First Past the Post: our broken voting system

Britain uses the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system to elect its MPs. Over the past few hundred years, Britain’s society and democracy have developed and changed beyond recognition. However, our voting system has failed to keep pace. We believe that First Past the Post has no place in a modern democracy, and should be replaced by a system of Proportional Representation. Here’s why:

Minority Rule

The idea of a minority ruling over the majority goes against our most basic ideas about democracy. But with First Past the Post, it's the norm. We've had single-party governments with the majority of MPs for about 90% of the time since 1931, but not one of them had the support of a majority of voters. The Conservatives and DUP currently share a majority of seats with just 43% of the votes. The 2015 Conservative government won an outright majority of seats with just 37% of the vote. In both case, parties that most people did not vote for ended up with power to do almost anything they chose.

A proportional voting system would ensure that any UK government would have the support of the majority of voters. If a party wanted to govern us alone, it would have to persuade most of us to vote for it.

Political diversity is suppressed

With First Past the Post, Parliament does not reflect the way we vote. It denies millions of people representation of their choosing.

In the 2017 general election, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and UKIP received 11% of votes between them, yet they shared just 2% of seats.

The 2015 General Election was even worse. The same three parties received almost a quarter of all the votes cast, yet these parties shared just 1.5% of seats.

When so many voters are denied a voice, Parliament fails to reflect the people it is supposed to represent. Millions of us go without a say in crucial national decisions - excluded not only from government, but from holding government to account. This isn't just bad for democracy; it's bad for our entire politics and society.

Proportional Representation would mean each party’s representation in Parliament would match the share of votes they received. Parliament would accurately represent the wide range of views and perspectives held by the British people.

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Unequal Votes

All votes should be worth the same, right? With First Past the Post votes are not equal. In the last election it took 28,000 votes for the SNP to win a seat compared with over 500,000 for the Green Party. Almost 600,000 votes for UKIP won absolutely nothing.

In the 2015 general election, it took 34,000 votes to elect a single Conservative MP, but 300,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP, 1.2 million votes to elect a Green MP, and 3.9 million million votes to elect a single UKIP MP.

Proportional Representation would mean every vote equally and everyone has equal voice. Politicians would have to work in the interests of the whole country, rather than the few voters who decide the results of elections.

Only marginal seats matter

It’s not just which party you vote for that determines how much your vote is worth but also where you live. If you live in a ‘safe seat’, where the same party wins the seat at every election, your vote is worth very little and parties have every reason to ignore you.

Many seats haven't changed hands in 100 years and most have no prospect of changing at any given general election. As a result, elections under FPTP are decided by a few thousand swing voters in a small number of marginal constituencies. If just 533 people had voted differently at the last general election, it would have given us a majority government instead of a hung parliament.

As a result, parties and politicians focus their efforts, resources, and even policies on these small number of voters. Campaign spending and activist footfall is higher in marginal seats than in safe seats. Governments have even been found to allocate more public spending to the marginal seats they need to win the next election.

Proportional Representation would make every vote matter - wherever it is cast - and parties would have to work to win votes across the whole country rather than just in marginal constituencies.

Millions are misrepresented

With our current system, each voter has a single MP to represent them in Parliament. For millions of us, this is someone we did not vote for and probably don't agree with.

You might be surprised to hear that often most British voters end up with an MP they didn't vote for. In 3 of the last 4 general elections, at least 50% of votes went to losing candidates. And in constituencies like Ceredigion, over 70% of voters get an MP they didn't vote for.

MPs may do a fine job helping all their constituents with personal problems or carrying out ceremonial roles, but they cannot represent all their constituents politically - because their constituents hold diverse and contradictory views.

With Proportional Representation almost everyone can have an MP they voted for: someone who shares their beliefs, values and priorities.

Wasted Votes

It isn't just votes for losing candidates that go to waste. Votes for winning candidates above and beyond what was needed to win a particular constituency also have no impact on the election result. A seat won by a 40,000 vote majority has the same outcome as a seat won by a single vote: both elect just a single MP.

Taken together, these excess votes for winning candidates and votes for losing candidates are called "wasted votes". They have no impact on the makeup of Parliament and therefore on the election result.

In 2017, 68.4% of votes were wasted. In 2015, this figure was 74.4%.

So it's not surprising that FPTP elections suffer from low turnout. Globally, turnout for PR elections is on average 5-8% higher than for FPTP elections.

With Proportional Representation, only a small fraction of votes would be wasted: the vast majority would go towards electing an MP.

Tactical Voting

When so many votes are wasted, the rational question for a vote stops being "who do I want to represent me?" and becomes "who can I vote for to keep out the party I like the least?" The result is tactical voting: voting for someone you don't really want to win just to keep out the candidate you dislike the most.

In the 2017 election there was a huge increase in the number of people forced to vote tactically. 20-30% of voters said they planned to vote tactically to avoid wasting their votes or “letting in” their least favourite candidate - up from 9% in 2015.

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Political parties also try to spread their resources tactically, not running candidates in some seats and not campaigning in others. This reduces choice for voters and leaves some areas neglected by politicians. 

Proportional Representation would allow voters to vote for whoever they believe in without fear of wasting their vote or ‘letting the other side in’. Every vote would matter and everyone would have a real say in how the country is run.

Wrong winner elections

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First Past the Post cannot even perform the most basic task of a voting system: making sure the party with most votes wins the most seats. We have had two "wrong winner" elections in the last 70 years. 

In 1951, the Labour Party had it's best ever general election result and won 48.8% of the vote - the highest share of the vote it has ever won. But thanks to FPTP, Labour's Attlee government was thrown out of office and replaced by a Conservative majority government, even though the Tories only got 40% of the vote. And in February 1974 Labour won the most seats despite the Conservatives winning the vote.

Two wrong winners in this timescale is by no means unusual. Canada - with FPTP - has had two over the same period. New Zealand had two wrong winner general elections in a row before they ditched FPTP in favour of PR. The US has had several wrong winner elections to its House of Representatives (using FPTP) and of its President (using the closely related Electoral College).

The old "arguments" for FPTP are completely discredited

  • FPTP is not decisive. Two of the last three elections have resulted in hung parliaments, while at the same time failing to reflect the voters. The other resulted in a tiny majority and the most disproportionate parliament in history.
  • FPTP is not stable. We’ve averaged one unplanned election every ten years over the last Century; more than the average for countries that use PR. Between 1945 and 1998, countries with FPTP had more elections on average than those with PR.
  • FPTP does not allow voters to “kick out” unpopular governments”. In most of our general elections, one of the major parties either loses votes but gains seats or vice versa. FPTP totally severs the link between public support and political power.
  • FPTP does not provide a "strong local link" between MPs and their constituents. It frequently means that most voters have an MP they didn't vote for, don't agree with on political issues, and do not trust to represent their views in Parliament.
  • FPTP is not simple. It may be simple to write an "X" next to a chosen candidate, but it's incredibly difficult to know what that vote will mean. Millions of voters are forces to try to vote tactically by anticipating the decisions of other voters.
  • FPTP is not "the least flawed voting system". Systems of Proportional Representation can avoid all of the problems set out above, and are used by the worlds most democratic, equal and stable societies.
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