It should be a scandal that small changes in the vote result in outsize changes in Parliament

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 3rd July 2024

Two, rather similar, articles came out today on the likely impact of small swings in the vote on the results of the general election. In the Times, they identified 130,000 voters in 100 seats that could change the result for all of us from a 200-seat Labour majority and a hung parliament. In the Financial Times, similar research found 120 seats where the margin of victory is expected to be fewer than 5 percentage points – small swings in these seats could decide if the Conservatives win 146 seats, or 44…

The ‘quirks’ of our ‘odd’ electoral system

As the Times said in their piece “first-past-the-post is a strange electoral system where tiny changes in the tightest constituencies can produce chaotic results.” Others have described results like these as due to a ‘quirk’ of Westminster’s voting system.

A ‘quirky’ feature of our elections is candidates wearing big rosettes, like so many prize ponies. Let’s be clear, there is nothing quirky, odd or strange about an electoral system that consistently produces results that are way out of sync with the way we vote. The results of this election will decide the future path of the country.

People are so used to the usual pattern of general elections, that things that would seem outrageous in any other countries are treated as just normal. It should never become normal that the vast majority of voters make no difference to the result.

They count all the votes, but most have no impact

This isn’t a new thing. In the 2017 General Election, Theresa May famously lost her majority. But the Conservatives could have won an absolute majority on the basis of just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies. A working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places. Two very different outcomes based on less than 0.0017 percent of voters choosing differently.

Why do so few votes make a difference in UK elections?

The problem with elections in the UK is that they are actually 650 individual elections. Rather than trying to represent the diversity of opinions in your local area, just one MP is elected to represent everyone in a constituency – even if the majority of voters didn’t vote for them.

Votes cast for a candidate that didn’t win end up making no difference in Westminster. Added up across the whole country it means that millions of voters aren’t represented in Westminster. But also, to become an MP, a candidate just needs to beat the second placed candidate by a single vote, so if they win any more votes beyond this level, those votes don’t make any difference either.

Most voters fall into these two categories – if they had stayed at home, the result would have been exactly the same. When so many votes have no impact, the few that do matter have all the power.

We need a fair, predictable and proportional voting system

First Past the Post has been an engine of instability for years. A system designed for an era when everyone voted for the Whigs or the Tories simply doesn’t work when people vote for lots of different parties.

The one-person-takes-all nature of First Past the Post encourages short-termism and quick fixes, as in each election the incentive is to say anything to win over the handful of votes they need to win. Parties fall into factionalism as the route to power is seizing control of a party that already exists, as there is no viable way for new parties to win seats in line with their support.

Add your name to our call for a predictable and proportional voting system

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