Letter: Past what post?

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The Independent Culture
Sir: I find it perplexing that the current electoral system is referred to as "first-past-the-post", even by its opponents. This specious label places reformers at a rhetorical disadvantage: it suggests that current arrangements embody an ideal of fairness to be found in competitive sports, and that reformers are trying to purloin some of the winner's prize money. Lord Alexander's note of reservation to the Jenkins report trades on this analogy when he worries about the result of the Grand National being overturned by the relative positions of the second and third horses at Becher's Brook.

One problem with the current system is that, when there are more than two candidates, there actually is no "post" at all. In nearly half of our parliamentary elections we declare the person whose nose is in front part way through the race to be the winner. With the Alternative Vote the winner actually has to cross the line, that is, to get the assent of the majority. It is the AV system which is literally "first-past-the- post".

A knock-out competition normally requires a series of rounds. No one in their right mind would propose awarding the FA Cup on the basis of the best result in the first round. The current electoral system should be construed as a multi-round competition in which, perversely, there is never more than one round. The AV system allows a full multi-round competition to be fought out, but still only requires a single visit to the polling booth.

A great merit of the Jenkins Commission's proposal is that it allows members of the electorate to vote for what they really believe, without worrying about unintended consequences. "Tactical voting" occurs when people try to second-guess how others will vote. An AV system makes this unnecessary. Lord Alexander quotes Churchill's concern about taking account of "the most worthless votes of the most worthless candidates". This, I fear, is deeply disrespectful to those voters - would one disqualify them from voting in later rounds of a multi-round contest because their first preferences was unusual or eccentric ?

The Independent would do a service to discussion of electoral reform by referring to the present system as "First Round Leader Takes All".


Quarndon, Derbyshire