How people elect parliaments
How did ‘first-past-the-post’ voting – the common target of election reform campaigns in Britain, Canada and the US – get its famous name?
“FPTP” is really just a plurality criterion: the candidate with the most votes wins election, even if they are well below the 50% support threshold that signifies majority support in the community.
In the UK and Canadian parliaments winning seats with around 30% of the vote is quite common. There are currently four members of the Canadian House of Commons who won election with only 28% of the vote in their electoral districts. In 2015 just 24% of the voters in Belfast South elected a person to the UK House of Commons.
First-past-the-post is known to be a British invention, and there is a myth attached to it that it is the ‘original’ way that the British Parliament was elected. But that’s simply not correct as a matter of history.
The UK House of Commons was elected using mostly two-member districts until the late 19th century, as we’ll see in a moment.
Elections in Canada from as early as 1791, and in Australia from the 1850s, largely used single-member districts, mostly because the scattered nature of small communities in the settler nations made it a useful idea.
And the United States Congress – which started out in 1788-89 with lots of multi-member districts – tried to legislate a nationwide system of single-member districting from 1842, in an attempt by the then Whig party majority at gaining partisan advantage (specifically, to remove the even worse ‘block voting’ plurality voting system which was aiding their opponents).
But most of these 19th century elections were happening in an era where party discipline in elections had yet to take on its modern form. The representation problems we now see arising from single-member electoral districts had yet to become so obvious.
And anyway, 19th century elections fell far short of modern standards: women were not allowed to vote, there were property-ownership criterion even for men voting, and so on. Comparing elections held before the early 20th century with modern democracies is a bit pointless.
In any case, the story of how ‘first-past-the-post’ got its name is worth telling for its own sake.
Most people know the story is something to do with horse races, and it is.
It turns out that ‘first-past-the-post’ betting (not racing, and certainly not voting) was a dubious and brief-lived wagering practice in the less regulated part of late 19th century English horse-racing industry.
In 1885 one of the period’s preeminent scholars of horseracing, jockey and trainer William Day (1823-1908), had this to say in his major work The Racehorse in Training:
“The suburban meetings, as they are called, are those which cast the greatest blot on the reputation of the Turf. It is only a natural result that in the neighbourhood of large towns, more especially of the Metropolis, races should attract a concourse of people amongst whom manners and morality are only conspicuous by their absence. ….
The disgraceful exhibitions often seen at such meetings were recently made more objectionable by the introduction of “first-past-the-post” betting, which was simply this: the horse that is first past the post, and is so placed by the judge, wins the race so far as his backers are concerned, for they are paid. It does not matter what the horse may be, or his age, of the weight he carries, or the course he runs, of that immediately afterward he is disqualified and the race given to the second horse: he has won to all intents and purposes. Fortunately, the practice was stopped in its infancy through the vigilance of the Jockey Club …”
Note that in Day’s account the phrase applied not to a form of racing, but to a form of betting. Specifically, it was a betting practice that lacked regulation and proper forms of integrity to guarantee the betting public a fair return on their wager.
William Day goes on to describe the class of race meetings – the ‘suburban’ races, at which this form of betting was briefly practiced, in even more negative terms.
Such events were “prone to excess in every conceivable form”, he wrote, and at them “Life itself was endangered, whilst anyone having property was ruthlessly despoiled of it”.
Day went on to say that these race meetings were eventually abolished due to “their own inherent viciousness”. (The full extract from Day’s book is at the end of this post.)
This less than glowing endorsement of the conditions in which first-past-the-post betting lived its short life begs an obvious question: why, and by whom, did single-member plurality elections come to be associated with this ‘objectionable’ form of betting and the disreputable racing events at which it was invented and used?
The term does not appear in any of the major English or Australian written works on voting methods of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its first recorded usage in political debate seems to be in a discussion in the New Zealand House of Representatives in 1906, when that chamber was debating using preferential (aka ‘ranked choice’) voting to alleviate the effects of plurality counting in single-member districts.
[Can any reader find an earlier reference? It would be intriguing to track down how ‘first-past-the-post’ jumped from being a race betting term to an electoral one. Feel free to post any insights as comments, or email me directly if you prefer.]
The era of ‘first-past-the-post’ voting’s creation in Britain
It is interesting that William Day wrote his criticism of first-past-the-post betting in the very year – 1885 – when the voting system which was later to bear its name was being introduced into the United Kingdom.
It is a widespread misconception that first-past-the-post voting – the election of MPs by a plurality of votes in a single-member constituency – was of ancient lineage in Britain: this simply is not so.
What had been the rule, for several centuries, was generally the sending to Parliament, possibly (but necessarily) after holding an election, of two members, not one, for each county and borough constituency.
Also present, but less common, were constituencies electing three or four members.
If an election was necessary (there were no organised political parties, and local magnates often controlled the nominations) the voting method we today call the block vote, or the plurality rule in multi-member divisions.
In fact, there did exist rare instances of borough constituencies where just one member was elected, in unusual and small-population localities. But they were not designed to be party-oriented exceptions to the main architecture of the electoral system.
If this difference from modern electoral systems seems trivial, it may be useful to remember that far more profound differences also existed in the pre-modern period of electoral design. Until the mid-nineteenth century at most 5% of the adult British population could vote at all – and certainly no women. The constituencies were wildly different in ‘size’ – the number of electors who could vote – and many ‘elections’ were uncontested other than by two pre-determined ‘winners’ sponsored by local controllers of the electors.
Perhaps more significantly for modern discussions of electoral design, political parties as we know them had not yet emerged; therefore, the injustices seen in electoral outcomes as measured by party numbers in parliament, which are the basis of so much modern debate, had simply not yet manifested.
The political deal of 1884
The change to single-member divisions in the UK took place, in fact, in the years 1884 and 1885, as part of a legislators’ compromise between the rival political parties of the day.
The Liberal and Conservative (‘Tory’) parties of the period had emerged slowly during the course of the 19th century.
By the late 1850s the Liberal party had certainly reached a level of electoral campaign and parliamentary organisation that would be recognizable today. The Liberals were, in the main, the dominant party during the following decades, and in particular became expert at coordinating nominations and campaigns so as to maximise their return of members to parliament, especially in the high population growth cities such as Birmingham.
In response, the Tory party adopted similar tactics in order to effectively compete.
In the second half of the century Britain saw two major periods of debate over reforming the laws for the franchise and the conduct of elections.
In 1868 the voting franchise was expanded significantly, but in that year’s reform legislation the structural mechanics of the constituencies and the voting system remained unchanged.
At this point it is worth noting that the first major conceptual proposals to reform the voting system – the promulgation of the single-transferable vote (STV) method – had already been put forward (in the late 1850s) by public official Thomas Hare, who perceived that some corrective was needed to limit the unfair outcomes which the Liberals were achieving through their superior election tactics and organisation.
The franchise reforms of 1868, however, did not pick up on the proposals of Hare and other parliamentary reformers, such as the philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill.
By the time a second major round of franchise reform was being considered in 1884 the debate had advanced. In this period the Tories, in opposition and led by Lord Salisbury, and the government of Liberals led by Sir William Gladstone, faced three interlocking electoral issues.
Firstly, there were yet further calls to expand the property basis of the franchise to include more adult males. (Women would have to wait another 35 years to be given the vote in Britain.)
Secondly, the scandal of constituencies of enormously various population sizes (what in modern terms we call malapportionment), and specifically the gross under-representation of the high-population-growth English cities, needed to be faced.
Thirdly, the specific questions of the vote counting method, and to a lesser degree the number of members per constituency, was exercising the minds of political party tacticians, just as it does in modern times.
At this crucial juncture, while the Liberal government had a majority in the House of Commons, the Tory opposition could count on the numbers in the House of Lords to block electoral legislation. Yet everyone agreed some change needed to be legislated, at least on the franchise and malapportionment issues.
The result was a legislative compromise that would surprise no modern audience: a brokered deal which gave each of the two major parties some of their tactical aims.
The political deal over the resulting franchise Reform Act of 1884, and the accompanying Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885 – known to history as the ‘Arlington Street Compact’ – was brokered in October 1884 by the Liberal cabinet minister Sir Charles Dilke, meeting with Lord Salisbury and other Opposition representatives (perhaps so that the Prime Minister could himself disown negotiations if they went badly, as well as appear detached from the deal once everything had been agreed).
The package included the franchise expansion which the Liberals had sought (and which Salisbury, cannily, foresaw that conservative politicians would not need to fear; the enduring conservative capability of persuading working-class people to vote against the ‘liberal elites’ was already at work).
In addition, the constituency boundaries and the populations allotted within them were thoroughly re-organized.
Across the country the fine details of the boundary changes were a mix of advantageous results for both the major parties and their incumbent individuals, sufficient to ensure the bill’s passage past potential vetoes in both houses of the Parliament – a ‘bipartisan’ practice which continued well into the 20th centuries in Britain and other empire democracies – and persists to this day in the United States.
But the final element of these reforms was the abolition of virtually all the two-member (and larger) seat numbers in the constituencies, to be replaced with the single-member system which we know today. It was in fact only at this point in history that more or less universal system of single-member districts came into existence in Britain.
(Interestingly, elections in Canada has been based on using single-member districts from much earlier, indeed as far back as the establishment of elected assemblies in the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada in 1791. Likewise, elections in Australia were primarily held in single-member districts from the 1850s.)
So contrary to modern misconceptions, the architecture of the single-member electoral system known today as first-past-the-post was not ‘original’ to the British system at all, but was born of a self-interested political pact. It was a deal deliberately intended to achieve specific electoral outcomes for the incumbent political parties which agreed to legislate it into existence.
Not everyone agreed with the deal, including many Liberal MPs. Liberal Minister Leonard Courtney – then and later a staunch supporter of proportionate representation using the STV system – resigned from Cabinet over the deal. Courtney went on to become a leading figure in Britain’s proportional representation movement.
At the time Prime Minister Gladstone, confident in his party’s dominance in the electorate, calculated that his government would be the first beneficiary of the distortionary effects of the new first-past-the-post system – effects which stir so much controversy to this day in several nations.
But in an outcome rich in irony, Gladstone was wrong. His government barely survived the next British election held in late 1885, becoming a minority government needing to deal with Irish nationalist MPs, which in turn caused a split in his party. The resulting early election in 1886 then overthrew all Gladstone’s strategic expectations, as Salisbury’s Tories out-campaigned the Liberals across the country, including among the newly enfranchised lower-propertied and lower-income voters.*
The Tories, not the Liberals, thus ended up winning the benefit of the electoral distortion caused by the number and geographical distribution of party votes.
Unsurprisingly, they have defended the system ever since.
(* The text of this para corrected Feb 2020 – original text had conflated the 1885 election result with that of 1886.)
Extract from William Day, The Racehorse in Training, 1885
The first few pages of Chapter XXIII – Minor Evils of the Racecourse, pages 185-187, are as follows:
The suburban meetings, as they are called, are those which cast the greatest blot on the reputation of the Turf. It is only a natural result that in the neighbourhood of large towns, more especially of the Metropolis, races should attract a concourse of people amongst whom manners and morality are only conspicuous by their absence. The racing, too, is poor. Even for large stakes, good horses seldom compete at such places; and, indeed, few run at them, for the races are mostly plates.
The disgraceful exhibitions often seen at such meetings were recently made more objectionable by the introduction of “first-past-the-post” betting, which was simply this: the horse that is first past the post, and is so placed by the judge, wins the race so far as his backers are concerned, for they are paid. It does not matter what the horse may be, or his age, of the weight he carries, or the course he runs, of that immediately afterward he is disqualified and the race given to the second horse: he has won to all intents and purposes. Fortunately, the practice was stopped in its infancy through the vigilance of the Jockey Club, and I only refer to it here as showing the lengths to which the promoters of these meetings would go if they were permitted.
Such meetings have no attraction for gentlemen, and in the absence of the restraining example and influence of the upper classes the crowd, wild with excitement, is prone to excess in every conceivable form. I well remember the Hippodrome races at Bayswater, and those at Harrow, now most happily done to death by their own inherent viciousness. The scenes witnessed at Harrow would beggar description. The few policemen, utterly powerless to preserve order, consulted their own safety in flight. Life itself was endangered, whilst anyone having property was ruthlessly despoiled of it, with little risk on the part of the thieves of detection and none of punishment when detected. One visit was my first and last appearance on the scene. The Hippodrome was no better, the difficulty of preserving order there being admittedly increased by the number of footpaths across the enclosure. The company was chiefly composed of welshers, prize-fighters and the disreputable beings that always follow in their wake; and the downfall of a meeting reliant on such elements was as certain as it was speedy, the Press at the time pointing out that a mob “displaying such brutal coarseness and immorality” must drive away “the stay and props of all race meetings – the respectable portion of the community”.
(Images of Dilke, Salisbury and Courtney are from Wikipedia.)