The Graveyard of First Past the Post

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 31st October 2018

Around the world, voters in country after country have chosen to bury First Past the Post. Thankfully, this particular fiend from the past is staying in the ground. While voters in every country that uses First Past the Post are campaigning to get rid of it, there are no campaigns to bring it back from the dead. In fact, when there were referendums in Ireland and New Zealand, support for proportional representation had grown.

Let’s start our tour of the graveyard…

Australia 1918

Cause of Death: Vote Splitting

At the time of Federation in 1901, Australia used the First Past the Post voting system brought over from Britain. Thanks to Andrew Inglis Clark, an Australian Founding Father and supporter of Thomas Hare (Electoral Reform Society member and inventor of the Single Transferable Vote), Tasmania already had proportional representation.

However, First Past the Post was still used for the new federal parliament. In the 1910s, most elections in Australia were two-party contests between a Labor and Nationalist candidate.

Problems arose when the rural conservative Country Party emerged. In October 1918, a Labor candidate won a by-election on just over one-third of the vote, when conservative voters, who made up the other two-thirds split their votes between the Country and Nationalist parties. While having an MP that doesn’t represent the preferences of a majority of their constituents is the norm for many of us today in the UK, at the time politicians recognised the problem.

While having an MP that doesn’t represent the preferences of a majority of their constituents is the norm for many of us today in the UK, at the time politicians in Australia recognised the problem. Click To Tweet

It was decided to bring in preferential voting.  Voters could pick back-up choices, so if no candidate reached 50% of the vote, their vote could move to a candidate more likely to get elected.

Preferential voting allowed voters to decide who they wanted their MP to be, without worrying about splitting the vote.

While it started off as a way to prevent vote splitting on the right, with the growth of the Australian Greens, it now stops vote splitting on all sides.

Ireland 1922

Cause of Death: Lack of Scrutiny

The first place in Ireland to abandon First Past the Post was the town of Sligo. In August 1917, an inquiry had blamed Sligo Corporation’s poor financial situation on ‘the neglect of proper administrative procedures’.

Just as in today’s one-party state councils, First Past the Post was discouraging proper scrutiny, so a group of prominent citizens decided to form the cross-community Sligo Ratepayers Association (SRA) to campaign for reform.

The result was a House of Commons bill changing the electoral system of Sligo to the Single Transferable Vote. It was quickly followed by the adoption of PR at a national level.

Twice politicians tried to bring back First Past the Post, and twice voters defeated them.

Twice Irish politicians tried to bring back First Past the Post, and twice voters defeated them. Click To Tweet

South Africa 1994

Cause of Death: One Party State

In 1853, the Cape Colony, a precursor to the modern day South Africa, had a relatively liberal franchise for the time, with a property qualification being set at £25. In practice, this disqualified the vast majority of black residents and all women. As more black voters reached the £25 level, they raised it to £75 and brought in a literacy rule in 1892.

As a minority of the electorate, even the black South Africans who could vote had little chance of getting representation under First Past the Post.

As well as denying them representation, it was a wrong-winner election that brought in Apartheid in South Africa. The pro-apartheid Reformed National Party won the most seats in the 1948 election, despite winning fewer votes than their main opponents.

Apartheid ended in South Africa following a long series of negotiations between the ANC and the National Party to bring about a political solution to violence and instability in South Africa.

Simply bringing in a universal franchise and keeping First Past the Post would see the ANC win almost every seat in the parliament. As a negotiating position, the complete handover of power to the ANC was never going to be accepted by the National Party or their supporters.

The threat of a coup from the extreme right was ever present. In fact, negotiations were interrupted when 3,000 neo-nazis stormed the venue where elections were being planned.

Nelson Mandela insisted on Proportional Representation to drain support from the extremists by reassuring minorities that the new South Africa would not swap white dominance for black. He was opposed by extremists on all sides, from Afrikaner diehards who thought First Past the Post could be more easily gerrymandered, to militants who wanted to eliminate white representation entirely.

Nelson Mandela insisted on Proportional Representation to drain support from the extremists, by reassuring minorities that the new South Africa would not swap white dominance for black. Click To Tweet

New Zealand 1996 

Cause of Death: Wrong Winners

Most elections in New Zealand were two horse races from the 1930s to the 1970s, with the Labour and National Parties fighting it out.

The birth of a new Social Credit party in the 1970s started showing the weakness of this system: they got 16% of the vote in 1978 and one seat, then 21% in 1981 and two seats. In the 1984 election, the New Zealand Party won 12% but no seats.

In 1978 and 1981, the Labour Party won more votes than the Nationals, but the National Party won most seats and formed the government – making a nonsense of the idea that First Past the Post lets voters kick out the government.

In 1978 & 1981, the New Zealand Labour Party won more votes than the Nationals, but the National Party formed the government – making a nonsense of the idea that First Past the Post lets voters kick out the government. Click To Tweet

When the public finally got the Labour government they wanted in 1984, Labour created a Royal Commission to investigate the electoral system. The commission recommended New Zealand adopt a German-style Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP, known as the Additional Member System in the UK).

But, many in the government quite liked the power that the artificial majorities of First Past the Post gave them. Sensing an opportunity, the Nationals promised a referendum on electoral reform, leading to both parties offering a referendum in the 1990 election.

In 1992, the National Party held a non-binding referendum where 85% voted to change the system, and 70% picked MMP as the replacement. A second, binding referendum was held in 1993 which saw New Zealand vote to bury First Past the Post and adopt MMP.

In 2011, New Zealand held a follow-up referendum and found that support for the MMP system had grown.

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