Latest by-elections reveal flaws of First Past the Post

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 20th October 2023

The two UK parliamentary by-elections, held on 19 October 2023, saw some dramatic outcomes. In Mid Bedfordshire, Labour overturned the biggest majority (24,664) in any by-election since at least 1945. In Tamworth, Labour achieved its second highest swing (23.9%) in any by-election since 1945. Bettered only by the 29.2% swing in the Dudley West by-election of 1994.

It is, however, worth looking under the bonnet of the results to shine a light on the workings of the First Past The Post (FPTP) system used for UK general elections and by extension for these by-elections.

Firstly, it is worth noting that in neither of the by-elections did the winning candidate receive over half of the votes cast. In Tamworth, the winning Labour candidate won 45.8% of votes, while in Mid Bedfordshire, the winning Labour candidate received only just over a third (34.1%) of all votes cast. This is the eighth lowest winning vote share in a by-election since 1945. This means that in both elections, the majority of votes cast went to candidates who were not elected.

This ability to win seats on low vote shares is a feature of the UK’s FPTP system. For example, at the 2019 general election, Labour won Sheffield Hallam with 34.7% of votes; the Scottish National Party won Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath with 35.3% of votes; the Conservatives won Ynys Mon with 35.5% of votes; and the Liberal Democrats won Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross with 37.2% of votes.

In each of the above seats, around 65% of votes were cast for losing candidates. At the 2019 general election, across the UK, 14.5 million people (45.3% of all voters), cast their ballot for a losing candidate and were therefore denied the chance to be represented by a candidate of the party they voted for. That is a massive portion of the electorate seeing their vote go to waste under FPTP.

Under proportional representation (PR) systems, the number of people not represented by a candidate of the party they voted for, is drastically reduced. Different PR systems achieve this in different ways but all of them result in fairer outcomes for voters, who have a much better chance of seeing their vote turned into tangible representation in parliament. If we had a PR system for UK general elections, then the unfairness described above would be a thing of the past.

Another negative aspect of FPTP is that it often results in elections being dominated by arguments about which party is ‘best placed’ to beat another party. This was very much the case at the Mid Bedfordshire by-election, where argument raged for weeks between the Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigns about who had the better chance of defeating the Conservatives.

Such tactical debates can obscure the true purpose of an election campaign, which is for candidates and parties to try to appeal to voters with their ideas and policies. Under PR systems, voters can have confidence that a vote for any party has a good chance of being translated into representation in parliament. Therefore, there is much less incentive for parties to focus on tactical arguments about who is best placed to win a particular seat, giving more space for campaigns to be focused on ideas.

Before the last UK general election, around a third of voters said they would vote tactically to keep out a party they dislike. A move to PR for UK general elections would free voters from the need to consider tactical voting and allow their vote to be a positive expression of who they would most like to win.

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