Elections in Britain have become the ultimate postcode lottery. Our new report, Penny for your Vote?, shows that the amount of money which parties spend on attracting your vote depends almost entirely on where you live. At the starkest extremes, voters in Bootle are valued 22 times less than those in Luton South. In other words, all votes are not created equal after all.
If you live in a marginal seat, then parties will spend money trying to attract your vote. But if you live in a safe seat – as so many people do – then you will be all but ignored. Our report shows that in the 50 most marginal seats, average spending per vote was 162% higher than in the 50 safest seats, demonstrating that the main driver of inequality in spending is an electoral system that makes much of the country a no-go area even for the biggest parties.
This inequality has a direct impact on voter turnout and general political engagement. Our report shows that where parties tighten their belts, people will be much less likely to vote. The parties’ indifference to safe seats is turning people away from politics. By targeting marginal seats, parties are contributing to the problem of voter disengagement, and they are making it harder for themselves to reverse declines in party membership. As voter disengagement becomes a more and more pressing problem, so does the inequality of party spending, and so does the voting system which incentivises parties to target their resources so ruthlessly.
There are two central problems which explain this state of affairs. One is the dire state of the parties’ finances, and the other is our lop-sided electoral system. Parties have scant resources and naturally want to target their spending where it will make the most difference. And our outdated voting system means that the most logical way of spending money is to target a few marginal seats. And this leaves millions of voters in the lurch.
If we are going to redress the imbalance, both party funding and our electoral system need to be reformed. We need properly and sustainably funded political parties incentivised to campaign across the country, not just in a few fiercely contested seats. We need a party funding system that recognises the crucial role that parties play in mobilising voters. And we need an electoral system that values each voter equally no matter where they live.