Paying the price of First Past the Post – Towns Fund millions spent on marginal seats

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 25th September 2020

There is no better way of finding out which voters matter under Westminster’s warped electoral system than looking at where your taxes are funnelled to.

The government’s £3.9bn Towns Fund was heralded as the way to level up the ‘left behind’ parts of the country. Civil servants made recommendations as to which towns needed the extra funding, with 541 towns considered, and put in order of need.

101 towns were chosen, but the civil servants’ advice wasn’t followed for all of them. According to reports, ministers took over the decision-making for 61 – applying their own ‘qualitative analysis’ to pick the winners.

It seems that this analysis was mainly based on the warped electoral politics of First Past the Post. Analysis by the Manchester Evening News last year showed that, of the towns in the running, “nearly a quarter…serve some of the most knife-edge seats in the country – those requiring a 1pc swing or even less to move them from Labour to Tory, or vice versa.”

Subsequent analysis by The Times found the areas which ministers choose had an average majority of just 3,000. 60 of them were Conservative-held seats or Conservative targets.

Paying the Price of First Past the Post

Like an energy company offering a deal just for new customers, there is no reward for loyalty with Westminster’s one-person-takes-all system. The government get no benefit from winning more votes in seats they already hold with big majorities, or in seats they stand no chance of winning. That means they focus their attention on the small number of battleground seats that might change hands.

We see this time and time again. A study earlier this year showed that opposition Labour councils have borne the brunt of local government cuts over the past decade.

Other studies have shown that central government grants to English local authorities are larger for local authorities containing constituencies that might change hands than ones that won’t. And last year the BBC found that Conservative-held constituencies were overwhelming beneficiaries of the government’s increase in schools funding.

A corrupting system

This goes beyond spending though, as parties shape their whole agenda around the needs of voters in these seats – and specifically around the needs of voters who might change their minds. Parties write their manifestos and governments write their budgets with only a minority of voters in mind.

It also goes beyond the current government. If Labour gets into power, the party will be inclined to focus on the ‘swing’ seats with small majorities, even if it means alienating voters in seats where they have big majorities. With Westminster’s warped voting system, the most efficient method is to win small and lose big – winning lots of seats by small margins and getting next to no votes in seats you lose.

Electoral reform is not just about fairness – although proportional representation is far fairer – it is also about changing the way governments of all parties behave and campaign. It’s about who gets heard. The fundamental change that a system of proportional representation would bring in is that suddenly every party stands a chance of winning seats in every part of the country. The government would have an interest in trying to win the vote of every voter – rather than just the handful that matter now.

With the Single Transferable Vote, where a small group of MPs represent each area, nearly everywhere would have enough voters to elect at least one MP from the governing party – making it in the government’s interest to care about every corner of the country.

Instead of channelling funds into a handful of seats to try and flip them, the government would need to work on levelling up the whole country. That’s good for all of us.

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