Why our next General Election will be an unfair lottery

Sabine McGinley,

Posted on the 21st October 2019

Over the past century, our society and democracy have been transformed almost beyond recognition. As voting habits have changed, one thing becoming increasingly clear: Westminster’s voting system of First Past the Post fails time and again to represent the interest of British voters.

This week we may see fresh attempts to trigger an early General Election.

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, an early election can only be called if two-thirds of MPs vote for it. Alternatively, if there is a motion of ‘no confidence’, we could see a snap election before the end of the year – this only requires a majority of one.

However, the fragmentation of our electoral system and the dissatisfaction of voters has become startlingly clear.

According to analysis by Electoral Calculus in September, the Conservatives could see their vote share drop by 10 points or so since the last election – while at the same time their number of seats could increase.

Meanwhile, the Greens could see their vote share double while retaining just one seat. The Brexit Party could get over 10% but almost no seats, whilst the Lib Dems, who are polling just a few points below Labour could see themselves taking home over a hundred fewer seats. The SNP’s vote share is likely to rise slightly – but with a much larger surge in MPs that could see them take all but a handful of Scottish seats on less than half of the vote. Thankfully, the SNP, like many parties beyond the big two, recognise that Westminster’s voting system is broken and want to see a shift to a fairer, more proportional model.

Why? Under First Past the Post, if one ‘side’ of a debate (e.g. left vs right or Remain vs Leave) is more ‘divided’ (i.e. there’s more choice), or more geographically spread-out than the other, their opponents get a huge automatic advantage.

That’s a contrast to proportional representation, where seats match how people vote, and far fewer votes are wasted. For example, with the single transferable vote (STV), if your first choice doesn’t have enough support to win outright, second, third or even fourth preferences are counted until one candidate hits the quota. With STV MPs won’t be able to scrape into Parliament with as little as 30% support from their constituents as can happen under First Past the Post.

All this helps prevent the need for tactical voting caused by so many people feeling a vote for their preferred party is a wasted vote and instead choosing to support their ‘least worst’ option.

Latest figures demonstrate that support for both Labour and Conservatives are at far lower levels than the past. But under FPTP many feel forced to ‘hold their nose’ at the ballot box, limiting political choice.

In the past, we’ve frequently seen a single party ‘majority’ government without the support of the majority of voters. The idea that a minority electing a government for the majority of the public negates the very essence of a democracy, but this was long normalised under the ‘winner takes all’ first past the post. Now, First Past the Post cannot even do that, with the vote split in new and unpredictable ways leading to hung parliaments. FPTP no longer even does what it says on the tin.

More than one in five people are likely to vote ‘tactically’ in elections as opposed to parties and politicians that actually appeal to them. This is not how democracy should be working. As it makes it increasingly likely for parties and politicians whom most people don’t agree with, to take power and govern over critical issues such as Brexit.

As our report in 2015 highlighted, the outcomes of our elections are often so random that voters may as well buy a lottery ticket than head to the polling station to vote.

No wonder that millions of us feel silenced in crucial national decisions, unable to be represented in government let alone able to hold it to account. This doesn’t just hinder our democracy; it impedes political decision making too.

With proportional representation using a system like the single transferable vote, the government is better able to work with the support of a majority of voters.

Professor Sir John Curtice suggests that First Past the Post has come under strong challenge and now faces real questions about whether it is fit for purpose. It’s time to move to a voting system fit for the 21st century – and ensure the upcoming election is as free and fair as it can be.

Sabine McGinley is a Communications Placement Student for the ERS, from the University of Nottingham. 

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