Five reasons we desperately need to change the voting system

22 million voters had no influence on the outcome of the election


Nearly a fifth of all English votes are now represented by just two MPs. Half of all UK votes went to losing candidates.

This is the result of what the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) calls ‘A Voting System in Crisis’, the title of their new report into ‘the most disproportionate result in British election history’.

Smaller parties have added to the chorus of voices calling for reform after the election; nearly a third of the electorate voted for a party other than Labour or the Conservatives.

But it’s not just political parties who have an interest in reform. For the sake of democracy, voter engagement and unity we desperately need to get rid of the First Past The Post (FPTP) system, and here’s why:

It’s bad for morale

Since 2001, no single-party government has had the support of more than 40 per cent of voters, and the Conservatives are now governing on less than 37 per cent of the popular vote. Taking turnout into account, the current government commands the support of just a quarter of the electorate.

This is disastrous for morale and voter engagement. The many protests that have taken place since the election – some serious and thoughtful, some hysterical and counter-productive – are symptomatic of the frustration of voters who know their voice doesn’t count on polling day.

It threatens the Union

For the first time, the parties with the largest number of seats is different in each of the four nations of the UK: the Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the DUP in Northern Ireland.

But the actual vote share of the parties is far more nuanced than this: for example, the Conservatives have 15 per cent of the vote in Scotland, but this has been represented by a single seat in the last two elections. Last month 50 per cent of the Scottish vote share translated into 95 per cent of seats for the SNP.

In this way, FPTP exaggerates national and regional divides and threatens the future of the Union; the Unionist voice in Scotland is now extremely weak, despite the fact that over half of Scots voted against independence.

It increases sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland

As the ERS points out today, community pacts between Northern Irish parties lead to unrepresentative seat share. At this election, the unionist parties jointly endorsed one candidate in four seats – East Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, North Belfast and Newry and Armagh. This allowed the DUP to unseat Naomi Long of the Alliance Party in East Belfast – despite the fact that she increased her vote.

Essentially, people are not voting for their preferred candidate but for the unionist or nationalist who is most likely to keep the others out, and parties are stepping out of some seats in order to win disproportionate representation for their community in others.

Many commentators have said that this enforces divisions, calling it a ‘sectarian headcount’.

It wastes votes

Noone’s vote should be wasted. But a month before the election, the ERS correctly guessed the winner in all but five of 368 seats, so predictable is the phenomenon of ‘safe seats’. The ERS estimates that almost three quarters of votes are ‘wasted’ because they either provide surplus support for incumbents in these seats, or they vote for a losing candidate. The ‘winner takes all’ effect of FPTP means that smaller parties achieve little or no representation.

According to the ERS, 22 million people who voted had no influence on the numerical outcome. This drives people towards tactical votin – ERS research found that 9 per cent of voters were planning on voting tactically – for the ‘least bad’ choice.

It creates unstable governments

The Conservatives may have a majority now, but it is a slim one. With the party only ten seats ahead of the combined opposition, Cameron will find it difficult to push through controversial policies. While this is welcome news for critics of Tory policy such as the repeal of the Human Rights Act, it means the government is unstable and makes passing legislation a lengthy and time-consuming process.

We are living in a multi-party era, where coalition governments may make more sense, logistically and democratically, than shaky single-party ones. It is high time that our electoral system reflected this.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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13 Responses to “Five reasons we desperately need to change the voting system”

  1. Gary Scott

    T’was ever thus. The last government, Conservative propped up by LibDems, was a product of FPTP. Usually we have majorities but not always.

    We voted, at the behest of the LibDems, on this in the last parliament. The major parties were against it, we returned a no vote. So what has changed?

    After all, we have a perfectly functional majority government. We have lesser parties who have widely differing numbers of seats compared to votes won BUT that is how FPTP operates. UKIP concentrated their efforts in certain geographical areas, they were successful but because this was geographically concentrated they won few seats.

    Scotland voted, as usual, for a party of the left. It returned more left wing members than ever before. As often happens, Scotland doesn’t get the party it votes for – this is standard under FPTP. We’re lumbered with the Tories again. To be fair, even if all Scottish seats (including the additional 15 taken from LibDems and previous SNP) were transferred to Labour, the Tory government would still have a majority.

    What HAS changed is that instead of sending 6 SNP MPs, the Scots have sent 56! This, to be clear, is under the same system as was used in all previous elections and the one that the Conservative and Labour Parties pushed to retain just a couple of years ago.

    The change is that, institutionally, Westminster feels threatened not just by SNP, but by Scots wielding power. We saw the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech used referring to Scots and the Conservatives stating SNP had no legitimacy. They raised tensions which can only be described as racist.

    If, after 300 years, Scots can’t be accepted as having a voice are we multicultural, or are we racists??

  2. Arizona1365

    Funny – I don’t remember all this outcry from the Left when Tony Blair won a majority in 2005 with 32% of the vote

  3. swat

    Its an absolute disgrace that the Greens and UKIP only ended up with 2 seats between them. And on AV PR they’d still have ended up with just 2 seats. So the cry for PR is not just coming from the Left!
    We in Labour have all along been in favour of PR, LCER, and the ERS have been foremost in calls for PR. I still believe that AV is still the best and most easily understood of all PR models. So if people were aware of PR this year as the voting system they would more than likely have voted in 80 UKIP and 50 Greens. True Labour would still have lost, but that’s a story for another day. Its all a matter of fairness to all Parties and not to continue the hegemony of the 2 main Parties to exclude other Parties and more exclude the voters from elections.

  4. RoyB

    Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  5. Matthew Blott

    Tony Blair was open to the idea but John Prescott and other tribalists kicked up a stink when Paddy Ashdown and others were invited into government so any idea of reform was binned.

  6. Ringstone

    Not so fast, it gets worse! Toxic Tony had 35.2% of a 61.4% turnout, that’s the active support of 21.6% of the electorate for a thumping 66 seat majority. Cameron just got 36.9% of a 66.1% turnout which is 24.4% support for a majority of 12.
    Yet Team Red are now shouting that this was the most “disproportionate” result in election history. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

  7. Ringstone

    I’m for AV too. Politicians should answer to an electorate, not the man who decides who goes where on the Part List. Ed Balls would have been second of Team Red back to the trough on a party list, the people thought otherwise.

  8. Iconoclypse

    As a lifelong member of ‘the Left’ I have advocated PR since before I was allowed to vote. I also voted in favour of AV. AV is not perfect, far from it, but it is more representative than FPTP. It’s time for both Labour and the Conservatives to face the fact of the multi-party political society we live in now. Given that over 5 million votes translated to 2 seats for UKIP and the Greens we’re in danger of someone suing if we continue to call ourselves a democracy.

  9. iconoclypse

    It’s not ‘Team Red’ decrying this as the most disproportionate election but the ERS. Please don’t try to make this a sad little 2-party partisan whinge-fest. ‘Team Blue’, who you clearly support ‘won’ so revel in your victory. The FACT, as pointed out by the ERS report (if you actually read it), is that more votes than ever before did not count towards any representation. This is because of the rise of multi-party politics and has nothing to do with ‘Teams Red and Blue’. That is the truth.

  10. Matt Booth

    I for one, as an English person, welcome their voice of the left in Parliament. It’s just a bloody pity they’re nationalist, and that the Tories are intent on removing their right to vote on “English matters” Though, being entirely fair, that’s the fault of the devolved system of powers for Scotland – but that only affects me negatively, not you.

    If the SNP were not a nationalist party, and a fully-on British party, they’d’ve had a lot more sway in this election. After those TV debates, English and Welsh folk were dismayed at not being able to vote for Ms Sturgeon. She was the voice of the left in the TV debates.

  11. Ringstone

    The ERS comments on disenfranchisement and the Labour spin into “we wuz robbed” are two different things. Not only have I read the report, I put money into the ERS – though I don’t agree with them on everything – how about you?


    You have to be joking that Scotland voted for a party of the left. The Nat rulers are right wing their so called left are fools.


    Sturgeon is a gobshit who spouts anything that may sound popular but when it comes to legislation to help the so called poor then wait out. It will not happen. If the English and Welsh are willing to accept her crap then sad for them. First past the post makes for firm government. The SNP have no problem taking taxpayers money and sitting on their hands in Westminster pretending they can contribute.

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