First Past the Post

First Past the Post is the name for the electoral system used to elect MPs to Westminster.

First Past the post is used in many former British colonies, such as the US, Canada, India, and many Caribbean or African states. As India has over 800 million voters, First Past the Post is the system used by the most people in the world. Many countries have stopped using First Past the Post though, including Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, Cyrpus, Malta, Denmark, South Africa and the Netherlands.

General Elections under First Past the Post

How to vote

On polling day, the ballot paper is made up of candidates who are members of parties or independents. As only one MP will get elected, each party only stands one candidate to chose from. Voters put a cross next to their favourite candidate, or the candidate they like they most who they think has the best chance of winning.

"As each party puts up only one candidate, voters who support that party but don't like their candidate have to either vote for a party they don't support or a candidate they don't like"

Electoral Reform Society

How it is counted

To become an MP, a candidate simply needs the largest number of votes in their area. This is repeated in 650 constituencies across the country.

As every MP will be elected with different levels of support, the proportion of seats a party gets in parliament will rarely reflect the proportion of votes the party received.

Parties whose supporters are thinly spread out may get the largest number of votes in only one or two areas, but might get millions across the whole country. Likewise, parties with supporters that are geographically concentrated may get fewer votes across the whole country but get the largest number of votes in more constituencies.

Features and effects

This tends to generate two large parties, as, without a geographical base, smaller parties find it harder to win seats.

With a geographical base, parties that are small UK-wide can still do very well. For instance in Scotland in 2015 the SNP won just under half the votes, but won 95% of the seats providing a different view of Scottish public opinion than actually exists.

"Whilst larger parties are better placed to win seats, it becomes harder for them to represent their diverse voters"

Electoral Reform Society

As large parties get a higher share of seats in parliament than votes in the country, they can usually form a government on their own. With more than two parties competing, governments can be elected on around 35% or 37% of the vote, as in 2005 and 2015.

As only votes that get an MP elected matter, parties need to prioritise specific voters to win seats.

First Past the Post creates safe seats, where so many of a party’s supporters live that there is no point campaigning, and marginal seats, that could change hands. Parties will design their policies to target voters in these marginal seats, and spend the majority of their funds campaigning in them. However, as these seats are not necessarily representative of the rest of the country, voters in safe seat areas can feel politically neglected.

Constituency Representation

First Past the Post means that MPs can be elected on small proportions of the vote, if they simply win the most votes amongst a fragmented field. In 2015 Belfast South was won with just 9,560 votes, or 24.5% of the total, a record low.

It is common for MPs to be elected with less than half the support of their constituency.

Additionally FPTP encourages tactical voting, where a seat may be contested between a candidate a voter dislikes, their favoured candidate and a candidate they like less than their favoured candidate but more than the first. If they know their favoured candidate might not win they may feel pressured to vote tactically for the other candidate in the hopes of beating the candidate they most dislike, so support may not be genuine.

"How much does an MP represent a seat if most voters didn't vote for them?"

Electoral Reform Society

Similiar Systems