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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 14:57 GMT
First past the post

The electoral system used for UK general elections is commonly known as first past the post.

More formally, this is the single member constituency with simple majority system.

In essence, it means that to become a Member of Parliament, all a candidate has to do is to gain more votes than any rival in that constituency.

There is no requirement for a candidate to win a majority of the votes cast, which is the case in some electoral systems.

Simple majority

For parliamentary elections, the UK is divided up into 659 constituencies - 18 in Northern Ireland, 40 in Wales, 72 in Scotland and 529 in England.

Each constituency elects a single MP, and each voter casts a single ballot.

The UK uses the first past the post electoral system
The votes are added up and the candidate with the highest total - a simple majority - is declared the winner.

Most candidates represent parties, and the party with the most MPs generally forms the new government.

Strengths of the system

Factors in favour of the first past the post system include:

Simplicity Voters have a simple task - mark a cross in a single box. This means less chance of confusion compared with votes where more than one candidate is elected per constituency, or where candidates have to be ranked in order.

Speed The result in each constituency - and therefore the national result - is known quickly.

MP-voters link Each MP represents a precise geographical area. If a constituent wishes to contact an MP about a problem, they know to whom to turn. This link is weaker in systems where MPs come from a national list.

Decisive results First past the post elections usually - though not always - produce clear majorities for one party or another. This means few coalitions, which can give minority parties excessive influence compared with their support.

Weaknesses of the system

No electoral system is perfect and those opposed to first past the post point out the following weaknesses:

No individual mandate MPs are often elected without an overall majority of all votes cast. This means that most of the voters they are employed to represent do not actually want them.

Second-place blues Parties which come second or third consistently tend to win large numbers of votes but few seats, meaning smaller parties are under-represented in the House of Commons. In 1992, the Liberal Democrats won 18% of the votes and 3% of the seats.

No government mandate It is possible for a party to win most seats with not only a minority of the votes, but fewer votes than one of its rivals. This happened in 1951 and February 1974.

Wasted votes Because of their electoral make-up, some seats are so "safe" for one party that supporters of any other group have only a meaningless vote.

In 1997, 82.9% of voters in the Bootle constituency supported Labour. Tory and Liberal Democrat voters there might feel their vote counts for little as any swing would have to be of epic proportions to change the seat's ownership.

In addition, this "disenfranchisement" can be seen to apply to whole areas or even nations. Nearly 500,000 people voted Conservative in Scotland in 1997 but no Tory MPs were elected. In contrast, 365,000 people voted Liberal Democrat and were rewarded with 10 MPs - fewer votes, but greater success.

Different systems for different polls

When in opposition in the 1980s and 1990s, Labour explored electoral reform and set up its own working party, chaired by the academic Raymond (now Lord) Plant, to look at the options, including various systems of proportional representation.

Gordon Brown opposes voting reform
The Plant commission's report in 1993 led to different methods being employed at different elections once Labour came to power.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly use the Additional Member System. This involves most of the representatives being elected via first past the post with a "top-up" vote rewarding parties that win many votes but fail to win seats.

In the European elections, voters in England, Scotland and Wales use a closed list system under which votes are cast for a party and the victorious candidates come from a pre-ordered party list.

Northern Ireland employs the single transferable vote system in multi-member constituencies for both the European and Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

Voters rank the candidates in order of preference and votes from candidates eliminated are transferred to second then third preferences, and so on.


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