The myth that Westminster’s voting system is ‘strong and stable’ has been bust for good

Darren Hughes
Darren Hughes

Posted on the 24th August 2017

If ‘strong and stable’ has been the motto of Parliament’s First Past the Post voting system, June 5th put an end to that myth once and for all.

For the third time in a row, Westminster’s voting system failed to do what it says on the tin – produce a big government majority.

Today the Electoral Reform Society launch our report on June’s vote: The 2017 General Election: Volatile Voting, Random Results’.

It shows the General Election saw the second highest level of electoral volatility – the movement of votes between parties – since 1931. People are switching sides and shopping around at astonishing levels.

But millions of those people’s votes are being thrown on the electoral scrapheap. 68% of votes had no impact on the result. That’s 22 million votes going to waste.

Amid in that sea of wasted votes, it’s the tiny ripples that make the difference. Just 0.0016% of voters choosing differently would have given the Conservatives a majority, while the election saw rise in very marginal seats: eleven seats were won by fewer than 100 votes.

Who’s to know how the vote would have gone if people had opted for who they really believe in? This was the ‘hold your nose’ election: we estimate that 6.5 million people voted tactically, alongside surge in smaller parties standing aside.

The effect of all this is totally different across the UK – and highly unpredictable. More than that, First Past the Post is exaggerating regional and national divisions: Labour secured 29% of South East vote but got just 10% of seats, while Conservatives won 34% of the North East vote but got just 9% of seats.

The result of this is making the North seem ’pure Labour’, the South ‘pure Conservative’ – when the picture is much more complex. Meanwhile, the SNP continue to be over-represented in Scotland, as is Labour in Wales, while Northern Ireland voters are forced into two camps.

And while the UK-wide picture seemed relatively ‘proportional’, in every region and nation where people actually live and relate to, we see seats not matching votes. For example, the Conservatives largely benefited from the discrepancy between votes and seats, winning 56% of English seats on 46% of the vote – while seeing their vote rise in Wales and their number of seats fall. The voting system is struggling to keep up with huge changes in partisan alignment.

There are other ways of doing things. Through YouGov, we modelled the results under three other voting systems, asking 13,000 voters how they’d vote using the Alternative Vote, the Welsh Assembly/Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System or Northern Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote system.

We still see a hung Parliament – that’s what people voted for, after all – but there is better representation for smaller parties, far less divisive regional/national results, and, crucially, millions fewer wasted votes or tactically-cast ballots.

But the current system means a diverse and shifting public are having to work around a broken two-party system. The result is volatile voting, and random results in many parts of our country.

We need to move towards a means of electing our MPs where all voices are heard and where people don’t feel forced to hold their nose at the ballot box.

2017 was the third strike for First Past the Post. It’s out.

This article was first published at

Read the full report here
  • dred

    The current voting system enables far too many safe seats to exist.It actively discourages voters from voting where they exist.Which is why Prime ministers like Cameron get such a shock, such as he got in the In/Out E.U. Referendum.

  • Nagsman

    The result was forseeable as they were working on boundaries which should have been revised long ago. It takes less votes to elect a labour MP than a Conservative MP which, if nothing else, serves to display The PMs poor judgement in calling an election in the circumstances.

    This does not in any way negate the need for a proper proportional system but it does need to be factored in to the 2017 result.

    Also contributing to the “volatility” was the near absence of UKIP candidates leading their previous 4m supporters to hold their noses and vote some other party or abstain – neither of which can be described as enhancing democracy.

  • Andrew Capel

    Not enough people are disillusioned enough for change to happen, we need things to get far worse for us to consider changing the voting system. If and when such a change comes it will be on a par with the Brexit vote. also our MPs are comfortable with the system as dred mentions in his comment below, it creates safe seats, jobs for life.

  • Voter

    In Holyrood where we have a mix of FPTP and a list system we end up with MSP’s sitting in parliament from the list for years who have never been voted for by anyone, so personally I cannot see how this is a fair system! Our local authorities use STV, another system which does not reflect the councillor with the most votes being elected! I do not know the answer and not sure if anyone does!

    • Nigel Baldwin

      I think you’ll find that in the majority of seats under FPTP, it’s the largest minority that wins, seats where the winning candidate polled more than half the vote are becoming rarer and rarer.

  • Tarian

    Voting needs to be reformed – but not to pure (or near pure) PR.
    Local representation is vital.
    Run-offs (French), 2nd Preference (Mayoral) allows the winner to approach 50% of the vote.
    [ Full AV would be better – but needs a much better campaign than last time. ]

    Run-offs/preferences CAN maintain a two-party system – for a while ….
    …. but with first preferences recorded officially, there is scope for a New Party to test the waters and “main” Parties deciding how to respond policy-wise.

  • Robin Goodfellow

    Although FPTP is unfair at General Elections, at Local Elections FPTP still needed.Smaller Parties like me would never be elected by even AV+ the fairest form of PR 400 seats FPTP 200 seats by AV+..
    The report makes no mention of Fraud mOstly Postal in East London,Bradford etc…vast majority of students voted twice &should have been fined &barred from voting for Next Two General elections..The Electoral Commission seems to ignore Overspending especially by Main parties

  • Paul Paul

    If the Tories attack pensioners,families and students at the election then they can have no complaints at the result,#barmy

  • Silent Witness

    With respect. We can rail and produce reports of the failings of the current voting system until we are blue in the face but the simple fact is that the ordinary voter does not appear to give a %$£@! We, the supporters of PR, can lick out wounds and complain how unfair the world is. The fact that David Cameron with 24% of the eligible vote was able to remain as prime minister and foist the Brexit referendum on an uncomprehending electorate is a national catastrophe – but no one cares.

    The research and reports should be into WHY? people don’t care. Is it ignorance, arrogance, indifference? Is it contentment with the current system. If supporters of PR were selling something they would need to respond to what the market wants – you cannot produce a product and expect people to immediately see its advantages and buy it in in large numbers. Obviously what has been done so far has failed to ignite imaginations of what is possible if democracy reigns through PR.

    With the Establishment quite happy with the system that keeps the status quo, the success of a campaign for PR will require marketing on a scale of Nescafe, Gillette razors and Guinness. There is no way the Establishment will allow lessons in “civics” or “government” that would give the younger generation an understanding of the failings of the FPTP system so it needs a campaign that goes over the heads of the Establishment and does not rely on newspapers supporting the Establishment and owned by tax evading proprietors who are quite happy with how the country is run because they don’t have to live here.

    Lets face it, PR is pretty boring. I’m an old fart but I am desperately fearful for the young whose future has been sidelined by the older generation. Many older people backed Brexit because they did not think their voices were being heard. Brexit was an analogue decision, in or out, “shimple”! That generation could not cope with what they see as the complexities of PR to have their voice heard. The hope must lie with the younger generation who can get their heads around complex technology and must surely grasp the mechanics of PR and its benefits.

    I have never in my life had a vote that counted. I have never been able to elect someone that I wanted to see govern, all because of the antediluvian voting system. We need to create the hope that the younger generation will not continue to be robbed of the right to be properly represented.

    • Nigel Baldwin

      As the historian Norman Stone once remarked, this country is ‘The last of the ancien regimes’. Like the Hapsburg Empire pre 1914, the UK and its institutions are thought to be immutable, but even poor old Britain will be faced with the reality that institutions that don’t keep pace with the times have a tendency to be swept into the dustbin of history. Not even the UK can defy the historical laws of gravity.

  • Marc Noel

    You are confusing recognition with desire to fix our broken electoral system. As long as the two main parties are able to take their turn running the gravy train then neither will seriously consider electoral reform. Yes they are BOTH in it for themselves.

  • Barry Cash

    I wonder if we might a get better representation if those elected were only allowed two terms and then had to get elected in a different constituency?

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