Who benefits from Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 29th April 2020

After every general election, there is renewed discussion about the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of the election.

As a so-called winner-takes-all system – in which the only aspect that counts is getting one more vote than the next-nearest candidate in each seat – this is an unsurprising aspect of First Past the Post. But do parties actually ‘win’ or ‘lose’ under First Past the Post?

Who loses? 

If we look at the results of the 2019 general election, we find that, at the UK level, First Past the Post currently benefits the Conservative Party and the SNP, and to a smaller degree the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

This is because their vote is highly concentrated in specific areas – the SNP in Scotland or Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, for example. When it comes to First Past the Post, where you live is often the biggest factor in deciding how many representatives get elected to parliament.

At the 2019 election, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Brexit Party were majorly disadvantaged by the system because their vote was more spread out across the country. As our General Election report showed, nearly nine hundred thousand people voted for Green Party candidates and they got just one MP, while 644,255 votes for the Brexit party did not get a single MP elected.

While some parties might seem to benefit from the system, when we look under the surface, we see that the system is brutally unfair to all – parties and voters alike – with millions of votes for all parties going unrepresented across the country.

Over two thirds (71%) of votes – or 22.6 million – were ignored – i.e. they weren’t decisive to the local result at the last election. This is up from the 68% of votes ignored in the 2017 election.

In seven constituencies, more than 90% of the votes were ignored. Of the 32 million votes cast, only 9.4 million votes (29% of the total) were ‘decisive’ in securing a candidate’s election.

Systematically ignored 

Given the increasing geographical concentration of votes, voters of different parties suffered from First Past the Post in different parts of the UK.  In England, over half the votes for Labour (50.6%) went unrepresented, compared to just under a quarter (24%) of Conservative voters, with even fewer (19.7%) votes for the Conservatives going unrepresented in England.

Labour voters were particularly ignored in the English midlands and southern England, outside of London. For example, in the East of England, where Labour received just under 750,000 votes, 84% of these voters saw their vote go unrepresented, compared to just 5% of Conservative voters in the region.

While on this occasion Conservative voters fared best overall in achieving representation for their votes, they still suffered in some places. In London, over half (55.2%) of Conservative voters went unrepresented, while only 17% of Labour voters did.

In Scotland, voters of both the Conservatives and Labour suffered, with 80% of Conservative voters and 95% of Labour voters going unrepresented, compared to just 15% of SNP voters.

Green Party voters were short-changed in the South West region of England, where they received 115,011 votes (3.8%, up 1.5 points on the last general election). All of these voters went unrepresented. The over-100,000 Brexit Party voters (8.1%) in North East England suffered the same fate, with every single one of them going unrepresented.

No one benefits from the unfair First Past the Post voting system, as the system disadvantages parties and their voters in specific areas.

The knowledge that your party is over-represented in some other bit of the country is only a small consideration when you want local representation to deal with local issues.

Wherever you are, the Parliament we get is warped beyond belief under Westminster’s broken system. The result? We all lose out, as politics fails to properly represent the country.

You can find out more about the unfairness of Westminster’s broken voting system in our report on the 2019 general election.

Sign our petition for a fair voting system in the UK

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