Our electoral system is broken. The UK is one of only two countries in Europe to use the antiquated first-past-the-post system (FPTP) to elect its MPs (the other is that beacon of democracy, Belarus). This system has one big advantage: simplicity. In each constituency, the candidate with the most votes wins. But this simplicity is outweighed by its serious drawbacks: unfair democratic representation in Parliament, and the bane of the ‘safe seat’. What can we do about it?
When British politics was dominated by two parties, FPTP worked well. But in a multi-party world, FPTP leads to unfairness and a serious lack of democratic representation. It is one of the biggest reasons why people feel disconnected from politics: the way they vote is no longer represented in Parliament.
In a representative democracy, you might think that the make-up of Parliament would reflect the way that people voted. But you’d be wrong. Here are a few examples from the 2019 election that show how disproportionate our voting system has become.
In 2019 four times as many people voted Conservative as voted Lib Dem. Do the Conservatives have four times as many seats as the Lib Dems? No. They have 36 times as many seats. Three times as many people voted Lib Dem as voted for the SNP. The SNP has four times as many MPs.
Not a party-political issue
The Green party got 800,000 votes in 2019. Those votes resulted in one solitary MP. In comparison, it takes about 38,000 people to elect a Conservative MP, and about 50,000 to elect a Labour MP. The Brexit party were even worse off: their 650,000 votes led to absolutely no representation in Parliament at all.
The only party whose vote share was reflected reasonably accurately in seats won was Labour, with 32 per cent of the vote resulting in 31 per cent of the seats.
This is not about party-political advantage: it’s about basic fairness. A fair electoral system should ensure that votes are translated into MPs – and FPTP is simply not doing that. It’s not a new problem, and it could be argued that it’s been at the heart of the UK’s recent political upheaval. In 2010, nearly 1 million people voted for UKIP, resulting in precisely 0 parliamentary seats. If you voted Leave in the EU referendum because you felt you weren’t being listened to, you had a point.
Most votes don’t matter
The other big drawback of FPTP is that some votes matter more than others. If you live in a safe seat, where the sitting MP has a huge majority, you know that your vote is extremely unlikely to make a difference to the result. Sussex is a very stark example of this. The rural seats are almost all held by Conservatives with big majorities. Brighton is at the other end of the spectrum, with big majorities for the Green party (in Brighton Pavilion) and Labour (in Hove).
In most of these seats you can make your way to the polling station already knowing who is going to win. The hundreds of thousands of Labour voters in rural Sussex and tens of thousands of Conservative voters in Brighton are completely unrepresented in Parliament. No wonder people are cynical about their views not being heard.
Nationwide, only about a fifth of seats at the last election were closely contested. These marginal constituencies are where parties target their resources: if you’re lucky enough to live in one of these constituencies, political parties really care about your vote. If you don’t, you can be taken for granted.
A fairer system is possible
With our politics so obviously broken, there is increasing demand for a fairer system. The Electoral Reform Society and Make Votes Matter (MVM) have long been campaigning for proportional representation, with MVM holding a protest at Parliament Square on Saturday 5 February to call for “Less FPTP, not more”.
Unsurprisingly, since the current system tends to discriminate against them, the Liberal Democrats and Green party also support a change to the voting system. To their credit, the SNP also support a change, even though they benefit the most from FPTP at Westminster. Historically Labour and the Conservative parties have resisted calls for change, though support for proportional representation is growing among grassroots Labour members. While moderate Tories have been an endangered species since Boris Johnson’s cull of Remain-supporting MPs, it was interesting to hear Rory Stewart endorsing electoral reform in a recent interview.
But to change the system you have to win under the current system. How do you do this? Forward-thinking MPs such as Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis and Layla Moran are backing a progressive alliance, where parties stand down in seats they know they cannot win to support those who do have a chance of winning. Again, this is not just a left-liberal concept: at the last election there was an agreement that the Brexit party would not challenge pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.
While a progressive alliance is probably the best way for left-liberal parties to challenge Conservative dominance under FPTP, it does have its downsides. The most serious is that, by standing candidates down, political parties are reducing voters’ options. Another way of a progressive alliance working is more informal: parties continue to stand candidates for election but campaign less actively in seats they have little chance of winning, giving the stronger local party a better chance of success.
Tactical voting: pros and cons
Recent by-elections have proved the power of this approach. The Liberal Democrats’ minimal campaigning in Batley and Spen helped Labour to retain the seat in Jo Cox’s old constituency, a fitting tribute to the murdered MP whose maiden speech in the House of Commons reminded us that “we have more in common than that which divides us”.
Similarly, minimal Labour campaigning in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire helped the Liberal Democrats make two spectacular by-election gains, overturning large Tory majorities in both cases. While elements of both parties are probably uncomfortable with working together, such informal cooperation does seem the best bet if they want to remove the Conservative government at the next general election.
How do you get round this problem? Increasingly, informed and engaged voters are using vote-swapping websites such as SwapMyVote. By finding someone in another constituency to swap with, you get to have more of an effect on the election, but your preferred party still gets a vote: the best of both worlds.
Swapping votes in Brighton
Sussex Bylines spoke to two Brighton voters who took this approach in 2017. One, normally a Labour voter, lived in Brighton Pavilion, a safe Green seat. The other, normally a Green voter, lived in Hove, a relatively safe Labour seat. They decided to swap their votes, so that they could both be sure their votes went towards electing an MP of their preferred party – rather than wasting their vote by casting it for a non-runner in their own constituency.
Vote-swapping would have even more power for those in marginal constituencies. As the next election approaches, Sussex Bylines will be looking at the polling and identifying constituencies where voters might have a chance of actually affecting who will be their next MP. It’s amazing that it’s possible to write such a sentence in a country that claims to be a democracy, but until FPTP is consigned to history, voters will always be looking for ways to make their vote matter.
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