Elections 2021: Rotten boroughs are rife in England, as voters are hit by warped results

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 7th May 2021

This can’t keep happening.

Way before election day we knew one thing: England’s warped, winner-takes-all voting system would leave voters silenced and seething.

Lo and behold, it’s happened again.

We’re already seeing a plethora of rotten results – with parties taking nearly all the seats on a fraction of the vote.

Analysis by the ERS has identified a series of warped and worrying effects of winner-takes-all results in England, under First Past the Post:

  • In Harlow, the Conservatives won 60% of the vote – but secured 92% of seats. Labour got 36% of the vote and just 8% of seats up for grabs
  • In Gateshead, Labour secured 47% of the vote, but 79% of seats up for grabs
  • In Nuneaton and Bedworth, the Conservatives got 58% of the vote but 88% of seats. Meanwhile Labour and the Greens, with a combined 40% of the vote, won just 12% of seats
  • In Rochdale, Labour won 49% of the vote but secured 80% of seats

The latest results from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Dudley, and Thurrock are also glaring examples of unfair outcomes under the ‘zero-sum’ voting system.

This is just a snapshot of the unfair outcomes under England’s zero-sum voting system.

Behind these figures are millions of voters being ignored – often election after election.

A broken system

How does it happen? Under First Past the Post, all votes not cast for the one (or multiple) winners in each ward go to waste. Spread across a whole council area, parties can often secure 30%+ of the vote and still be left with zero representation.

The flip side is that one party can sweep up nearly all the seats with just a third or half the vote. These one-party-takes-all outcomes are a deadweight on our democracy, with voters feeling silenced or taken for granted. When a party can get near 100% representation on a fraction of the vote, something is clearly wrong.

Decades of experience with a system that works

Voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland simply don’t have this problem: the vast majority of voters actually elect someone locally who they voted for, with the ranked-choice system of the Single Transferable Vote.

No party should sweep the board on a minority of the vote. It’s a recipe for poor representation, disengagement, and a growing divide between communities and their councils. Instead, we need vibrant, diverse town halls that reflect our communities.

As we’re increasingly finding out, areas that are deemed ‘unwinnable’ by governing parties tend to get left to wither on the vine. These one-party-takes-all outcomes are a deadweight on our democracy.

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland use a fairer voting system, making rotten boroughs a thing of the past. Wales has passed legislation to let local communities scrap FPTP.

Proportional representation is vital to breathe new life and energy into our local democracy.

We need to ramp up the pressure and say enough is enough: voters in England need a real voice, and fair representation.

Together we can transform one-party fiefdoms into a vibrant local democracy.

Sign and share our petition for proportional representation on England’s councils

Sign the petition for fair elections for councillors across the UK

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