What's wrong with the UK's voting system?

 

Once you know how the voting system works, you will understand why it's misfiring.

 

To begin with, we may call it a general election but in truth there are 650 separate "stand-alone" elections held on the same day, one in every local constituency, each electing one Member of Parliament who invariably belongs to a political party. The voters in each constituency put an X alongside the name of their favoured candidate on their ballot paper and the constituency's Member of Parliament is the candidate with the most votes. The party with the most Members of Parliament wins the election and forms the government. Simple!

 

But there's a problem with our Victorian "First-past-the-post" voting system. It still works of a fashion, but it has never been very efficient, wasting huge numbers of votes shovelled into it and producing a rather rough end result. Moreover, this wheezing contraption has never been modified to accommodate the greater political sophistication of today's voters who are more educated, less deferential & trusting, better informed and more eclectic in their politics than they were a century ago.

 

What is most noticeable, however, is that seats won by a party do not necessarily reflect the level of support for that party, nor are outcomes consistent or certain, as can be seen from the table in the previous web page.

 

So, let's take a look under the bonnet to see what's wrong and what can be done to put things right.

 

Blues v Reds- and then Yellows, Greens and Purples!

 

Up until some time after the last war, consumer choice for the man in the street was very limited in everything from holidays to hoovers - and politics. In the Sheffield Hallam constituency of 1955, for example, voters there had a choice of just two candidates in that year's general election. The result was as follows:-

 

Roland Jennings

Conservative&NatLib

30,069 votes

66.2%

James Marsden

Labour

15,330 votes

33.8%

 

 

 

In individual constituencies up and down the land in 1955, most voters were offered similar meagre choice but at least Mr Jennings’s victory was clear-cut with the support of two thirds of those who voted in his constituency. However, let us fast-forward sixty two years to the 2017 General Election result in Sheffield Hallam which showed a very different picture:-

 

Jared O’Mara

Labour

21,881 votes

38.4%

Nick Clegg

Liberal Democrat

19,756 votes

34.6%

Ian Walker

Conservative

13,561 votes

23.8%

John Thurley

UKIP

     929 votes

  1.6%

Logan Robin

Green

     823 votes

  1.4%

Steven Winstone

Social Democrat

       70 votes

  0.1%

 

The number of party candidates there mushroomed to six, reflecting the profusion of parties that have sprung up over the decades; there are now about 350 registered with the Electoral Commission. Even so, while the UK has changed beyond recognition in so many ways since 1955, we are still using the same old Victorian voting system to elect our national government and clearly it can no longer cope with the increased number of parties in the Premier League of British politics, as the available vote splinters into smaller and smaller shards within the confines of a single member constituency. As a result, Sheffield Hallam’s Labour candidate squeaked in with the support of only 38.4% of those who had voted. And, as bad as this result was, it was not the worst; in a 7-party punch-up in Ceredigion in the same election, Plaid Cymru’s candidate Ben Lake took the seat with only 29.23% of the vote!

 

 

Our voting system is only 32% efficient!

 

When you go to the polls for a general election, you have just one vote, which is counted only for your constituency's contest. It does not otherwise influence the national result; it is not added to any national total for the party of your choice. So, if you were a Green voter in Sheffield Hallam, yours was one of the 61% of the votes cast there that had no effect on the result, nationally or locally. Is this typical? Yes, it is; in the 2017 General Election, just over a quarter of the MPs were elected on a minority of their constituency vote. Moreover, we mustn't forget that there are many other places, known as "safe seats", where the result is a forgone conclusion, like in Liverpool Walton, where Labour's Dan Carden won with a massive 85.73% of the vote in 2017. As impressive as his majority of 32,551 votes had been, they were surplus to his requirements, they didn't count in any national tally, and so represented wasted votes of a different kind.

 

It has been calculated that 44% of all the votes cast in the 2017 General Election were for losing candidates and a further 24% cast were surplus to the winners' requirements, which means our voting system was only 32% efficient in 2017. In the 2015 election, this efficiency rating was even worse, at 26%. 

 

 

 650 lotteries to elect a government!

 

Considering the results in Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool Walton and all the others in between, it seems more by good luck than good management that past governments have in any way reflected the national vote for parties in a general election, which any man in the street would suppose should determine the outcome. Two models illustrate what can happen when individual constituency results are lumped together to obtain a national result.   

 

Albion City Model Election

Red Party Votes

Blue Party Votes

Albion North Constituency

15,000

18,000

Albion Central Constituency

29,000

  4,000

Albion South Constituency

16,000

17,000

Total Votes Won in Albion

60,000  Reds win more votes..

39,000

Total Seats Won

     1

    2  but Blues win more seats!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The "Albion City" model above shows how our voting system can misbehave even in a straightforward 2-party contest in 3 seats. In this model, the Reds' 2 to 1 superiority across Albion in terms of votes is not matched in terms of seats because much of the support for the Reds is represented by surplus votes uselessly piled up for the Reds in Albion Central, so the Blues win more seats.

 

A similar mismatch actually happened in the 1951 General Election. Back then, the Liberals were a music hall joke, the nationalists were nowhere, and the Greens, the UKIP and the issues that spawned them had not been invented yet. It was a straightforward fight between Labour and the Conservatives but the voting system yielded the following national result:-

 

1951 Election

UK Votes

UK Seats

Labour

13,948,883  Labour won more votes..

295

Conservative

13,718,199

321 ...but Conservatives won more seats!

Liberals & others

     929,512

    9

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

A slim majority of voters had elected to continue with the post-war Socialist project but the voting system gifted the election to the Conservatives instead.

 

 It gets worse....

 

The system's creaky enough with just two parties in contention but, once other parties join the fray, it degenerates into a game of chance, as shown in the second model, where 3 parties are contesting 3 seats.

 

 

Britannia City Model Election

Red Party Votes

Green Party Votes

Blue Party Votes

Britannia North Constituency

12,000

11,000

10,000

Britannia Central Constituency

  7,000

12,000

14,000

Britannia South Constituency

13,000

11,000

  9,000

Total Britannia Votes

32,000   Least votes…

34,000   Most votes…

33,000

Total Seats Won

   2      but most seats!

    0        but no seats!

    1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly there is something very wrong with a mechanism that has the potential to give the party with the least votes the most seats and the party with the most votes no seats at all, even with exactly the same number of voters in each constituency.  

 

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© David Green