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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

First Past the Post is a "broken voting system"

The system for electing Westminster MPs is 'broken' and is likely to produce increasingly undemocratic results in the future, according to a new report from ippr.

New analysis shows that the May 2010 general election was decided in just 111 constituencies by fewer than 460,000 voters - or 1.6 per cent of the electorate.

The report - Worst of Both worlds: Why First Past the Post no longer works - shows that, because of long-term changes in voting patterns, the current voting system can no longer be relied upon to deliver a clear-cut result with a strong and stable single-party government. This undermines the strongest argument in favour of First Past the Post.

New 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. The report argues we can therefore expect more hung parliaments in the future - or at the very least governments elected with small and unstable majorities.

Nick Pearce, ippr Director, said:

'Britain now has a broken voting system that needs to be fixed. Unless First Past the Post is reformed the UK will be left with a voting system that neither delivers fair representation nor single-party government.

'The last election result was not an aberration but a reflection of long-term changes in voting patterns across the UK which significantly increase the likelihood of more hung parliaments in the future. Britain has evolved into a multi-party system, but it still has an electoral system designed for only two parties.'

The report also warns that because the current system is biased in Labour's favour it could result in a 'wrong winner' at the next election, with Labour winning fewer votes than the Conservatives but winning more seats. First Past the Post has generated the wrong winner twice before (in 1951 the Conservatives won more seats than Labour on a lower share of the vote and in February 1974 the situation was reversed, when Labour formed a government on a lower share of the vote) but the report warns that the public are less likely to accept the legitimacy of the wrong winner scenario again.

The current system means Labour only needs a three-point lead in votes in order to secure an overall majority, whereas the Conservatives need around an 11-point lead to govern on their own. But the range indicating a hung parliament is now in the region of 14 points, the widest it has ever been, making hung parliaments a more permanent feature of British political landscape.

The current system is not cut out to deal with coalition governments because voters get just one preference at the ballot box. Under preferential voting systems, such as AV, coalition parties can each ask the other's voters to give them their second preferences, allowing voters to reward good governments or vote to break up bad coalitions.

Notes to editors

The British Election Survey asked respondents whether the political parties had contacted them during the 2010 campaign. They found a 16 per cent gap between voters living in marginals and those living in safe seats. Just under half of voters (46 per cent) living in safe seats were ignored by parties. Looking at 'super safe' seats, the figure rose to 57 per cent. In marginals and super-marginals, the voter-contact rate was just under 70 per cent.

Voters living in marginal seats (32 per cent) believe that their vote makes more of a difference than voters who live in safe seats (21 per cent). More than 50 per cent of voters in safe seats believe that their vote won't make a difference to the election outcome.

ippr analysis show that voter turnout level decreases as the winner's majority becomes larger, suggesting that people are less likely to participate in elections where their vote has less chance of making a difference. Since 1945, one-third of seats have consistently been held by the same party, a figure which rises to half of all seats over the period since 1970.

The number of seats a party wins depends less on the number of votes it gets than on the geographic distribution of its vote. The system penalises parties whose support is evenly spread across the country. At the last election it took:

  • 33,468 votes to elect a Labour MP
  • 35,028 votes to elect a Conservative MP
  • 119,780 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP

At the 2010 General Election, 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. A number of other parties with lower votes than UKIP did succeed in securing representation 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 the Green Party all got fewer votes than UKIP but won seats.

Support for third parties also means that an increasing number of MPs will be elected on less than 50 per cent of the vote in their constituencies. In the 1950s, 86 per cent of MPs received over 50 per cent of the local vote; in 2010, just 33 per cent did.

Under First Past the Post, election results are effectively decided by voters who live in marginal seats. At the 2010 election, 31 per cent (around 9 million) voters lived in all-important marginals, leaving 69 per cent of the electorate voting in seats which had little chance of altering the overall result. The current voting system generates millions of 'wasted votes': in 2010, ippr calculates 21 million votes were wasted, 71 per cent of all votes cast.

Since 1885, there has only been one occasion when one majority government replaced another and that was in 1970, when Ted Heath ousted Harold Wilson from Number 10. All other shifts in power have involved coalitions, minority government or parliaments with too-narrow a majority to allow government for a full term.

Since 1945, only three new democracies have introduced First Past the Post based on the British model - Albania, Macedonia and Ukraine - and even these countries subsequently decided to switch to a different system.

Contact

Tamsin Crimmens: Media Officer - t.crimmens@ippr.org / 07800 742 262