Voters Left Voiceless – The 2019 General Election

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 2nd March 2020

For all the talk of December’s poll as a ‘People versus Parliament’ election, it looks like neither won.

22.6 million. That’s the number of votes that didn’t count towards the result in December’s General Election, according to new analysis by the Electoral Reform Society. In other words, under Westminster’s rotten voting system, almost three-quarters of voters had their votes ignored – leading to disenfranchisement on an industrial scale. 

In the run-up to the election, we heard repeatedly about the need to ‘break the deadlock’. But breaking it will take more than an election – the so-called deadlock is a structural crisis of Westminster’s own making. 

We have, in Westminster, a system built on unearned majority-rule and confrontation and this ground to a halt when faced with the realities of 21st century politics. 

With the 2019 election, we saw the Westminster system fight back-handing one party 100% of power on a minority of the vote. For the first time since 2005 a party gained a dominant majority. 

The Conservatives gained an extra 48 seats – a 7% increase in seats from 2017 – on a 1.3 percent increase in vote share, delivering a majority of 80 seats, the largest for the Conservatives since 1987. This is an extraordinary shift given the previous election had seen the Prime Minister lose her majority on a similar vote share. 

This is what the system is designed to do – manufacture a majority for one party at the expense of voters’ choices. 

A quarter of votes went to parties other than the largest two, but they returned less than 13 percent of seats. For example, over 865,000 votes were cast for the Green Party, but they elected just one representative. 

Tactical voting and electoral pacts also dominated this election, with YouGov polling for our new report revealing that one in every three voters (32%) chose to vote tactically, instead of choosing their preferred party or candidate. This is a big increase on the last general election. 

Both electoral pacts and tactical voting are symptoms of a system that is not working for voters. You have to question a political system that relies on limiting choice on such a grand scale. 

All parties need to reflect on this. For the Labour Party – currently in the middle of its leadership contest – the concentration of the Labour vote in certain areas means that it took on average 50,835 votes to elect a Labour MP, whilst only 38,264 votes were needed to return a Conservative MP. 

For the Conservatives – apparently intent on protecting the union – one-party-takes-all voting is exacerbating a dis-United Kingdom: leading to absurd inequalities in representation. For example, in Scotland a substantial Conservative vote share (25%) yielded just six seats (10%), while around 95% of Scottish Labour votes went unrepresented. 

Westminster system is so dysfunctional that around a third of seats in Scotland, the South West, the South East and East of England were ‘unearned’ in proportional terms. And, of the 32 million votes cast, only 9.4 million votes were ‘decisive’ in securing a candidate’s election. Parties are piling up votes in seats without securing real representation. Under Westminster’s set-up, not all votes are created equally. For millions trapped in the hundreds of safe seats it feels like there is barely an election at all. 

The result is not just a Parliament that is unrepresentative, but a debate that is skewed. Unfair majorities mean a government can set the agenda with an undeserved sense of entitlement – able to reject all cooperation and railroad through any policies they wish. This is the ‘elective dictatorship’ Lord Hailsham described in the 1970s and the one that still exists today.

It could be different. The ERS have modelled the results under different proportional voting systems, including the one used here in the UK for Welsh Senedd and Scottish Parliament (the Additional Member System) and the Single Transferable Vote (used for elections in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scottish local government). 

But beyond the numbers, we need to move to a more cooperative politics, and one where everyone feels heard. Where you can always back who you support, rather than feeling forced to game the system. 

One thing is for sure – the system isn’t just bust, it’s bankrupt, and all parties must recognise the need for change. 

This election must be the last under one-party-takes-all voting. We need a fairly-elected parliament, where seats match votes. Then we can start to restore the faith in our politics that has been missing for so long.

Read the full report: Voters Left Voiceless – The 2019 General Election

This piece was first published by the Independent

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