Canada’s 2021 election – the striking failures of First Past the Post exposed

By Richard Wood

On Monday 20 September Canadians went to the polls after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election, hoping to turn his Liberal minority governement into a majority one.

The Conservatives soon took the lead in the polls but by the end of the campaign both parties were neck and neck.

In the end, Canada’s House of Commons now looks very similar to the one before it as only a handful of seats changed hands and the parties ended up roughly where they started in terms of seats and votes. The Liberals won the most seats and Justin Trudeau remains prime minister.

Despite this somewhat underwhelming result, the election serves to highlight some of the major flaws of First Past the Post.

Another wrong-winner election

In 2015, the Liberals won a majority of seats on a minority of the vote – while also getting the highest number of votes across the country (but nowhere even near the 50% mark). In 2019 they fell short of a majority of seats, won the most seats but actually secured fewer votes than the Conservatives. Two years later this has happened again.

For the second time in a row, the Conservatives have won more votes than the Liberals but ended up with fewer seats.

First Past the Post distorts the link between seats and votes, sometimes resulting in the party with the highest number of votes coming second overall. This is known as a wrong-winner election. Canada’s voting system has exaggerated the support of the Liberals at the expense of the Conservatives and other parties, giving them an artifically leading place in the House of Commons.

Wrong-winner elections most recently happened in 1951 and February 1974 in the UK. Such elections are not representative at all but at least serve to weaken the argument that First Past the Post provides clear winners that can be easily kicked out.

The second wrong-winner election in a row is bad news for Canadian democracy.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

Inflated representation of the larger parties

First Past the Post consistently subsidises the two largest parties by inflating their seat share well above their vote share. The Liberals may have fallen short of a majority of seats but they won 47% of seats available (158/358) on just 32% of the vote. The Conservatives also slightly benefitted, securing 35% of seats (119) available on 34% of the vote. In the past they have benefited more by securing overall majorities on minority vote shares.

This exaggeration of support is seen over and over in countries that use First Past the Post. At the 2019 UK General Election, the Conservatives won a majority of seats on just 43% of the vote. In 2005, Labour won a majority on an even smaller share of the vote – just 35% of the vote.

Canada’s 2021 election is no different. First Past the Post one again perpetuates the dominance of a country’s largest parties.

Smaller parties punished by FPTP

The flipside of this is that by subsidising the representation of the larger parties in parliament, smaller parties are unfairly punished. Canada’s National Democratic Party, the NDP, secured just 7% of the seats available (25 seats) on almost 18% of the vote.

The Greens also suffered, winning only two seats but a vote share of 2%.

This underrepresentation of smaller parties is key feature of UK elections as well. In 2015, UKIP secured 13% of the vote but only won one seat. The Liberal Democrats are consistently punished by this as are the Greens. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal Alliance won just 25 seats on 25% of the vote – almost displacing Labour as the country’s second largest party by vote share yet coming nowhere near in terms of seats.

First Past the Post distorts democracy by subsidising larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. Under the status-quo, votes aren’t equal. The Canadian election highlights this once again through the squeezing out of the NDP and the Greens.

Wasted votes

The nature of First Past the Post means that countless votes are wasted in the process of electing MPs. In any Canadian riding, because there is only one member elected, votes going to other parties and votes above and beyond the amount to elect each MP are wasted.

Canada’s 2021 election is no different. The dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives at the expense of the NDP and other parties means wasted votes across the country.

As far as I can tell no one has done exact calculation, but once they’re up they will be added here – I’m sure Fair Vote Canada will be on the case!

First Past the Post exposed

Canada’s 2021 election highlights some of the major flaws of FPTP. The country has a very similar parliament to before, one that does not accurately reflect how people vote.

Like the UK, Canada needs Proportional Representation. It’s time to make votes matter and enact electoral reform.

READ MORE: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

An opportunity for Proportional Representation – a minority government, the NDP and lessons from New Zealand

The one silver lining is that the election certainly puts Canada’s unrepresentative electoral system in the spotlight. Voting reform isn’t the main concern of most ordinary voters but when two wrong-winner elections in a row take place, the issue is certainly given a second glance by ordinary voters. There is an inherent unfairness that cannot be ignored.

The Liberals went into the 2015 election supporting Proportional Representation. It is a disappointing misstep of history that Justin Trudeau did not keep his promise to abolish First Past the Post. However, change could still happen in the near future. The emboldened NDP and the ambitious Greens support electoral reform – and with the voting system in the spotlight, there is an opportunity for the pro-reform parties to take advantage of the Liberal minority and push for a democratic upgrade.

Two wrong-winner elections in a row helped pave the way for electoral reform in New Zealand. Could Canada be next? And will the UK also one day adopt Proportional Representation?

We must certainly hope so.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP supports electoral reform

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