First Past the Post: a history of hiding in plain sight

A bar chart will be shared widely in the immediate aftermath of this year’s UK election. It will show the number of total votes for each party (aka the popular vote). Beyond two pillars of red (Labour) and blue (Conservative), there will be a sizeable orange column (Lib Dem), a patch of green (…Green), maybe a splash of yellow (SNP). It remains to be seen whether statisticians will colour Reform UK purple or light blue, but I imagine that will be easily visible too.

Outcomes of the popular vote will be contrasted, starkly, with the map of seats in the House of Commons. Based on recent opinion polls, a sea of red, a lake of blue, a pond of orange. I expect outrage from commentators across the political spectrum, stung that impressive vote shares have not translated to seats. Calls for electoral reform will follow.

Seeing this familiar fallout in previous elections, I have often wondered why we use the much maligned First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system for our most important election. So I’ve started trying to understand the basis of it, and the mechanics of how it could be changed. Where do we set out the laws of our elections? In which Act, in which Paragraph, do we enshrine FPTP? Are there mysterious conventions’ at play here instead?

This has led me down history lane. At time of writing I’m still on that journey, and don’t have a clear answer yet. The opacity of it all could well be on me - a constitutional novice (though I suspect it speaks volumes to how confusing the legislation and unwritten rules which govern the country are).

One day I’ll have answers for you. Until then, simply a historical observation.

Over 100 years ago, changes in voting system were recommended

It seems First Past the Post has been knocking about for elections to the House of Commons since the Act of Union in 1800. Reforms over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries continuously toyed with and tweaked the system, towards something that resembles today’s system.

We started with an electorate of around 400,000 men, given the right by virtue of land ownership and the like. Fast forward to 1969, all men and women over 18 have the vote, and the electorate numbers nearly 40 million.

The steady growth of the electorate prompted persistent questions of how the voting system could ensure minority representation, of how to ensure proportionality. The idea of the tyranny of the majority’ loomed large. At various points, as political tides ebbed and flowed, Liberals, Whigs, Labour and Conservatives became concerned that FPTP could give an opponent majoritarian rule, and/or perceived an opportunity to put themselves in a more commanding position with a change in system.

With this backdrop, every now and then, governments have brought together some bright minds of the day to consider: what voting system should be used to elect MPs?

The first case of this I’ve found is the Liberal government’s Royal Commission on Electoral Reform, published in 1910. The authors came from Liberal, Conservative and civil servant backgrounds. Across 140 paragraphs and 5 appendices, the authors desire humbly to submit to Your Majesty’ a methodical analysis of systems of election, expressed with all the formality and old-timiness you’d expect. The recommendation, however, is as clear today as it would have been then: We recommend the adoption of the Alternative Vote”.

Next, a wartime Speaker’s Conference, held in 1916. MPs were preoccupied with the problem of men in the military being unable to vote in the next election, and calls for women’s suffrage. No agreement could be reached, so MP Walter Long suggested a cross-party, cross-House body, chaired by the Speaker, to make recommendations. Months later, recommendations followed, famously paving the way for the first female franchise. Less famously, the conference recommended Single Transferable Vote in some constituencies, and Alternative Vote in the others.

FPTP somehow survived, after an epic 1918 battle between MPs and the Lords essentially stopped any change from happening.

Changes have continued to be recommended in the past 50 years

The subject of electoral reform never went away, but we have to wait until 1976 for another perspective on the issue from the inside’. The Hansard Society, provider of independent advice on parliamentary affairs, published their Report on Electoral Reform. It was chaired by Lord Blake, who (perhaps rarely for a Conservative) was an advocate for Proportional Representation.

Every election from 1930 to 1970 saw genuine domination by the Labour and Conservative parties, with never more than an eighth of the vote going elsewhere. But then, 1974 saw two elections with large Liberal vote shares and little increase in their seat numbers. According to Lord Blake, people weren’t happy about this, and were frustrated by an alternating pattern of Labour and Conservative minority rule (in the sense that they often had less than half the vote). It was an unnecessary party dogfight’, between increasingly unpopular, polarised parties who repeatedly reversed the work of the other once in power.

The Blake report saw hope in a Mixed Member Proportional’ system. This maintained the use of FPTP for three-quarters of MP elections. The remaining quarter would be determined with regional Proportional Representation Lists, which would act to balance out any disproportionality between popular vote and seats won.

Fast forward now to 1997, following 18 years of Conservative government who rarely went near electoral reform. Labour were elected with a public referendum on replacing FPTP in their manifesto, and wasted little time in assembling another expert’ commission, with another Lord in the chair, to find an alternative. The Jenkins Commission recommended the Alternative Vote Plus, where 80-85% MPs are elected from constituencies using the Alternative Vote system, and the remaining from top-up lists which correct for any disproportionality.

The results of the Commission remained on Labour lips for the rest of their time in power, but a referendum didn’t follow.

Hiding in plain sight

This is just a partial history of electoral reform in the UK, drawn from the in-text links and references below. Through and between the moments I’ve picked out here, campaigners have surely churned out countless pages, words and impassioned speeches expressing the need for change. Many MPs have lobbied their party colleagues to jump aboard the change train. Heck, the country even voted on all this in 2011.

But I don’t think we need to know every twist in the tale, nor understand every proposal or perspective, to see a pattern here. Nor do we need to know where we stand on FPTP, its many problems and the best possible alternatives (future posts incoming on these).

What strikes me is we know better than FPTP, and have done for some time. Four independent reports, four recommendations to move away from FPTP. Politicians a century apart, operating in vastly different socio-economic, cultural and political contexts, looked at the system, perceived a problem, and agreed that we could do better than FPTP. I could have a conversation with the likes of Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert (contributing author to the 1910 Royal Commission), or even the early Victorian era politician Winthrop Mackworth Praed (whose work was referenced in the 1910 report), and agree on FPTPs issues.

The four reports discussed above represent moments where recommendations of electoral reform have been made within the halls of power, by and to those with the power to make the recommendations happen. It seems that three of these sets of recommendations were explicitly requested by the government of the day (and I imagine the Hansard Society work carried significant, if not commensurate, weight). So, 3-4 times the government has asked explicitly for an answer, and every time has been told to depose FPTP from its throne.

And yet FPTP lives on. Other UK elections have switched system, but elections of MPs remain the same.

I understand that priorities shift for governments, and that it might be particularly difficult for them to agree a change on a system which they have all benefitted from, via their own election. But this is another striking reminder that knowledge of a problem, even when widely shared, does not automatically translate to change. Here is an issue hiding in plain sight, with no shortage of analysis behind it, or suggested solutions.

I remain intrigued to see how the 2024 election and its results will shape our modern debate on electoral reform. But if a new government seeks another well-respected politician, to lead another commission, to write another report, consider me uninspired. We know something is up here, and more analysis or solutions won’t get us where we need to go any quicker.



The Constitution Society’s Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in the UK in Historical Perspective was the most useful source I came across for this piece.

Other useful background resources were from the ACE Project and the Electoral Reform Society.

March 17, 2024