Stuff explained Sunday: the problem with First Past the Post


A few weeks ago, I had my monthly meeting with the NEON action learning group for young campaigners. As we were waiting for people to arrive, we ended-up talking about constituencies in London that could (quite ironically) end-up with a Conservative MP because of young, left-wing people voting Green.

The Guardian wrote about it quite extensively; below you can see data on the percentage of left-leaning votes that could go towards the Greens:


Green voters tend to be younger, socially liberal and economically leftwing university graduates- highly educated but not necessarily high-earning. They are the people who wouldn’t vote Labour because they see it as not left wing enough, or not pro-immigrant enough, or not pro-human rights enough; who wouldn’t vote Lib Dem because of their coalition with the Conservatives and who wouldn’t ever consider voting Coservative at all.

Then- how come their voting for the party that they most prefer may mean their getting the one they least prefer? The answer may be that British voters are no longer happy with a two-party system; but we still have an electoral system that only works with two-party systems and ensures a two-party system is all we can get.

Wonderful youtubber CGPGrey explains it with cute animals:

This problem, which represents “first past the post at its worst” is known as the spoiler effect- votes are being split between candidates of similar ideology, causing a stronger opponent to win. Voting outside of the two party system, you end-up hurting the side that agrees with you- and getting the candidate you least prefer. Which means that people will, in turn, feel compelled to tactically vote for a candidate they agree with less, in order to keep the one that they really dislike away; which, in turn, makes politicians much less likely to deviate from what is seen as the safest policy option.

In a preferential voting system, like the AV or STV, where instead of having only one vote you rank candidates in order of your preference, the spoiler effect can be prevented. (For example, Green voters in a Labour-Conservative marginal could list Labour as their second preference, Lib Dem as the third and the Tories back somewhere between the Monster Raving Loony Party and That Pub Landlord Guy Who’s Totally Trolling. )


Approval voting and proportional representation systems can also reduce the spoiler effect. Therefore, you don’t need to vote tactically- you need to change the system! For more resources and campaigns on the topic, see the Electoral Reform Society


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