First Past the Post is at the heart of a lack of trust in politics

In 2019, 71% of all votes cast had no impact on the outcome of the election, either because they went to candidates who lost, or went into padding the majorities of winning MPs.

Voting Ballot Box

Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy which campaigns for real democracy in the UK, protected by a written constitution.

I wrote in my March column about the need for trust in politics.

In the wake of local elections marked by distorted electoral outcomes and the shambolic rollout of photo voter ID, trust in politics is understandably in even shorter supply.

It’s hard to have confidence in democracy when those in power tell you your vote doesn’t matter. It’s easy not to have faith when Parliament doesn’t reflect the people.

According to YouGov, just 13% of the British public think that the UK Parliament has done a ‘fairly good’ or ‘very good’ job in recent years – a damning indictment of the extent to which politics neglects the needs of ordinary people. Such a disconnect can come as little surprise when one considers the way we elect Members of Parliament.

Under First Past the Post, governments of left and right can assume office, having received a minority of the vote, but 100% of the power. The views of the majority, who didn’t back them, just don’t matter.

In most constituencies, people know who will win, long before the election, because the same party has held the seat for decades.

Political parties know this too, and end up focusing the bulk of their resources on the small cluster of voters in a handful of marginal seats who will decide the outcome of a general election. Meanwhile, everyone else is left out in the cold and marginalised.

The net result in 2019 was that 71% of all votes cast had no impact on the outcome of the election, either because they went to candidates who lost, or went into padding the majorities of winning MPs.

This same dynamic is true of local elections in England. In the elections on the 4th May, a huge number of voters had to choose either to see their vote essentially count for nothing, or to vote tactically in order to block their least preferred party.

According to analysis by the Electoral Reform Society, parties were able in places such as Tameside and Broxbourne[1] to win 90% of the seats, with fewer than half the votes cast.

Another particularly shocking example was the Bedford Mayoral Election. Following changes made last year by the government, Bedford was among a number of places where, for the first time in British history, voters were forced to use First Past the Post to choose a directly-elected mayor. Here, the Conservative candidate, Tom Wootton, won the backing of 33% of Bedford voters, defeating his Liberal Democrat challenger by only 145 votes. The votes of the two-thirds of locals who chose not to support Wootton, and any second preferences they might have had, went to waste. Whether Wootton governs in recognition of this fact remains to be seen.

And it’s not just the two main parties who benefit from FPTP. In Bath & North East Somerset, the Liberal Democrats won 72% of the seats on just 42% of the vote.

If politics, neither at the national level, nor at the local level represents the views of the people as expressed at the ballot box, the system becomes out of touch. Edelman’s respected ‘trust barometer’ for 2023 showed that three-quarters of Britons believe the U.K. to be on the ‘wrong track’, with trust in government falling to a seven-year low.

One other barometer of trust in politics is turnout. This month’s council elections make for grim reading on this score too.

What’s more, routine low turnout at local elections was predictably exacerbated by the introduction of unnecessary, costly and discriminatory photo voter ID. Thousands of eligible voters were unable to cast their ballot due to restrictions imposed in the face of countless warnings from academics, government experts and democracy organisations, Unlock Democracy included, about their inevitable impact.

Because of the way the government is choosing to record the data, we will never know the precise number of people who had their vote stolen from them. Many were young people. Many were from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds. There are even reports of young voters being turned away from polling stations when in possession of valid ID.

Something we do know, though, is that in denying eligible voters their democratic rights, the government is sending out the message – even inadvertently – that the views and needs of a huge number of people simply don’t matter.

Small wonder, then, that trust in government is so low.

We live in a country whose politics is characterised by systemic dysfunction and public disdain. As long as we persist with a broken electoral system that distorts the views of the public, sidelining the voices of a majority in order to deliver false governing majorities, we will not be able to rebuild trust in the democratic process.

A proportional system in which all votes count equally, no matter where they’re cast, is the obvious solution. And the good news is a majority of the people agree.

The task now is to persuade those in power to back the call for equal votes. That’s why hundreds of people are coming to Westminster on 24 May for Sort The System, a mass lobby of Parliament to urge MPs to embrace change.

Without trust, democracy will wither. Democratic governments of whatever stripe must recognise the danger signs and adjust course. Legislating for proportional representation for general and local elections, and scrapping voter ID, will move the UK in the right direction.


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