With first past the post, country and city voters take turns being locked out of government

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 28th February 2019

Far too often, debates around electoral reform are characterised as the idea of making two pie charts match: one pie chart represents how the country voted, the other the make-up of parliament.

The 2015 general election presented a vivid image: the nearly five million votes that went to UKIP and the Greens resulted in one MP each, the DUP got eight MPs for 185,000 votes, while the Liberal Democrats got the same number of MPs – but with almost two and a half million votes.

But it’s easy to forget that Westminster’s voting system hurts people that vote for the major parties as well.

Millions of Labour and Conservative voters live in areas where they will never get to elect an MP that represents them. Voters for the big two parties are not neatly sorted into urban and rural areas – there are many Labour voters who live in the country side and Conservatives who live in cities.

Westminster's first past the post system doesn't just hurt people who vote for underrepresented parties - it's bad for supporters of the big parties too Click To Tweet

But Westminster’s first past the post system masks this diversity, as – unlike most ways of choosing MPs – each constituency can only elect one MP to represent that area’s diversity of interests and opinions.

MPs will help any resident who comes to them, no matter who they voted for. But in Parliament, they will walk through the lobby with the rest of their party, no matter if a majority of their constituents are opposed.

In practice, this means that, as control of the government swings between the two big parties, whole geographical areas get locked out of government.

As control of the government swings between the two big parties, whole geographical areas get locked out of government. Click To Tweet

When a governing party is making big decisions on where to invest and where to cut, the thought of the next election is never far from their minds.

It is not that parties under Westminster’s voting system are incentivised to reward their voters with tax-payer funded largess. They are incentivised to ignore areas that voted strongly for them, and those that voted strongly for their opponents – and instead focus their attention on seats they might win or lose at the next election (the so-called ‘marginal’ seats).

To quote the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush “One Tory minister in a safe seat told me that when she used to ask Osborne for something, he would first ask her how big her majority was – and then reply, with a smile, that it was too large for her enquiry to be worth considering.”

Most models of proportional representation ensure strong local and regional representation. Whether through constituencies that elect one MP each with another group of MPs elected by the whole region (like the Additional Member System – AMS ) or through bigger constituencies that elect a small group of MPs to represent a town or county (like the Single Transferable Vote).

Rather than one party winning every seat in an area, the MPs reflect how local people voted. In 2017 the Conservatives won all six seats in Cornwall even though fewer than half of the counties’ residents voted for them. Under the Single Transferable Vote, they would have won three, with Labour on two and the Liberal Democrats on one.

Under a system like this talented candidates could also stand for election where they grew up, rather than having to wait for a winnable seat to come up in an area they have no connection to.

The internal balance of the big parties would change as whole sections of the electorate whose votes previously didn’t matter would suddenly have to be listened to – whether that’s Northern Conservatives or Southern Labour voters. We’d have a more diverse group of MPs as well – the costs of moving your whole family to a winnable seat make standing for election incredibly expensive.

Proportional representation doesn’t shift the balance of power between urban and rural areas, it means rural and urban political minorities can be represented for the first time.

Under a proportional system, you could have a Labour government with a Minister for Farming with a properly rural seat – something that is made unlikely by the geographically-warped nature of FPTP. Or you could have inner-city Conservatives joining the cabinet to work on urban regeneration. Each party would be incentivised to improve things across the country, as they know every extra vote can go towards getting more MPs from their party elected.

Westminster’s first past the post voting system incentivises parties and governments to prioritise certain areas of the country, while ignoring others. Only by making every vote count can we solve this problem.

Sign up for updates from the Electoral Reform Society

  • If you already receive emails from us, you don't need to complete this form

Read more posts...

How is the European Parliament Elected?

Voters across the EU will be heading to the polls this week to elect the 751 representatives to the European Parliament (known as MEPs). Elections will be held in the UK on the 23rd of...

Posted 21 May 2019

Each member state decides the details of the system used to elect their MEPs

Does Australia use First Past the Post?

Australians head to the polls tomorrow to elect all 151 members of the Federal House of Representatives and 40 of their 76 Senators. Australian elections are world-renowned for their beloved ‘Democracy Sausages’ and the fact...

Posted 17 May 2019

Australia uses two preferential systems to elect their federal representatives