Levelling Down: First Past the Post’s impact on regional inequality

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 7th December 2021

Discussions of the disproportionality of British general elections generally focus on the deviation between votes and seats at the national level. But looking at just national disproportionality hides far more damning realities of how First Past the Post (FPTP) distorts the votes of the British public.

It is no secret that support for political parties in Britain is relatively regionalised. Even the most casual observer of British politics could tell you that support for Labour tends to be higher in the North and Conservative support is highest in the South. But FPTP is the great exaggerator – magnifying the differences between the parties in those regions and causing them to take near monopolies of seats where their support is greatest.

To take a closer look at these regional disproportionalities, we can apply the Loosemore-Hanby index – which measures the net deviation between vote and seat share – to election results in the twelve nations and regions since 1983.

Table A: Average Regional Disproportionality Since 1983

A low score is more proportional and a higher score, less.

Average Peak, Year
North East England 34.2% 42.8%, 2015
North West England 23.2% 35.2%, 2005
Yorkshire and the Humber 25.5% 35.3%, 2001
East Midlands 23.9% 33.8%, 1983
West Midlands 22.8% 28.5%, 2001
East of England 34.2% 45.1%, 1987
South East England 34.5% 42.8%, 1983
South West England 27.3% 46.2%, 2015
London 20.9% 27.5%, 1997
Scotland 30.7% 44.9%, 2015
Wales 25.0% 36.4%, 2001
Northern Ireland 25.5% 33.6%, 1983
United Kingdom 20.1% 24.0%, 2015

Because voting patterns are regionalised and because of the all-or-nothing mechanics of FPTP, the disproportionality within individual regions and nations is higher than it is at the UK level – meaning that each national or regional caucus of MPs is less representative of the area it serves than the whole House of Commons is of the whole country. Hardly what you’d hope from a voting system that is supposed to establish strong local links.

There is variation between regions, but even the best overall performer – London – still has an average score higher than the UK as a whole. The highest levels of disproportionality can, perhaps unsurprisingly, be found in the one-party fiefdoms of the North East, East and South East of England, where up to one-third of seats over the past 40 years would have gone to different parties under a fairer voting system.

This effect is even more pronounced if we look at ‘types’ of seat instead of geographic regions. 98 of the 100 most rural constituencies in England are held by the Conservatives despite 41% of voters in those areas supporting other parties. Labour similarly hold 84 of England’s 100 most densely populated constituencies on just 56% of the vote there. The same story can also be seen if you look at a constituency’s demographics or its Brexit support – the disproportionality and unrepresentativeness of FPTP is so much worse when you dig below the national level.

Effects on Representation

FPTP’s single-member constituencies obviously mean that anybody who doesn’t vote for the winning party is left with a representative they didn’t vote for. But over the last ten general elections this has amounted to nearly half of voters having an MP they didn’t endorse. Variation between parties and elections is shown below.

Table B: Share of Voters Who Were Represented by an MP They Voted For

Con Lab LD SNP PC All
1983 78% 51% 6% 9% 22% 49.6%
1987 77% 54% 6% 14% 40% 52.0%
1992 71% 57% 7% 10% 42% 52.3%
1997 40% 79% 19% 18% 39% 51.7%
2001 43% 77% 22% 14% 27% 50.8%
2005 51% 70% 21% 20% 23% 47.6%
2010 68% 58% 18% 18% 22% 47.2%
2015 74% 54% 6% 97% 21% 50.0%
2017 68% 57% 11% 62% 32% 55.9%
2019 76% 50% 8% 85% 38% 54.7%
Average 65% 61% 12% 35% 31% 51.2%

The lack of representation is particularly clear for supporters of smaller parties, but even for the two main parties who generally benefit from FPTP, millions of their own voters are left without a voice of their choice in parliament. And there is a strong regional dimension to who doesn’t get represented. Those Labour voters who lack a Labour MP predominantly live in the South and those Conservative supporters represented by a non-Tory MP are largely grouped in London, the urban North and South Wales.

This is a particular issue in Scotland as the SNP’s recent monopolisation of Westminster seats means that nearly all unionist voters have an MP who disagrees with them on one of key issues in Scottish politics. This is easy to contrast with the proportionally elected Scottish Parliament – 87% of Scottish voters at least one MSP from their preferred party, but just 46% have an MP they voted for.

Effects on Government

The biggest consequence of these electoral deserts, whether geographic or not, is that both major parties have significant gaps in their who their parliamentary parties represent. The number of rural Labour or urban Conservative MPs is very low. So when these parties come to form a government by themselves, it means that there are certain parts of the country and certain groups of people that the government has little to no stake in whatsoever.

And we can see the effects of this in policy. The recipients of this government’s Towns Fund were largely Conservative-held marginal seats, with many similarly deprived Labour towns being denied funding. Similar criticisms have been aimed at the more recent Levelling Up Fund and the axing of key regional rail infrastructure projects.

This behaviour isn’t something exclusive to this government – the current state of the so-called ‘red wall’ is largely driven by its low electoral value to successive governments – but this is the logic of FPTP. Government held marginals get top priority, while the needs of opposition held safe seats can be easily ignored.

Without diversity of representation, a region’s ability to benefit from government policy is largely dependent on whether its MPs are in government. Under a proportional system, like the Single Transferable Vote, nearly every constituency would be represented by both government and opposition MPs.

British politics at the minute is filled with discussions of ‘levelling-up’ and reducing regional inequality. But if political parties are genuinely committed to levelling-up in the long run, they need to create a political system in which any government has an electoral stake in all parts of the country and which gives more voters a voice of their choice in parliament. Proportional representation is the only way this can be achieved.

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