In Defense of First Past the Post: Rethinking the Liberal Proposal on Electoral Reform
In the mid-90s, the West wanted in, Quebec wanted out, and the East wanted more EI. The Reform Party caught fire in the west, the Bloc Quebecois dominanted in Quebec, and the NDP and Progressive Conservatives made gains in Atlantic Canada amidst backlash of EI reforms. All the while, the country was governed by the Liberal Party, who had seats in every province of Canada and two of three of the seats in the north. In a country as regionally diverse as Canada, this has to be the single biggest vindication of the first-past-the-post system: a system which allows and contains regional protest voices, while keeping the health of the nation intact.
Second, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) has historically served the Liberal Party of Canada well, having been one of the most successful political parties in a Western democracy. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the Liberals have committed to abolishing FPTP and scrapping a system that not only benefits the health of a large and diverse country, but has served their own self-interest as well.
Whenever you set rules to a game, inevitably you pick winners, and you pick losers. If you are a player within that game, you want the rules to make you a winner. After all, it is only a matter of rational, self-interest. This is why electoral reform rarely happens in democracies. The only players with the power to change the rules, are the ones who won on the old ones. Not much incentive to change the very system that just elected you.
Canada’s diverse regions have accordingly diverse interests. Often, one region’s interests will run in direct contrast with the interest of another, take for example the energy sector in the West, which favours high oil prices and thus a high dollar, with the manufacturing sector which favours a low dollar for exports. Or take rural and urban Canada, who often vote for opposite parties. Canada is far from a homogenous country, and our political system’s greatest strength is to both allow healthy expression of protest, while allowing the middle ground to govern the country.
Whoever wishes to govern must bridge the divide and win across the country, as the Liberals did in the 90s. When the Conservatives finally won a majority in 2011 after 5 years of minority governments, it was because they won seats in every region of Canada and broke through in urban centres like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Likewise, when the Liberals formed government in 2015, they did so with representation in every province. Although it is possible to form a government without nation-wide representation, as in 1980 when Pierre Trudeau won a majority without any seats west of Manitoba, these occurrences are the exception and not the norm.
Yes, FPTP gives majorities to parties who win only 40% of the popular vote. But in 2015, where 39.5% voted Liberal, and 32% voted for the second-place Conservatives, it is plausible to say that, in a hypothetical run-off, enough of the remaining 28.5% would have gone to the Liberals to push them over 50%, in an election widely viewed as a referendum on Stephen Harper.
Conversely in 2011, when the Conservatives garnered 40% from all regions of the nation – in hypothetical local run-offs, depending on who it was against, the Conservatives would have attracted at least some of the vote from the blue Liberal, populist NDP or even rural Bloc factions. Definitely not every vote – but all that would be needed would be one extra vote out of six gone to the other parties for the Tories to reach 50%.
The other benefit of the first-past-the-post has to do with the dreaded C-word: Coalitions. FPTP encourages big-tent parties, which encourage coalition-building within parties. What does ending the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly have to do with support for the state of Israel? It was the Conservative Party’s way of forming voter coalitions. By contrast, in a multi-party system, coalitions are formed between parties.
In both systems, coalitions are necessary to form government. The only difference is big-tent parties form coalitions that are presentable to the voter. Coalitions between parties involve horse-trading after the votes have been cast, and are one step further removed from the voter. In FPTP, coalitions between parties remain possible, but are often unneeded and unpopular due to this horse-trading – one need only think of the Conservative-Liberal Coalition Government in the UK which broke Liberal campaign promises and saw the Liberals lose a quarter of its popular support in the subsequent election.
That is the other consideration Liberals who are misty-eyed over the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) overlook: that actors behave rationally according to the rules that govern them. Certainly the current political landscape now, with Liberals being the middle-road with three big-tent parties, the STV looks tempting. After all, the second choice for Conservative and NDP voters would be the centrist Liberals right?
Except this train of thought overlooks the fact that the electoral system shapes political parties just as much as parties shape the system. Simply put, FPTP dictates the parties’ behaviours. Remember the Progressive Conservative-Canadian Alliance merger? It happened because neither party could win against the big-tent Liberals in FPTP. Yes we think FPTP benefits the Conservative Party, but we forget it was FPTP that created the Conservative Party in the first place.
While the current hype over electoral reform undoubtedly gets its popularity from the wake of the former Harper government, the current Trudeau government needs to tread carefully – and responsibly. Changing the electoral system is bigger and longer-lasting than any one government or politician. Any electoral reform must take into account the tradeoffs of setting winners and losers. Although FPTP is often maligned by commentators, it serves to balance regional and national interests, as shown through 149 years of peaceful democracy. The grass isn’t always greener on the non-FPTP side.