A system in crisis

1 Jun 2015

It’s official: this election was the most disproportionate in UK history.

We’ve just released our new report on the May 7th General Election, 'A Voting System in Crisis'. And it makes for worrying reading for fans of democracy.

The report, launched today, has already hit the headlines, with ERS Chief Executive Katie Ghose appearing on BBC Breakfast, the Today programme, Daily Politics, Radio 5 Live, Sky, ITN and Channel 5 to discuss it already. We found:

  • 50% of votes in the election (15m) went to losing candidates, while 74% of votes (22m) were ‘wasted’ – i.e. they didn't contribute to electing the MP
  • 2.8m voters were likely to have voted ‘tactically’ – over 9% of voters
  • Under a more proportional voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – the Conservatives would have won 276 seats to Labour’s 236, while the SNP would have secured 34, UKIP 54 and the Lib Dems 26. The Greens would have won two more seats – in Bristol and London
  • The ERS was able to call the winner correctly in 363 of 368 seats - a month before polling day - due to the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under First Past the Post
  • This election saw an MP win on the lowest vote share in electoral history – 24.5% in South Belfast
  • 331 of 650 MPs were elected on under 50% of the vote, and 191 with less than 30% of the electorate.

The problem goes deeper than these shocking statistics though. First Past the Post is artificially exaggerating divides in the UK – giving the SNP nearly all Scottish seats on half the vote, while excluding Labour from the South of England and over-representing them in Wales and under-representing the Conservatives in the North of England and Scotland.

At the same time, cross-community parties in Northern Ireland got a tenth of the vote and no seats, yet the DUP received nearly half the seats on just a quarter of the vote. This situation is unsustainable if the Prime Minister truly wants a ‘one nation’ Britain.

It doesn’t have to be like this

But it’s not all terrible news. There are better ways of doing elections – after all, we’re the last country in Europe to use the outdated and broken system of First Past the Post.

We commissioned YouGov to find out voters' party preferences so that we could work out what the results might have looked like under different voting systems:

Here at the ERS, we support the Single Transferable Vote system, used for local elections in Scotland and most elections in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Not only does it produce fairer results, but you get to have your cake and eat it, because it also keeps the constituency link between you and your representatives. The constituencies are slightly larger and you have a team of MPs - at least one of whom you are likely to have voted for, unlike under First Past the Post.

It’s quite simple – you rank your candidates. If your first choice doesn’t have enough support to be elected, your second choice is used instead. The candidates with the least votes are eliminated until the 3-5 seats in your area are filled. Not only do seats better reflect how people vote this way, tactical voting is almost eliminated – you don’t have to vote for a ‘lesser evil’ anymore. ‘Safe seats’ become a thing of the past. And every contest becomes just that – a real contest.

This report lays out the problem – and the alternatives. We can’t afford to see a repeat of the 2015 election, with the majority of MPs elected on less than half the vote and a government winning a majority on just over a third of votes.

The government now needs to act to ensure people aren’t driven even further from politics. As we’ve shown today, democracy doesn’t have to be like this. It’s time for our voting system to move into the 21st century.

Read 'The 2015 General Election: A Voting System in Crisis' here


176 Responses to A system in crisis

John 1 Jun 2015

Just some observations
1) STV would be fairer - but if I were a Green supporter I wouldn't be happy with just 3 MPs.
2) AV would have made things worse! It's just as well the UK voted NO in the referendum in 2011. The Lib Dems traded an AV referendum for a reduction in Commons seat from 650 to 600 - the Tories must be pleased with them
3) The List PR example is theoretical. There is no way we'd have Regional constituencies and a 5% threshold would almost certainly be used.

Jale 2 Jun 2015

True that the Greens would still feel hard done by...but their support is so thinly spread, I think it's justified. Only a few areas of the country have enough of their supporters, and the result should reflect that. One of the big uncomfortable truths about PR is that with turnouts like we have been having, you don't even need 100 votes per constituency in order to get a seat in parliament: based on the recent election it would be the equivalent of 73 votes per current UK constituency. I appreciate that some people are totally beholden to the mathematically purest forms of democracy, but it's also somewhat prinicipally undemocratic to give voice to an extremist fringe that has no strong support, while also silencing regional interest parties.

Mike Dommett 2 Jun 2015

How are regional interest parties silenced? Or are you thinking of single issue candidates? Surely in a cornwall constituency STV would have a better chance of an MP than now. A Pure Isreali style nationwide PR is not being proposed.

Francis Graham ... 2 Jun 2015

Many of the electorate voted tactically so it is difficult to know how some of the smaller parties, such as the Green Party, would have faired if people voted with their heart rather than their head. There is much more incentive to do this with a PR system.

John Londesborough 2 Jun 2015

I cannot understand why you think it is "prinicipally undemocratic to give voice to an extremist fringe". By "extremist fringe" you mean very small minority and the voice given by PR will be very small - but, importantly, audible. Whatever is wrong with that? Do you think the opinions of small minorities are always inevitably wrong? To my mind, the "mathematical purity" of simple PR gives the DEMOCRATIC touch stone by which other methods should be measured. There are other considerations as well as democracy, such as having a representative who somehow is your person, whether or not you voted for her or him, i.e. your MP who is expected to understand and be interested in local issues. But simple PR surely gives the democratically correct answer towards which other systems should strive.

David Powell 7 Jun 2015

As a member of ERS find it dissappointing that the society seems wedded to STV rather than a more directly proportionate system, - a system including a form of PR is the only way to give a proper voice, and empowerment to each voter. It is also essential to see the voting method as only a part of the whole constitutional settlement, - we actually do need a constitutional conference, with a major voice given to constitutional experts, not simply politicians, and which enshrines constitutional laws in a written constitution

Richard Atkins 2 Jun 2015

Good points. To me PR could be radically different - voting for a party rather than the local person who is a member of a party. Also I dont understand how an independent could be voted for.

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

The ERS projections are based on quite small proposed constituencies (3 to 5 members). However there is no reason why they cannot be bigger (10 to 20) although it makes the count more complicated. Then the allocation of seats would be closer to what is expected from a party list system - but with the advantage of transferable votes within and across party lines.


Alex Hosking 2 Jun 2015

STV doesn't really scale that well once you get above about 6 members it's starts to get really complicated.

Miles Weston 2 Jun 2015

I went to several election hustings, for the first itme in my life; very valuable experience.  I am convinced that a local connection must remain - absolutely no list system and no 20-member constituencies either.  Also, no 1-member constituencies; our MP is a secretary of state - so he is more or less lost to us as an constituency MP.

dave thawley 2 Jun 2015

Well, if we had a different voting system people would vote differently. The problem with extrapolating from results like the ERS has just done is the prediction is based on a distorted voting pattern. Don't get me wrong, what ERS has done is the nearest and best guess but using STV people would not have to vote tactically and the greens would have picked up far more votes than they did. A lot of green supporters voted labour to try and keep the Tories out etc.

Crispin Allard 2 Jun 2015

Actually, the analysis in the ERS report took account of this through the YouGov survey, which first asked how you actually voted and then asked:
"Please imagine that the voting system used for the General Election in the UK asked you to rank the candidates in the order that you wanted to vote for them. Please indicate how you would have voted ... if you had been asked to rank the parties in your order of preference ..." (See the Appendix in the report)
This allows tactical voting to be taken out of the equation.
Of course you never completely get rid of the distortions of FPTP - e.g. the campaign would have been fought in a totally different way - but it's the best you can achieve.

Lucy Ellen Parker 2 Jun 2015

Ever heard of the PR regional list system? Aha

Sid Cumberland 2 Jun 2015

1) If the Greens had 3 MPs, they should be able to improve their profile and get more next time.
2) We had the AV referendum, but Commons seats have not been reduced to 600. So not really a trade.
3) All examples other than the FPTP result are theoretical. We might have to have 'regional' constituencies in very sparely populated areas (e.g. the Highlands).

John 2 Jun 2015

1) Poor return for 4%. Would you be happy with Lib Dems having 10 seats under PR?
2) The Boundary Review law was passed - and comes up again next year. It's only on hold.
3) The ERS had 3 models, STV their favourite, and two non-runners AV which would have given the Tories a bigger majority and  a regional list system. What about multi-member systems not by STV or MMS?

David Jarrett 2 Jun 2015

One thing to note about the Greens is that while I personally voted for them, a lot of voters around me that would have voted Green voted Labour in the recent election to try and keep the Conservatives out. Greens may get even more seats in a fairer system where tactical voting is eliminated. 

Mike Dommett 2 Jun 2015

It felt like Cameron said he could get AV past the party, and the LibDems believed him.
Open list PR, so you can chose the type of Conservative you get would be consistent with devolving power to regions. But will never come from the Conservatives.

Duncan Fraser 6 Jan 2016

Clegg wanted PR, but caved in (cameron was told by David Davis under no circumstance agree to PR).

Anonymous 2 Jun 2015

I'm not convinced by the conclusions about AV. How could they possibly calculate the results without knowing people's 2nd, 3rd and 4th (etc.) preferences?

Alex Hosking 2 Jun 2015

I don't think the Greens would only have 3 MPs in reality, The Irish Greens had 6 seats in Ireland in 2002 under STV and that was out of a parliment of 150, so the equiverlent of 27 here.
STV would change things wholesale and change the way campaigns are run, the Greens would not have concentrated their efforts to such an extent. And tried to win seats in many more areas and probably would have, in many constituencies they probably would have taken the last seat without maybe without even making the droop quota as they're the last candidate remaining.

As for the way campaigns are run, for example, under STV you might find that the Tories would have spent a lot more money on Liverpool and many Tory votes who would normally have stayed at home in that area may have gone out and voted. In the 5 seat constituency of Liverpool there could be a Tory MP when it's a good year for them. It would also mean a Tory in parliment with a vested interest in doing good for that area and speaking on behalf of that area, you don't get that to the same extent under AMS.
All this sort of change is difficult to factor in, without actually running the election that way.

Martin 2 Jun 2015

But Electoral Reform is not about people being happy if their favourd party doesn't beneift (I'm not saying you favour the Green!) it's about getting democracy right, or at least better. Once the system is right then it's up to the party's taking party to win over people. Our FPTP system doesn't require the big party's to get it right and win people over, its why FPTP is not democratic (enough!)

Craig 4 Jun 2015

Although it is true things would have been worse with AV i would have thought that had we had AV people would have voted differently this making the point invalid.

Philip Morgan 1 Jun 2015

How about a combination of PR and STV? This would give large minority voices their fair share and still maintain the local connection. http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/fair-votes-now.html?m=1

Patrick Herring 1 Jun 2015

STV includes proportional representation as one of its benefits (the other main ones being majority representation and maintaining the constituency link). PR is a general term.

Represent 1 Jun 2015

Alas it is, however, much less proportional than other PR systems such as DPR or MMP.

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

Not true if we compare constituencies of equal size - but of course it depends how we measure proportionality.

Barry 2 Jun 2015

Indeed, it is. STV should really be called SEMI-proportional representation because unless the muti-member seats were very large (ie more than about 7 members each) then smaller parties such as the Greens, UKIP or new parties would still struggle to gain many seats. I prefer the Mixed-Member Proportional/Additional Member System of PR like Germany: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_System_of_Germany has or New Zealand: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_system_of_New_Zealand. DPR is also quite interesting and could be a good alternative to the archaic nonsense of First Past The Post: www.dprvoting.org

james? 6 Jun 2015

hi stv is not a system of proportional representation research the history of malta and its elections to find the dodgy result that led to street protests,
      stv is a system of preferential voting and therefore prioritiises peoples ablilty to make prefernces over the promise of  proportional representation.
 It does make it easier for smaller parties to get someone elected (though the larger the constiuency  the easier that becomes)  and it is clearly a bit more representative than first past the post i always think the german system is the best as it is actually proportional and has local representatives as well. it is also simple and can be admistered quickly making it easy to spot irregularities in the count. the only thing un proportional about it is the five per cent anti-extremist threshold but we would nt have to include that if we did nt want to or we could lower it to one or two percent instead.

Alex Hosking 2 Jun 2015

There should be no need for a top up under STV, most countries with PR have an election threshold of 3-5% to gain seats in parliament, this is to try and block out extremists and fringe parties but it also blocks out more reasonable small parties. STV has no such nation wide threshold.
On paper having to meet the droop threshold of 25-16.6% in a seat you might think would lock out smaller parties but in reality it's not been the case, the preferential nature of the system is actually quite kind to them.
In Ireland reasonable smaller parties do tend to win seats despite only getting a tiny percentage of the vote nation wide, the Irish greens did it with 1.5% of the vote, no where near enough for a seat under most countries' PR systems, while the preferential nature of STV still locks out the hard right and extremists.

Bill Frampton 1 Jun 2015

Critics of First Past The Post are right, but so are the critics of PR.  

There are two requirements of a good voting system: it should deliver both accountability and representation. The problem is that all existing systems fail at one of these, so none of the existing systems is fit for purpose.

By accountability I mean the ability of the voters to throw out a bad government, or as Peter Hitchens put it recently on the BBC's Question Time, "make a dud Prime Minister leave Downing Street with his removal van".  Systems based on single-member electoral districts — First Past the Post, the French 2-round system, the Alternative Vote, etc. — are all good at providing this, but terrible at providing representation to most voters.

By representation I mean giving most voters a local MP of the party for which they voted.  It would seem to be self-evident that an electoral system must deliver that if people are going to accept it as legitimate.  All variants of Proportional Representation are great at providing representation to most voters, but terrible at making governments accountable because they're invariably multi-party coalitions.

The debate about electoral systems will never end until some knowledgeable person invents and publicizes a system which can deliver both accountability and representation.

Andii Bowsher 1 Jun 2015

It seemed odd to see a comment saying that, in effect, we have to choose between proportionality and representation. The article points out that the reason for choosing STV is that it combines both. With STV, I would get probably 4 MPs in my slightly enlarged constituency. I might find that one of them was someone I actually voted for. I like the idea of having 3 or 4 or 5 MPs to take my troubles, questions and concerns to. I've only ever had one at a time, and never one I've actually voted for. Some of them have been very dismissive because ... safe seats & different politics. I like the idea of having a system that overall would be much more proportional nationally and would give me MPs at least one of whom might actually be sympathetic to my concerns.

MarkAustin 2 Jun 2015

But that is just where STV scores.
Because elections under STV return multiple members it means thatbthere is a good chance that you will have at least one member who i simpathetic to your views. Many years ago, I remember David Penhaligon challenged a neigbour---two bradly similar seats---to compare the sort of issues being raised, and found, to no great surprise, that issues raised for him and his Tory neighbour were different: people, knowing the views of their sole MP simply didn't bother to raise issues they knew would be discounted.
Further, STV allows the electorate to vote on the competence of as particulat MP without voting against their party.

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

"the ability of the voters to throw out a bad government"
Agreed, but if this is so important then the obvious solution is a direct presidential-style election of the Prime Minister. 
"giving most voters a local MP of the party for which they voted".
To many people identity based on geographical locality is very important, but to others it may be gender, ethnic group, faith group, profession, class or stance on a particular issue.

dave thawley 2 Jun 2015

 I can see what you are saying but "representative" can mean different things. An MP in themselves  have no power really to influence anything. I would much prefer to have the centralised decision making of the country more reflective of my wishes than a local MP that I have voted for that does not. Representation at the moment is fictitious anyway. My local MP is a tory and has no interest at all in representing my personal view. They just write back and say thanks but they are going to do something completely different. This is not representation. The MP got into their position with most people in the constituency not voting for her, therefore most people in my constituency haven't got representation, just someone we don't want doing stuff we don't want them to do. Welcome to FPTP representation which the tories bang on about as being the best form of democracy (I suppose it is for them but not anyone else!!!).

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

I would argfue that STV does deliver both accountability and representation. 

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

Apologies for mistyping: I would argue that STV does deliver both accountability and representation. 

Norman Graves 2 Jun 2015

No voting system is perfect, but the alternative vote systemis far fairer then the first past the post sysytem.

Paul Z. Temperton 2 Jun 2015

People seem to think that with a proportional system, the electorate cannot throw out a bad government. This is not so. In Ireland, which uses STV, in 2011 the voters threw out the Fianna Fail government. FF's seats were reduced from 71 seats to 20. It was a landslide win for the Fine Gael-led coalition, but only because there was a landslide in opinion, which the system duly reflected.

Miles Weston 2 Jun 2015

With five year gaps between general elections you can wait what seems for ever for Peter Hitchens' "removal van" to reach Downing Street and haul away a "dud Prime Minister".  I would prefer an unruly coalition any day - one that can fall apart and re-form within the five years.
Let's get our thinking away from a brilliant mind ever coming up with a perfect system.

Michael Oldman 2 Jun 2015

STV in 3-5 member constituencies DOES give accountability. It also has the advantage of:
1. Giving popular local independants a better chance.
2. Removing local bigwigs who are past their sell by date.
3. Providing some proportionality in members elected.
Coalition government is not actually bad. It has the advantage of:
1. Removing the more extreme policies
2.Causing matters to be debated properly, rather than nodded through by the lobby fodder, particularly if there is not an overall majority.
We need to reduce the number of MPs and peers. If the USA can manage with 435 Representatives and 100 Senators for a population of 320 million, 350 MPs and 100 peers should be enough for the UK!

Paul E G Cope 2 Jun 2015

We have one. It's called SUPR which stands for "smallest up proportional representation". It produces the same exact result as the party list but still gives each constituency its own, popular MP.
It works like this:
Vote as now
Work out the PR result in integer numbers of MPs per party (treating independents as a party).
Starting with the smallest party, allocate their MP(s) to the seats where they got the best percentage(s).
Move on to the next smallest party and do the same.
Continue until the largest party is reached and all the seats are then allocated.
Bingo! Exact PR and every constituency has an MP who was popular, if not the most popular.
Paul E G Cope

Stephen Flaherty 21 Jun 2016

Hmmm.. Ok, the Green party got 3.8%, that would entitle them to 25 MPs. Bristol West was one of their best performing constituencies, so that would be one of their MPs. However, the Labour Party got 35.7% of the vote in Bristol West, more than the Green Party's 26.8%. How do you sell it to the people in Bristol West that they have a Green MP despite more of them voting for the Labour Party?
It's also possible that Bristol West was one of the Labour party's 198 best results and so would be entitled to a Labour MP in addition to the Green MP. This would solve the above problem but cause another: If Bristol West has 2 MPs (and a lot of other constituencies would also have this outcome) then some constituencies will end up with no MPs. How to sell it to the voters of (say) Warrington South that Bristol West has their MP?

Ian Eiloart 3 Jun 2015

It's hard to see how a government can be called "accountable" when, for example in 2005, 65% of people can vote against and incumbent government and the government can still get a decent majority in the Commons. 

Neil Harding 1 Jun 2015

We can keep local MPs AND have proportionality BUT the Single Transferable Vote isn't the answer. The rejection of AV was partly because people found the counting of preference votes too complicated. That certainly rules out STV, which is more complex and not that proportional either compared to List PR. The solution couldn't be simpler. Voters get one vote to elect all their county MPs. The voters will decide where their MPs represent in the county. Candidates have to target locally to avoid splitting their party vote too unevenly. We use split votes as a useful tool - to get parties to limit the number of candidates they stand AND to target a small area within each county. It sounds counter intuitive but it works and couldn't be simpler. It will be cheaper (no boundary reviews as voters decide with their votes) and less bureaucratic. See my blog for more details - http://neilharding.blogspot.com It is also simple to vote and count as now. The candidates with the most votes win and yet it priduces proportional results.

Mike Dommett 2 Jun 2015

I have some difficulty accepting the premise you suggest, that I have heard from Conservative MP's for over 20 years, that various forms of PR are 'too complicated'. Given that Most of Europe, Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh local Government and the EU elections employ PR, and seem to understand them, your premise surely falls.
I think too the AV referendum was in part a referendum on Nick Clegg and Tuition fees and Conservative backed campaigning. But I could be wrong. I think AV  has flaws too.

Barry 5 Jun 2015

I want real electoral reform but I couldn't bring myself to vote for AV. If the people had chosen that system, I would have been out the next day campaigning for it to be scrapped. I didn't like the preferential voting feature of the system especially when it was combined with single-member constituencies which if we had adopted it could have meant if we had landslides again the opponents of that years 'most hated' party (ie the Labour Party in 1983 or the Tories in 1997) being 'ganged-up' upon and suffering what could be TERMINAL losses for those parties. In 1997, for instance, Mr Blair would have WON BY OVER 200 SEATS and the Tories WOULD HAVE HAD LESS THAN 100 MPS because of this preferential voting combined with single-member seats. AV isn't a good system which is no doubt why it lost. It is the ONLY system than can lose against FPTP (even AV+ is better) and that was the reason why it was the only 'choice' on the ballot paper.

Dave Marsay 2 Jun 2015

This seems much better than conventional FPTP and might be easier to explain than STV. But STV seems the better bet because (a) it is an established option (b) it is less liable to tacticval voting and wasted votes. Do you agree, or have I missed something? For example, in the early days of the Greens I might have wanted to vote for them but thought my vote likely to be wasted. It seems to me that unless voters can rank the options emerging parties will be disadvantaged, so something like STV is required. I would certainly support an STV pilot, perhaps with variants like yours in some regions, with comparisons like those in the current report being published.

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

That's the Single NON-Transferable Vote (similar to the Japanese system).
It is certainly NOT proportional and would rely on the parties' guesswork and tactics.

Francis McGonigal 2 Jun 2015

If you want NOTA just stand as the NOTA candidate on an abstentionist platform.

Barry 2 Jun 2015

I don't think AV was rejected because of issues around how the votes were counted. I believe the main reason the referendum was lost was because most people could see that AV wouldn't have changed the extreme mismatch between votes and seats in the present system and also because they have an instinctive aversion to preference or transferable voting. If STV was the only PR option on a future referendum's ballot paper without it using more than about 6 MPs per seat I do think there is a high chance it could be lost and FPTP would win the day again.
The Electoral Reform Society should change its stance and say we support a move to a more proportional system without being obssesively tied to one particular system as this hurts the cause of electoral reform.

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