One year on from the General Election: What we’ve learnt about Westminster’s warped voting system

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 11th December 2020

A year ago this Saturday, the polls opened on the first December election for over ninety years.

At the time this felt like an unusual bookend to an unusual parliamentary term, which had culminated in the Supreme Court ruling unlawful the Prime Minister’s decision to suspend parliament. Incredibly, a year later and those unprecedented events have been overshadowed by even more extreme ones.

So much has changed in this last year – and yet the political dynamics remain the same as ever in our majoritarian system.

Last year’s election gave the Conservatives an early Christmas present of an 80-seat majority, won on just a 1.3 percent increase in vote share – a similar result in 2017 saw the then Prime Minister lose her majority. A quarter of votes went to parties other than the largest two, but they returned less than 13 percent of seats.

At sixty-seven percent (67%), turnout for last year’s December election was relatively high, but nearly half of voters did not get what they wanted – 45% of votes went to non-elected candidates. And in total, over seventy percent (70%) of votes did not directly contribute to the result – either because they went to a non-elected candidate or were over what the winning candidate needed. This is the result of using First Past the Post, rather than a fair, proportional voting system where every vote counts.

We see similar results every UK general election – millions of votes are routinely ignored by an electoral system that is designed to supress those choices in order to create artificial majorities.

This year we’ve seen sweeping emergency legislation put the Executive in full control. In the months following the Covid outbreak, the Westminster system reverted to type, centralising decision-making and, for a while, dispensing with parliamentary scrutiny.

It is often assumed that swift, frictionless decision-making is needed in a crisis – that strong and singular direction created by the dynamics of winner-takes-all voting. This last year has proved the opposite.

Subsequent inquiries have criticised both the approach to, and the detail of, the emergency legislation which was given just a day’s debate in the Commons. And as the crisis developed, we saw countries with more plural political systems, which foster greater collaboration across levels of government, being applauded and rewarded with public trust for their response to the pandemic.

While Westminster continues to plough on with politics as usual, the tide continues to turn on this centralised, winner-takes-all style of government. A recent series of YouGov polls on democracy finds that fifty-two percent (52%) of people think more decisions should be made by local and regional governments and over a quarter (27%) would like to see the Prime Minister have less influence than now.

Only eighteen percent (18%) of people think a two-party system is better for democracy whilst twenty-seven percent (27%) think a greater number of smaller parties would be better.

With the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, how soon we will go to the polls again is not clear. What we do know is that the maths will be the same: votes will be ignored in the service of an electoral system that is both dysfunctional and unpopular with the public.

A year on from a warped General Election, we should do all we can to ensure it’s the last under Westminster’s unjust voting system.

Even with the considerable impact of the pandemic, we’ve had a big year. You can find out what we’ve been up to in our 2020 Annual Report. If you want to help us in 2021, join the Electoral Reform Society today.

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