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Elections & Voting Explained

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How does a majoritarian system like FPTP work?

Elections across the world are fought by political parties.

There may be those who stand for political office as Independents, without any political label, but they are rare.

Only two MPs have been elected in the UK since 1950 with a purely Independent label, though Richard Taylor won in 2001 and 2005, as an Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern candidate on the basis of a threatened closure of the local hospital.

Turning support for a political party nationally into a number of seats in Parliament by means of a voting system is not a simple matter.

There are two types of systems:-

Majoritarian representation allocates places in Parliament to those gaining 50% of the votes cast in a constituency and therefore the minority is not represented in that constituency. Political theorists such as Aristotle and Rousseau, both writing at a time when narrow elites controlled society, advocated majoritarian systems. Although candidates normally represent a party, voters vote for the candidate rather than the party as such.

First Past the Post is based on the majoritarian principle but is not a pure version of it, as the candidate who receives the most votes in the constituency wins the seat but does not have to gain 50% of the votes.

Where only two parties contest the constituency then the winning candidate will have gained over 50% of the votes as happened in Britain in much of the 19th century, when only the Conservatives and Liberals contested most seats, and in the 1951 and 1955 elections, when Labour and the Conservatives had almost all the votes and the Liberals were very weak.

It is also the situation in US Congressional elections where Republicans and Democrats are the only significant parties. Where there are three or more parties, unless the seat is very safe for one party, the majority of voters may not be represented.

In the Norwich South constituency in 2010, the three main parties were close in the number of votes that they received and the Green candidate also received a sizeable vote and so the winning Liberal Democrat MP only received 29% of the votes cast.

First Past the Post has always been used in elections for the House of Commons, except for a small number of seats that existed between 1918 and 1950 where university graduates alone had the vote. It is used in many Commonwealth countries including Canada and India that inherited the British system.