The British voting system is broken

The Institute for Public Policy Research's Richard Darlington argues that the UK’s voting system is now broken and the era two party politics is at an end.

Richard Darlington is an Associate of the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

The UK’s voting system is now broken and the era of two party politics in the UK has come to an end. Without reform, we will get more minority governments and weak coalitions. New analysis published today by ippr, “Worst of Both worlds: Why First Past the Post no longer works”, shows that safe seats are on the increase and marginals are decreasing. Since 1945, one-third of seats have been held by the same party and since 1970 half of all seats have not changed hands.

The British Election Survey asked respondents whether the political parties had contacted them during the 2010 campaign. They found a 16 per cent gap between voters living in marginals and those living in safe seats. But in marginals the voter-contact rate was just under 70 per cent.

Labour’s lack of campaign funds at the last election made micro-targeting of voters a necessity. And the campaign strategy was a political success. While Labour got a similar share of the vote as 1983, they secured a similar number of seats as they did in 1992.

Having developed this efficient campaign machinery, there is no going back. Without a change in the voting system, political parties will continue to be incentivised to micro-target the voters that make the most difference to the outcome.

At the 2010 election, 31 per cent (around 9 million) voters lived in all-important marginals, leaving 69 per cent of the electorate voting in seats which had little chance of altering the overall result. A third of voters living in marginal seats believe that their vote makes more of a difference, compared to just a fifth of voters who live in safe seats. And who can blame them?

The ippr analysis shows that in the 111 constituencies that changed hands, just 460,000 voters – or 1.6 per cent of the electorate – made the difference and effectively decided the outcome. The report also highlights a long-term trend of voters opting for parties other than the Conservatives or Labour. The vote share for the two main parties was the lowest ever at the last election and has been steadily falling since its peak in the 1950s.

Parties other than the ‘big two’ have also become more successful at winning seats in the House of Commons and now regularly win around 85 seats collectively. A winning party therefore needs at least 86 more seats than its rival in order to win an overall majority, something that has happened in just seven of the 18 general elections since the war. For one party to secure a workable majority of 20 seats, it needs to win at least 100 seats more than its rival, something that has happened in only four of 18 post-war elections.

Even a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats at the next election would leave Labour and the Conservatives needing more than 50 seats more than their rival to form a majority government. Without reform, we can expect more hung parliaments in the future – or at the very least governments elected with small and unstable majorities. We will have a system that is the worst of both worlds: neither representative nor stable.

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