openDemocracyUK

The most disproportionate election in our history. 2020 must not be a repeat.

The electoral system is broken beyond all dispute. Here's why, and here's how to fix it.

Katie Ghose
11 June 2015

The figures from May 7th are in - and they show that this election was the most disproportionate in UK history.

Votes did not translate into seats. This is nothing new of course - but the problem has never been worse.

Today the Electoral Reform Society’s new report on the May 7th general election, 'A Voting System in Crisis,' hits doorsteps across the UK. It’s a damning verdict on our broken electoral system - and what happens when multi-party politics collides with an out-dated way of electing our MPs.

The findings are pretty shocking. 50% of all votes in the election (15m) went to losing candidates, while 74% of votes (22m) were ‘wasted’ – i.e. they didn't contribute to electing the winning MP. At the same time, 331 of our 650 MPs were elected on under 50% of the vote, and 191 with less than 30% of the electorate. Candidates work flat out during the campaign and in parliament yet the system makes it increasingly hard for them to secure broad support from their constituency.

The effect this has on people’s trust in politics can’t be underestimated. And even many of those votes which really counted were cast with a nose-peg on; an estimated 2.8m people voted ‘tactically’ this election for candidates they didn’t fully support – nearly a tenth of all voters.

Much of this ‘lesser evil’ approach comes from the fact that in some constituencies there are only one or two candidates who realistically stand a chance of winning. Many of these are safe seats.

The result was that the ERS was able to call the winner correctly in 363 of 368 seats - a month before polling day - due to the prevalence of safe seats under first-past-the-post. That’s 56% of all parliamentary seats.

The problem goes deeper than these statistics, though. First-past-the-post is artificially exaggerating divides in the UK – giving the SNP nearly all Scottish seats on half of Scottish votes, while virtually excluding Labour from the South of England (with just a handful of South West and South East seats on nearly a fifth of the vote). Equally, Labour are over-represented in Wales, while the Conservatives are under-represented in the north of England and Scotland. It’s a mess.

The situation is just as bad in Northern Ireland. Cross-community parties, including the Alliance party, got a tenth of the vote on May 7th – but no seats. Yet the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) received nearly half the seats on just a quarter of the vote – needing just 23,000 votes to secure each seat, compared to the 1.1m for the Greens’ single seat.

Embarking on a second term of office, the prime minister wasted no time in setting out a ‘one nation’ vision: “I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom together… In short, I want my party, and I hope a government I would like to lead, to reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost – the mantle of One Nation, one United Kingdom.” First-past-the-post may not be a priority for a newly elected government with a majority of 12. But David Cameron will struggle to ignore the profound effects of ‘winner take all’ politics on the upcoming debates on the UK’s democratic landscape.

A better way

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. We’re the last country in Europe to use the outdated and broken system of first-past-the-post. Nearly every advanced democracy uses some kind of proportional system where seats really do reflect votes cast.

The ERS asked YouGov to find out voters' party preferences (based on polling of 40,000 people), in order to let us work out what the results might have looked like under different voting systems:

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Under the ERS’ preferred voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – the Conservatives would have won 276 seats to Labour’s 236, while the SNP would have secured 34, UKIP 54 and the Lib Dems 26. The Greens would have won two more seats – in Bristol and London.

While the Conservatives would still be the largest party (they got the most votes), parliament would be much more diverse and parties would have to share power – as they do in most of Europe.

It’s not such a radical idea. STV is used for local elections in Scotland and most elections in Northern Ireland and Ireland, and not only does it produce fairer results, but it maintains the link between you and your representatives, with a team of MPs in a slightly larger constituency.

Though some readers will be familiar with the system, it works by voters ranking candidates by preference, and if their first choice doesn’t have enough support, their second choice is taken instead – and this continues until all the seats have been filled, with other candidates eliminated. Tactical voting almost completely disappears – voters don’t have to opt for a ‘lesser evil’ anymore. Moreover, safe seats become a thing of the past, and every contest becomes just that – a real contest.

Now’s the time for a national discussion on how we go forward on this. We’ve explained the problem – and set out the alternatives. We now need a constitutional convention of citizens to pave the way forward, as has happened in Ireland and Canada in the past.

One thing is clear. We can’t let the 2020 election break another record for the most disproportionate result in UK history.

Read 'The 2015 General Election: A Voting System in Crisis' here 

A version of this piece was originally published here

 

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