First Past the Post helped the Conservatives avoid a much worse set of election results

Unlock Democracy’s analysis of the results shows, in changing the voting system for these elections, the Conservatives avoided a much worse set of PCC results.

Voting Ballot Box

The change to the voting system for Mayoral and PCC elections helped the Conservatives avoid a much worse set of election results

Tom Brake, Director, Unlock Democracy

Before May 2nd, every single elected Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in England and Wales had the backing of at least 4 in 10 of their electorate. 

Now only 60% of Mayors and PCCs can boast the same level of support. Minority rule is more entrenched, with some PCCs elected to office on less than one third of the vote (Gloucestershire, Avon and Somerset, Wiltshire, and Thames Valley).

This was, of course, inevitable. First Past the Post – in contrast to the system it replaced (Supplementary Vote, or SV) – offers little incentive to candidates to seek a broader base of support.

As a result, in 5 of the 11 Mayoral contests, over half the votes went to waste, helping to elect nobody. This amounted to nearly 1.4 million in London alone.

With the switch away from SV, a lot of attention was predictably on the potential consequences for the political parties. But above all, democracy should be about the voters. As if we needed a reminder, these elections once more made it clear that First Past the Post robs voters of choice and representation.

So if representation was the loser in these elections, what was the supposed upside? ‘Simplicity.’ Back when the change to the voting system was proposed, the Government argued reform was necessary as SV was “overcomplicated and confusing”.

Does it even bear saying how patronising it is to assume that voters in England and Wales cannot handle the concept of preferences? Preferential decisions are a feature of daily life – “I really like this expensive jumper, but if I can’t have it, this one would be a suitable alternative.” 

Is there, then, a simpler, unstated reason why the Government changed the voting system? 

Unlock Democracy’s analysis of the results shows, in changing the voting system for these elections, the Conservatives avoided a much worse set of PCC results.

Across England and Wales, Labour won the total PCC election vote by 2 percentage points (37.2% to 35.2%), but the Conservatives won 2 more PCCs overall (19 in total). If this election had been held under the old SV system, it’s likely that the Conservatives would have lost a further 8-12 PCCs, most to Labour and up to 3 to the Lib Dems.

Labour gains would have included Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Thames Valley, Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire, Staffordshire and Essex. The Conservatives won each of these areas by less than 3% of the vote. Lib Dem gains would have included Gloucestershire, won by a margin of 1% by the Conservatives, and potentially also Surrey and Hertfordshire.

When this alteration to the voting system was smuggled into the disastrous Elections Bill, Unlock Democracy was not alone in describing the proposal as a “highly political move that seeks to put in place an electoral system more advantageous to the governing party.” This month’s results lend weight to that assessment. They also present a challenge to Labour. Whether to abolish a system that favours them less than the Tories, or to keep it because, although disadvantageous to Labour, it protects their status as the second party in the duopoly.

During the London mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan urged his Party to scrap many of the provisions of the Elections Act, including photo voter ID and the imposition of First Past the Post. We echo that call.

No voting system is perfect. SV, while ensuring the winning candidate obtains a broader base of support, does not prevent minority rule. But it does make it less likely.

Labour already recognises this logic. Its leadership elections use the Alternative Vote (similar to SV, but allowing for the expression of more preferences) to ensure the winning candidate has as widespread support as possible. Its official policy document also acknowledges the “flaws” of First Past the Post.

Amid all the talk of ‘majorities’ in the aftermath of May’s elections – both in terms of General Election projections and individual candidates’ performances – one thing must not be overlooked. First Past the Post is the most direct route to minority rule. Fewer people support their elected Mayor and/or PCC now than was the case previously. Only 6 of 39 Police Commissioners, and 6 of 11 Mayors, can claim a mandate from 50%+1 of voters (the clearest definition of ‘majority’).

The question is does the Labour Party nationally only care about addressing the iniquities of First Past the Post when it’s losing, or can it demonstrate a commitment to fairness and meaningful representation from a position of strength.

Comments are closed.