government have? Equally, if the Tories ended up the chief beneficiaries, could they really continue avoiding the issue of electoral reform and proportional representation?

It make take such a large scale embarrassment to shame the ‘establishment’ into acknowledging that the time for a fair voting system has come. Yet another good reason to vote Lib Dem on 6th May.

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