Millions of voters across England denied ‘real choice’ as hundreds of seats contested by just two parties

Posted on the 26th April 2019

Millions of voters across England denied ‘real choice’ as hundreds of seats contested by just two parties

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, immediate release 26th April
  • For more information, quotes, or to arrange an interview, contact Jon Narcross, Communications Officer, / 07794728820
  • Local/regional figures – and further quotes are available

Millions of voters are being denied a real choice in next month’s local elections, with hundreds of seats being contested by just two parties [1], according to new analysis by the Electoral Reform Society. 

In 816 council seats across England, voters will be forced to choose between just two parties – despite 156 parties contesting this May’s elections. The problem affects 2.65m voters – ‘a scandalous denial of choice’, the ERS say.

The majority – 56% – of these contests will see the Conservatives and Labour battle it out without any challenge beyond the ‘big two’ parties.

At a time when polls put support for parties other than the ‘big two’ at around 40% [2], millions of voters will be unable to vote for their preferred party, according to the ERS.

The Society say large areas of the country are written off as unwinnable under England’s ‘out-dated’ First Past the Post system. Scotland has used a proportional voting system for local elections since 2007, with uncontested and undercontested seats becoming virtually a thing of the past.

The findings come ahead of European elections – conducted using a form of proportional representation – which are likely to see voters choose from a wide range of parties across the spectrum in every region.

On Tuesday MPs discussed switching to a proportional voting system for the Commons, in a Westminster Hall debate that saw several Conservatives back electoral reform [3].

The findings:

  • Over 2.6 million potential voters in England are in the 816 wards where they are faced with a choice between two parties [4]
  • The East Midlands performs worst in offering voters ‘real choice’, with 150 seats contested by just two parties, followed by the West Midlands and North West. However, the West Midlands performs worst in terms of the numbers of potential voters affected, with over 475,000 electors in two-party wards.
  • Across all regions, the Conservatives and the Labour Party are the two parties contesting 453 wards out of 816 undercontested wards – representing 56% of all two-party contests
  • The highest percentage of wards contested by only the two biggest parties is found in the North West – here Conservative-Labour battles represent 86% of the 133 undercontested seats.
  • The lowest percentage of wards contested by the two main parties is the South West – only 20% of undercontested wards are Conservative-Labour contests. This is because a majority of undercontested wards are Conservative-Liberal Democrat battles
  • Across all regions, Conservative-Liberal Democrat battles represent 20% of all undercontested wards.

See the top ten two-party races by council area [bottom of PR]

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society, said:


“At a time when people want to ‘shop around’ more than ever, millions of voters are stuck in two-party seats with just a couple of candidates to choose from. A competition of ideas is vital for a healthy democracy, but in the winner-takes-all-politics of First Past the Post, even well-supported parties often don’t stand a chance.


“Recent polling shows huge numbers of voters no longer back the two main parties. Yet voters in more than 800 seats in England are locked in the binary party system of a hundred years ago. This is ‘to me, to you’ politics, with big parties often swapping control.


“No areas should be viewed as ‘electoral wastelands’ or ‘unwinnable’ by parties – but that is the sad reality under England’s broken voting system.


“While over half of these undercontested wards are battles between the Conservatives and Labour, there are large areas where only the Conservatives and Lib Dems are standing.


“These findings show the urgency of the need for real political reform: the party system is fragmenting but the structures of England’s politics remain locked in the 19th century.


“It doesn’t have to be this way. Scotland and Ireland use proportional voting systems to elect their councillors, with voters consistently often a wide choice of parties. Now is the time to move to a truly representative, participatory politics, where every vote counts and people know their voice will be heard – wherever they are.”


The Welsh government is currently consulting on allowing councils to switch to a more proportional voting system.



Total undercontested two-party races by region, sorted by most wards affected

Region Total undercontested wards (wards where only two parties are standing or 1 party and 1 independent candidate or 1 independent candidate v 1 independent candidate) Electorate affected (number of potential voters in undercontested wards, where only two parties are standing or 1 party and 1 independent candidate or 1 independent candidate v 1 independent candidate) Con-Lab contests as percentage of all two-party contests
East Midlands 150 441,480 59%
West Midlands 145 475,839 57%
North West 133 449,596 86%
East of England 128 421,183 50%
South East 122 424,513 41%
South West 79 196,984 20%
Yorkshire & Humber 53 211,268 64%
North East 6 29,471 67%
TOTAL 816 2,650,334 56%


Councils with the highest number of wards with undercontested two-party races:

  1. Herefordshire = 28 wards
  2. New Forest = 19 wards
  3. Cotswold (Gloucestershire) = 16 wards
  4. East Lindsey (Lincolnshire) = 16 wards
  5. North Kesteven (Lincolnshire) = 16 wards
  6. Breckland (Norfolk) = 15 wards
  7. North West Leicestershire = 15 wards
  8. Ribble Valley (Lancashire) = 15 wards
  9. Wychavon (Worcestershire) = 15 wards
  10. Bromsgrove (Worcestershire) = 14 wards

Notes to Editors

[1] We have defined these ‘undercontested’ wards as those where only two parties (or a party and an independent, or an independent versus an independent) are standing.

[2] YouGov Voter Intention Polling – April 2019

[3] Including Derek Thomas and Daniel Poulter

[4] Electorate sizes should be treated as estimates. For most of the wards, ERS researchers used Boundary Commission for England data from 2015. Where there was evidence that there have been boundary changes in a council since 2015, we have used figures from the most recent Local Government Boundary Commission for England review for that local authority.

The Electoral Reform Society are calling for a fairer local electoral system which more accurately reflects people’s wishes.

Scotland has been enjoying a fairer voting system since 2007. Voter choice has more than doubled, uncontested seats have all but become a thing of the past, and the rotten boroughs that once plagued Scotland have been undone.

Introducing the Scottish system of elections into England and Wales would mean that people’s votes were more accurately represented, and there would no longer be any ‘no go’ areas for the big parties.

Further information

Hansard Society – Audit of Political Engagement 16:

Electoral Reform Society – Voters in England and Wales are being let down by their local democracy:

Electoral Reform Society – The Cost of One-Party Councils

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