Electoral Reform in Westminster

The way we elect our MPs is bad for voters, bad for governance and bad for democracy.

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The way we elect MPs to Westminster means that our parliament doesn’t represent Britain.

The link between how popular a party is at the polling booth and how many seats they get in the House of Commons is often weak and unpredictable.

Millions of people can support one party and get a single MP, while a few hundred thousand people who support a different party can get ten times as many.

When Parliament doesn’t represent public opinion it has a real impact on life in Britain – it’s time we made sure seats matched votes.

General Elections with Westminster’s voting system

Major issues ignored

The way we elect MPs to Westminster means that politicians can ignore major issues.

In Westminster, one MP might have twice the support of another – yet they have the same power in parliament. With votes to spare, MPs are under little incentive to make tough decisions on social care or investment.

People who voted for candidates who didn’t get elected aren’t represented at all. But votes that stack up with winning candidates don’t make a difference either. Once a candidate has enough votes to win, any extra doesn’t make them win more.

These two groups of voters combined made up three-quarters of voters in 2017. 22 million people voted yet had no influence on the outcome.

This isn’t inevitable. Outside of Westminster, most ways of electing parliaments don’t involve wasting so many votes. You can find out about different ways of choosing MPs in our Voting Systems section

Highlights from the Westminster Hall Debate on Proportional Representation

Minority rule

All it took was the support of one-quarter of the voters to elect the MP for Belfast South in 2015. That means that someone 75% of the voters didn’t want could vote on their behalf in Parliament – a disaster for democracy.

Parties regularly form a government even if the majority of voters don’t want them to. This situation has grown worse as voters have chosen to support a wider range of parties.

Voters can experience huge shifts in policy from one government to the next – on the basis of a handful of voters in battleground seats changing their mind.

The way we elect MPs makes it harder for parties to collaborate on long-term challenges facing society – and makes for bad government.

Fostering division

Westminster’s voting system artificially divides the country. Across the UK voters supporting every party face large areas with no representation, despite having real support.

When large areas of the country are electoral deserts, parties are left to fight over the handful of hotly fought-over seats – leaving millions of people with almost no contest locally. This turns elections into a postcode lottery. Parties with support from across the country suffer and smaller parties can only win seats by putting all their efforts into one or two areas.

Jobs for life

Because of the way we elect our MPs in some seats the odds are firmly stacked against any voters looking for change.

Safe seats are the 21st Century’s rotten boroughs. The average constituency last changed hands between parties in the 1960s, with some super safe seats having remained firmly in one-party control since the time of Queen Victoria.

The majority of seats can be predicted because of Westminster’s broken First Past the Post electoral system.

As constituencies are small and only elect one MP, rival parties often don’t stand a chance of winning in hundreds of seats across the UK. Even if they have significant support it counts for nothing if they don’t come first. As the loss of safe seats is rare, parties target their resources on a small number of floating voters in marginal seats – meaning they give up on millions of voters across the country.

Wrong Winners

Westminster’s First Past the Post electoral system normally delivers governments the majority didn’t vote for, but it also sometimes puts parties in power, even if they didn’t get the most votes.

In 1951 48.8% of voters wanted a Labour government and 48% wanted a Conservative government. Yet there was a Conservative majority.

And in the February election of 1974, Labour won 301 seats to 297 for the Conservatives – despite the Conservatives beating Labour in votes by 0.7%.

Wrong Winners Around the World

New Zealand saw two wrong winner elections in a row in 1978 and 1981, setting them on the path to electoral reform. South Africa had a wrong winner election in 1948, setting them down the road to apartheid.

The mechanics of the electoral college in the United States are also similar, and have delivered Presidents who did not win the popular vote in 1876, 1888, George Bush 2000 and Trump in 2016.

First Past the Post is the worst possible system for electing our representatives. We want to see a fairer, more proportional voting system that makes seats match votes – and means no one’s voice is ignored.

It is time to make seats match votes

The last two General Elections showed that our voting system is broken beyond repair. This General Election was no better, with millions of voters ‘holding their nose’ at the ballot box, or left ignored in the hundreds of safe seats across the UK. Sign our petition calling for a fairer, more proportional system to elect MPs.

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More information about Electoral Reform in Westminster


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Date published
Submission for

Labour Party consultation on democracy and the constitution –...

Constitutional Convention
Date published
Submission for

ERS Response to the Commons Procedure Committee’s consultation on...

Electoral Reform