The UK’s mediaeval way of counting votes in elections has outlived its usefulness for modern times and modern politics. Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried show that it is very reliant on the results in relatively few marginal seats and it produces volatile and highly disproportionate outcomes, treating many parties unfairly. The system now creates unrepresentative parliaments, and by ‘wasting’ millions of votes it hugely discourages citizens’ participation and breeds cynicism about politics. Finally, first past the post fails on its own terms as it struggles to produce single-party governments.

There is now a huge mass of research to demonstrate that the UK’s historical election system (in use since the Middle Ages, when vote-counting was difficult) is no longer fit for purpose. ‘First past the post’ (FPTP) counts the votes cast in a local area, and awards the seat to whichever party has the largest pile of votes, whether it has a majority of votes cast or not.

The system fails all possible ‘fairness’ tests by generating major discrepancies between the number of votes secured and the proportion of seats won in the House of Commons. And the outcome of the 2010 general election makes clear that, FPTP can no longer claim to guarantee ‘strong single-party government’. FPTP fails on its advocates own terms, and unless it is reformed the UK will be left in the ‘worst of both worlds’: with a voting system that neither delivers fair representation nor single-party majority government.

Analysis shows a long-term trend of UK voters rejecting traditional two-party politics, with more than one-third of voters (34.9 per cent) opting for parties other than the Conservatives or Labour at the 2010 general election. The report shows that the vote share for the two main parties was the lowest ever at the last election (65.1 per cent) and has been steadily falling since its peak in the 1950s.Parties other than the ‘big two’ have also become more successful at winning seats in the House of Commons and now regularly win around 85 seats collectively. A winning party therefore needs at least 86 more seats than its rival in order to win an overall majority, something that has happened in just seven of the 18 general elections since the war.

Moreover, for one party to secure a workable majority of 20 seats it needs to win at least 100 seats more than its rival, something that has happened in only four of 18 post-war elections. Even a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats at the next election would leave Labour and the Conservatives needing more than 50 seats more than their rival to form a majority government. We can therefore expect more hung parliaments in the future – or at the very least governments elected with small and unstable majorities.

The rise in support for third and fourth parties is happening in spite of FPTP, not because of it. Over the last 30 years Britain has evolved into a multi-party system which retains an electoral system designed for only two parties. UK voters are fed-up with a two-party politics which FPTP is struggling to sustain but which still militates against the electorate’s desire for greater pluralism.

FPTP elections now hinge on marginal seats

Under FPTP, election results are effectively determined by the small minority of voters who happen to live in all-important marginal seats. Conversely, it means that the vast majority of voters who live in safe seats have little ability to shape the outcome of national elections.

At the 2010 general election, about 31 per cent of voters (approximately 9 million people) lived in marginal seats, defined as seats with a majority of less than 10 per cent lead for the largest party. Put another way, 69 per cent of the electorate (approximately 20.5 million people) live in safe seats, and of them many cast votes that had little chance of making a difference.

There is also clear evidence to suggest that the safer a seat is, the lower is voter turnout – as our first chart shows:

Chart 1: Safe Seats and Turnout

Source: BES 2005 plus Ippr’s own calculations

Voter turnout clearly decreases as the winner’s majority becomes larger. People are less likely to participate in elections when their vote is less likely to make a difference.

Proponents of FPTP like to argue that it allows voters to ‘throw the rascals out’, based on a strong measure of accountability between the voter and their MP. Yet the truth is that with the growth in safe seats millions of voters will never have seen their local seat change hands across their lifetimes. Mark Pack argues that under FPTP substantial numbers of seats have become ‘ossified’, and shows that, since 1945, one-third of seats have consistently been held by the same party, a figure which rises to half of all seats since 1970.

FPTP radically distorts the relationship between votes and seats, creating highly unrepresentative parliaments

In British conditions FPTP is a highly disproportional voting system, generating huge disparities between the proportion of votes gained and the number of seats secured. In the 2010 election Labour polled six per cent more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats but won 200 more seats (out of 646). FPTP also punishes third parties in terms of seats won relative to their seat share. In 2010 it took:

  • 33,470 votes to elect a Labour MP
  • 35,030 votes to elect a Conservative MP
  • 119,780 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP

FPTP also penalises parties whose support is spread evenly across the country. UKIP got 900,000 votes, the largest total ever polled by a minority party, but because its vote was geographically spread across the country it failed to win a single seat. In fact, it didn’t even come close. However, a number of other parties with lower total vote counts than UKIP did succeed in securing representation, precisely because of the geographic concentration of their support: the DUP, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, SDLP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland; the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales respectively, and a historic first win for the Green Party (who, unlike these other minor parties, did also fight a campaign across Great Britain).

FPTP gives some big parties an unfair bias over their rivals

FPTP is supposed to be ‘fair’ in one important respect: the winner’s bonus is awarded to the winning party irrespective of which party that is. Should the Conservatives win 60 per cent of seats on 40 per cent of the vote then, in theory, Labour should, given the same circumstances, be treated equally, securing the same number of seats for the same share of the vote. Yet historically FPTP has regularly failed this test, instead generating biased outcomes that favour one party or another. The 2005 and 2010 general election results visibly highlight the bias to Labour. In 2005, Labour secured a comfortable overall majority of 67 seats on just 35 per cent of the vote. However, in 2010, the Conservatives were denied a majority despite receiving 36 per cent of the vote and having a 7 per cent point lead over Labour.

The Coalition government plans to iron out some of the bias by equalizing the size of constituencies across the UK. This may help reduce the bias – on some forecasts, it could see Labour lose around 35 MPs. But it will not eliminate the main bias, since it does nothing to address the issue of differential turnout. And on other forecasts it will hit the already under-represented Liberal Democrats very hard indeed.

FPTP weakens the constituency link between representatives and voters

In parallel with the national trends, the rise of third parties contesting seats in the UK has, over time, made it more difficult for an MP to be elected with majority support in their constituency. To win a seat under FPTP you simply need to win one more vote than the second-placed candidate. Logically, if more parties are competing for each seat then it becomes possible to win the seat with fewer votes than would be the case where only two parties are fighting it out. In the 1950s, during the golden age of the two-party system when the vast majority of seats offered a straight run-off between Labour and the Conservative, most MPs were elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote. Only 14 per cent failed to secure a majority of the local vote during this period. The situation could not be more different today.

Our second Chart shows the widening gap between the number of safe seats and the number of MPs having absolute majorities (51%+) of local votes. In 1992 it was 72 but this had more than trebled to 227 by 2010.

Chart 2: Safe seats and seats with majorities, 1992–2010


Source: ippr calculations based on the BES

In 2005 and again in 2010, two-thirds of MPs returned to Westminster did not have majority support from local voters – a trend that seems certain to continue.

Given declining voter turnout, the declining legitimacy of local MPs is even more dramatic. In 2005 not a single MP was returned with a majority of eligible local electors in their constituency.

FPTP makes Britain appear more divided than she is

Over the last 60 years, Britain has become electorally polarised, with Labour support concentrated in the north, urban areas, Scotland and Wales, and Conservative support increasingly confined to the south and south east of England. This raises important questions about the nature of the government’s mandate in the areas where it lacks political representation. In an era of public spending cuts, these questions are particularly acute. Indeed, before the election Nick Clegg declared that if a Conservative government imposed cuts on the inner cities, the result could be ‘social chaos’.

However, FPTP exaggerates the territorial imbalances across the nations and regions of the UK and make it appear more divided than it actually is. The Conservatives received 20–30 per cent of the vote in the three northern regions but this was barely translated into winning seats. In Scotland, the Conservatives won 17 per cent of the vote but just one seat. Owing to the geographical split of the popular vote, FPTP may in the future spark a territorial constitutional crisis, where Labour forms a UK government without a majority within England, or the Conservatives do likewise without a mandate outside of England.

FPTP often does not lead to strong single-party government

History is littered with examples of when FPTP has failed to do what it says on the tin: create strong single-party government. Across the last 100 years hung parliaments are more common than many people realize:

  • Hung parliaments: 1910 (Jan), 1910 (Nov), 1923, 1929, 1974 (Feb), 1976, 2010.

Into the mix can be added governments with small majorities, which it would be difficult to describe as either ‘strong’ or ‘stable’:

  • Small majorities: 1950, 1964, 1974 (Oct), 1977-79, 1995–97

FPTP is poorly suited to coalition politics because it inhibits parties from signaling their intention to the electorate about whom they might form a government with before the election. Under preferential voting systems (such as alternative vote, or AV) and proportional systems, there is more scope for transparency, since winning candidates need to appeal across party lines in most seats. In addition, under FPTP parties sharing power at one moment find themselves fighting each other in subsequent elections. One way round this is some form of electoral pact, but such solutions are often unpopular with the party loyalists, who dislike voting for other parties on principle. So in addition to producing more hung parliaments, FPTP looks set to produce more coalition governments, whose management it makes problematic.

What if we stay with FPTP?

Since the 1970s, UK citizens have shown a clear appetite to vote for third parties and to embrace a form of political pluralism which runs directly against the grain of the way FPTP operates. And across the UK a number of different electoral systems are currently used in other contests (excluding general elections). Whenever institutions have been reformed, policymakers have consistently rejected FPTP in favour of alternative electoral models. And worldwide although we have had many new democracies in the last 40 years, none has adapted FPTP.

If British voters buck the worldwide trend to more sophisticated and modern electoral systems, and instead cling to FPTP in May 2011, what follows? Will anything get better or be resolved in British politics? At least some of these consequences will happen:

  • Indecisive election outcomes will become more likely: we can expect more hung parliaments.
  • Should majority governments be formed it is likely they will have small and unstable majorities.
  • Single-party majority governments will also be formed on a declining share of the popular vote and without majority support.
  • There is an increased chance of the ‘wrong winner’ being elected (a party which loses on the share of the vote but gains the most seats).
  • An increasingly large majority of MPs will be elected without local majority support in their constituencies.
  • Election outcomes will continue to be decided by a handful of voters in marginal seats, exacerbating levels of political inequality across the UK.
  • An increasing number of voters will live in safe seats, cut adrift from political activity and neglected by the main parties.
  • Britain will become increasingly divided electorally, and governments will be formed that lack widespread support across the country
  • The more parties that compete under FPTP the more disproportional election outcomes will become.
  • Turnout declines are likely to resume.

To learn more, please download the full analysis by Guy Lodge and Glen Gottfried, The Worst of Both Worlds: Why First Past the Post No Longer Works (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2011).

British Politics and Policy at LSE will also host an article soon giving the views of the ‘No’ campaign in May’s AV referendum. NB IPPR does not speak for the yes campaign!

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