Three ways Westminster’s voting system has skewed the election – before a single vote is cast

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 10th December 2019

Though we are still a couple of days away from knowing the outcome of the general election, the campaign has already exposed the worst flaws of the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system.

In this blog post, we focus on the three most glaring examples of why it’s time to ditch this outdated electoral system and move to a fairer and more democratic way of electing our representatives.

  1. Electoral Pacts

Even before the election campaign proper began, there had been endless talk about parties forming ‘electoral pacts’, i.e. standing down in certain constituencies in order to prevent vote splitting and boost each other’s chances of winning a seat.

Once the campaign started, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreed on a ‘pro-Remain pact’ and have stood only one candidate in 60 seats. On the Leave side, the Brexit Party decided not to stand in the 317 seats won by the Conservatives in the 2017 general election. In Northern Ireland, the SDLP and Sinn Fein have each stood down in three seats to try to boost the prospects of each other’s candidates in these seats.

This isn’t what a healthy democracy should be like – voters should be able to choose from a wide range of parties and express the diversity of their political opinion, without being artificially forced to choose between a limited selection of parties.

Adopting the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for our elections would mean that parties would not need to consider pacts or other ways of gaming the system, but would be able to focus on the issues that matter to people and give them a real choice at elections.

  1. Tactical Voting

It’s not just parties who are forced to play the system – because of Westminster’s broken electoral system, voters are being forced to vote for the party they dislike the least and whom they usually wouldn’t support…rather than for their preferred candidate. What kind of a basis for a positive democratic debate is that?

The latest polling from BMG Research for the ERS shows that a record-breaking 30% of the public plan to ‘hold their nose’ and vote tactically in this week’s general election – up from 24% just the previous week. Only half of the electorate (51%) are likely to vote for their preferred party or candidate.

Tactical voting of this kind is inevitable under FPTP. As only one candidate can become the MP in each area, votes for all the other candidates go to waste. This all-or-nothing system means that voters have to choose between voting with their hearts or working around the system to get the best available outcome.

A shift toward STV would help ensure seats match votes and end the (often contradictory) clamour about how to vote ‘tactically’ in hundreds of seats.

  1. Safe Seats

Elections under Westminster’s broken system rely on a handful of ‘battleground’ seats, while many areas barely have a contest at all. Huge parts of our country are effectively competition-free zones with certain parties having a monopoly on local representation – the prevalence of ‘safe’ seats leaves voters demoralised and ignored time and again.

Our research published last week showed that 192 seats (30%) haven’t changed hands since 1945 or earlier, meaning that nearly 14 million voters live in constituencies controlled by the same party since the end of the Second World War. A further 4.8 million voters live in 65 seats that haven’t changed hands since 1918 or earlier (10% of all seats).

The average seat has not changed hands for 42 years, while 11 Labour and 54 Conservative seats haven’t changed party hands in over a century. (You can find out when your seat last changed hands by using our new tool here.)

Despite declining party loyalty and the high volatility in voting intentions, it seems that far from being a thing of the past, the problem of one-party seats may actually be worsening. Just 70 seats (11%) changed party hands at the last election, and this week’s election could see that fall to just 58 seats (9%) changing hands, according to YouGov’s recent projection.

The reality is that in many parts of the UK there is not much of a contest in this election. It’s time we ended an unfair system which means that some people’s vote matters more than others.

It’s time for fair representation

These are only some of the effects that winner-takes-all elections are having on our democracy, and we’re going to see many more once results start coming in on Thursday night – from parties winning seats on a small percentage of the vote (Belfast South was won on 24.5% of the vote in 2015) to tiny majorities making a huge difference. Eleven seats were won by fewer than 100 votes in 2017 – enough to change the entire result.

To highlight the obvious flaws in our broken voting system, we’ve built our own General Election Results Hub, where you’ll be able to watch the results come in live and see the distorting effects of FPTP. Make sure you bookmark the page now, or sign up to our mailing list and we’ll email you when results start to come out:

Under FPTP, discussions about electoral pacts and tactical voting are always likely to feature strongly. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Under a proportional voting system, like STV, if your first choice doesn’t count, your second choice is used instead. No need for endless talk about tactical voting or electoral pacts, no ‘vote splitting’ – just a radical idea called democratic choice.

Let’s make this the last election held under this broken voting system.

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