UK voting system driving inequality, warns report backed by leading academics

The UK’s electoral system is an underlying cause of rising social inequality, according to a report published by Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.

Parliaments have on average been well to the right of the voters in every developed country with a similar voting system since World War II, according to research cited in the report. In the UK, most people have voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives in 18 of the 19 general elections since 1950, yet the Conservatives have been in power for 63% of this time.

 An introduction by eminent academics including Professor David Soskice (LSE) and Professor Emeritus Arend Lijphart (UC San Diego) says, “it is widely accepted by experts that FPTP has a pronounced conservative bias”, and that, “countries with more proportional systems have been more successful in delivering the kind of outcomes associated with egalitarian, compassionate societies.”

 Report author Owen Winter said: “It’s well known that First Past the Post causes democratic inequality, meaning some votes are worth much more than others. What’s less well known is that this consistently skews politics to the right and drives up economic and social inequality.”

 The bias arises because left-wing voters are highly concentrated in urban areas, where millions of progressive votes pile up without helping to elect MPs, and because the system encourages infighting and vote-splitting rather than cooperation between progressive parties.

 In contrast, countries with systems of Proportional Representation in which all votes count equally are a “level playing field” with no bias towards left or right. As a result, academics have found countries with PR to have more progressive governments, lower income inequality, less poverty, higher social spending, stronger trade unions, and more democratic control over the economy, as well as better protection of the environment and faster action on climate change.

 Joe Sousek, co-founder of Make Votes Matter, said: “The Labour Party’s traditional support for First Past the Post has been a grave mistake. Instead of empowering ‘the many’, it has disproportionately advantaged the right, entrenched social inequality, and inflicted serious harm on the communities Labour represents.”

 According to the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, the party is under growing pressure to commit to change, with 69 Constituency Labour Parties passing resolutions in favour of PR since 2017, a third of Labour MPs backing reform, and growing support among trade unions.

 In a jointly written foreword, Labour MPs Jonathan Reynolds and Rupa Huq said, “Labour remains the only socialist party in the developed world to support the use of First Past the Post for general elections. It is time for us to learn from our sister parties and embrace Proportional Representation.”

 The report comes as Manchester marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre, when 18 were killed and hundreds injured by the brutal suppression of a peaceful rally for democratic rights. The report claims, “we should take inspiration from their understanding that only through greater democracy can we transform society.”

Case studies

Click here for case studies illustrating the effect of democratic inequality on two people - a 21-year-old and a 99-year-old.