First-past-the-post elections are very easy to understand, or at least they appear to be. As the maps in this chapter have shown, it is much harder to understand what they result in or why there are particular patterns as to who does not get what they wish for despite voting, than it is to understand the voting system. Under the Westminster first-past-the-post system anyone who is over 18 and not in an excluded category can stand as an MP provided that they can find enough money to pay the deposit required (which they lose if they secure less than 5% of the vote). They also need to be able to take the time off work or childcare to campaign, so most people are excluded. However, they only have a chance of winning if they are selected by one of the two or three main parties in an area, and usually it is just one party whose candidate has any chance of winning so the votes don't count; what matters is winning the party selection process.
Here is how to play - "Who wants to be a member of parliament?":
- Each player, each person in the class, needs to choose a persona from having carried out the exercise at the end of Chapter 4. The quick way to do this is to pick a number from one to 64 at random. To do this you start with the number 1. Toss a coin, if it is heads add 1, do it again, if heads add 2, again add 4, again add 8, again add 16, again add 32. At each point if it is tails add nothing. Use that number to select one of the English European constituencies from 1 to 64. Suppose you tossed only tails. Your number would be one and your constituency would be London central. Your characteristics would then be:
- Aged 25-29
- Black African
- Living alone
- Many neighbours left the area since last year
- Born outside the European Union
- Has a university degree or equivalent
- Professional occupation
- Each person then needs to decide for which political party group they want to be an MP. It might be wise to pick a party that you think might be more sympathetic to someone from your background. Choose between three main parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat and get into groups (by political party). If you cannot choose between these three you can join a fourth group called "most voters".
- Within each group you need to pick a single candidate. The following instructions tell you how to do this. If you are in the "most voters" group then simply chat about the weather or what happens to be interesting you today. Whatever you do don't talk about politics as you are representative of most people and most people don't do this.
- If you are within one of the main party groups each of you decide whether you need to rule yourselves out. For instance you must be a British, Irish or Commonwealth country citizen to stand; you must also think you have the time and the personality needed.
- All those not standing within each party make up the selection committee. You need to interview each candidate in turn, ask them about their background, whether any of it is relevant to their candidature and how the skills they have might be useful in getting them elected. When all have been interviewed, vote for a winner.
- If you are within the "most voters" group carry on talking about the weather, where you would like to go on holiday or if you can go on holiday, what you hope for the future and who is to blame for things not being as you might wish (but don't mention politics).
- If you are within one of the three party groups the time has come to hold an election. If you are the Liberal candidate you have lost. That is what happens to almost all Liberal candidates. Pick another random number from 1 to 64 and then look at how the votes are normally distributed in that area using Figure 5.1. If normally more than 60% of the seats are won by the coalition then the Conservative candidate is duly elected. If less than 40% normally go to the coalition then the Labour candidate is elected. Otherwise, if the proportion is between 40% and 60%, go to step 8 below.
- If you happen to have chosen somewhere where the result is not likely to be a foregone conclusion then you need to involve the "most voters group". Whichever of the two main candidates' parties has the most money in their pockets is allowed the most time to convince the "most voters group" to vote for them. Share out 60 seconds in proportion to how much money both parties have. This is called campaigning. Good luck (although luck doesn't have a great deal to do with it).
Related material for Chapter 5:
All available data and further material can be found in the Data section.