Opponents of Proportional Representation often say that they want stable government. But under First Past the Post, small swings in popularity can produce wildly different Parliaments.

Governments often call snap elections because they like the look of the polls – as we’ve just seen in Canada.

The only countries in Europe to use the First Past the Post voting system are the UK and the brutal dictatorship in Belarus.

Outside of Europe, almost every country that uses First Past the Post was formerly a member of the British Empire – including Canada.

Image from Fair Vote Canada.

Image from Fair Vote Canada.

The next Canadian election wasn’t due until October 2023, but First Past the Post means that tiny changes in popularity can give dramatically different results. This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election more than two years early in an attempt to harness this instability and get more MPs for his party.

In the UK, Theresa May called a snap election in similar circumstances in 2017. Don’t let anyone tell you that First Past the Post guarantees strong and stable government!

With Proportional Representation, seats in Parliament would match how we vote. For example, if an extra 1.3% of us vote for a party, it would gain around 1.3% extra seats.

Compare that to First Past the Post: in 2019 the number of UK voters choosing the Conservatives increased by 1.3%, but that gave them an extra 48 seats (over 7%). With prizes like that, can you see how governments might be tempted to call a snap election based not on the good of the country but because they like the look of the opinion polls?

Indeed, snap general elections are set to become more common in the UK. Currently, snap elections can only happen if MPs vote for one (or if they vote no confidence in the Government).

But the Government is proposing to change the law to give one person – the Prime Minister – the power to call a snap election at any moment, whenever they think it would benefit them politically. Do you think that stable government is their first priority?

Don’t let anyone tell you that First Past the Post guarantees strong and stable government!

Scotland and Wales have had devolved government for over 20 years, elected by Proportional Representation. Not once has there been a snap election.

Of the 29 OECD countries with minority or coalition governments, only Canada and Israel called early elections during the pandemic. Of the 27 who didn’t, all use proportional or semi-proportional voting systems.

Of course, Proportional Representation doesn’t mean that snap elections are impossible. But experience from Britain and around the world shows us that First Past the Post is not a pillar of stability.

“100 years of broken promises”

This election marks 100 years since the first time that Canadians elected a government on a promise that they would bring in Proportional Representation, as our allies at Fair Vote Canada have highlighted.

Prime Minister MacKenzie King promised Proportional Representation in the 1920s and 1930s, but abandoned his promise.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau called for Proportional Representation in the 1970s and 1980s, but never implemented it.

His son, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pledged that “the 2015 election will be the last federal election using First Past the Post”, because “we need to know that when we cast a ballot, it counts. That when we vote, it matters”.

He quickly broke his word, and to this day Canadians are stuck with First Past the Post.

Canadian Government 33 Per Cent of the Vote.jpg

In Canada’s 2019 general election, no party won a majority of the votes. The Conservative Party won more votes than Trudeau’s Liberal Party.

But remember, under First Past the Post, just because more people vote for something doesn’t mean that the House of Commons will reflect that. The Liberals were given 36 more MPs than the Conservatives, even though fewer people had voted for them! That allowed Trudeau to form a minority government, on a record low 33% of the vote.

After dealing with the pandemic, the Liberals are up a couple per cent in the polls, from 33% all the way to, well, 35% or 36%. That’s less than two in five voters, but under First Past the Post, that could be enough for a single-party majority (Tony Blair did it with 35% and David Cameron with 37%).

And that brings us to today, with Trudeau the latest in a long line of national leaders to call a snap election.

The lesson is clear: we will only win equal votes if we build a movement so big that it can’t be denied or ignored.

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We need to know that when we cast a ballot, it counts. That when we vote, it matters.
— Justin Trudeau, in happier times