ERS General Election report shows that Liberal Democrats are heavily under-represented

It doesn’t matter what the result of a Westminster election, the Liberal Democrats are usually under-represented. Our 23% in 2010 should have brought us 140 MPs. At this election, according to an Electoral Reform Society report, we could have had 29 or 39 MPs under a proportional system.  Given that Labour and the Tories are doing generally all right out of the system at the moment, we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for reform.

If the election had been conducted under the Alternative Vote, which we campaigned for and squandered too much  political capital on in the coalition negotiations in 2010, we’d have had even fewer MPs than with First Past the Post. Only 11 Liberal Democrats would have been elected.

The report is generally a depressing read, highlighting how divided we are as a nation. They highlighted the number of wasted votes and pointed out that this was not a good thing for legitimacy:

In the end, we have a system that recognises the geographical location of a voter and nothing else. It is where voters are – rather than their choices – that matters. This must change if we are to restore legitimacy to our political institutions.

It says that First Past the Post has had its 3rd strike after failing to deliver decisive results in the last 3 elections. I beg to differ with that one. At least in 2010, we had a Government which had the support of more than half of the electorate for the two parties. Those of us who have been around for longer can attest to the fact that it has always been unfair. In my first election a quarter of the votes for the Alliance resulted in just 23 seats.

The report pointed out that in 1987, a similar vote share brought the Tories a whacking great majority, but in 2017 a minority government. I have to say that the latter result is by far preferable to a 3 figure majority which allows a government to do what it likes on a minority of the vote.

Different voting patterns between generations are mentioned – with the young choosing Labour – and turning out to vote more than before while elderly voters backed the Conservatives. And it’s not all bad news, as turnout hit a high as more voters were engaged.

The whole report is worth reading but the ERS, as increasingly these days, seems to talk about reform but doesn’t seem to get the concept of a more pluralistic political culture.

Their report outlines all sorts of failings at the heart of our democracy. The system simply fails to deliver the Parliament the people ask for and that should concern us hugely.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I’d be curious to see how exactly they’ve reached their projections. Whilst its obviously very difficult to extrapolate actual results into an accurate estimate of results under a different system of voting – especially as many votes that we do get tend to be tactical to begin with – I’m a bit confused at how they figure we would have lost seats under AV.

    I’m not sure which of our held 12 we’d probably have lost and there’s at least 5 – Fife North East, Richmond Park, Ceredigion, St Ives, and Sheffield Hallam, I think we’d likely have won as well.

  • John Littler 24th Aug '17 - 11:17am

    Rumour has it that the League of Gentlemen are doing a brexit special. Imagine the snaggle toothed nationalistic rhetoric let loose on Royston Vasey.

  • Its worth remembering under pure PR UKIP would have got around 60-80 MPS in 2015 and I rather suspect today they would get still more with a number thinking it would ‘now’ no longer be a wasted vote.

  • Wise words from Martin. The last General Election was effectively a standstill for Liberal Democrats – a derisory, lower national vote balanced by four more seats albeit including very welcome women.

  • If we are under-represented, we have only ourselves to blame. We made a big mistake in 2010, thinking we could get better representation by winning a vote for the alternative vote system ( we were seemingly more concerned with this than with protecting the vulnerable after the recession). It was a rotten system anyway, relying on so many second-best votes ( we are good at that with our ‘Labour/Conservative can’t win here’ strategy). PR is much fairer, obviously. Had we stuck out for something better than AV we might eventually have got a system incorporating PR. Fat chance now!

  • We should feel angry about this & certainly should not waste our energy blaming ourselves for past mistakes. A Core Vote Strategy will help, while also making Britain that bit more divided.
    UKIP getting 80 MPs would have destroyed them that much quicker – look at the performance of their Councillors & imagine them in Parliament.

  • @ Caron, talking about a parliament that does actually have PR, when are you going to tell us how Willie is getting on with Nicola in his budget negotiations – and who is supping with a lang spoon ?

  • Peter Martin 24th Aug '17 - 2:14pm

    ” Our 23% in 2010 should have brought us 140 MPs”

    OK. But what about UKIP’s 12.6% of the poll in 2015? You think they should have had 77 seats?

  • PR seems like one of those great ideas, right up until the day it isn’t.

    Ask Canadian liberal Justin Trudeau who before his election promised that, the 2015 federal election would be “the last federal election using first-past-the-post.”
    But what does Trudeau think about PR since he’s been elected?

    “I’ve always believed that I don’t think proportional representation suits Canada,”

    “I believe proportional representation leads to ‘fragmentation’ of political parties.”

    “I didn’t think that holding a referendum on this issue [PR], would be in the interest of the country either,”

    “So I made the decision that we were going to put that promise [ending FPTP], aside and we were going to focus on the things that really matter to Canadians.”

    I suppose the first hard lesson is, never fall for the dulcet charms of a Liberal with a pretty boy face. And the second lesson is that a ‘liberal pledge’ has the equivalent value of a ‘chocolate teapot’.
    I think we need to accept that FPTP is here to stay, not least because no Liberal politician holding a substantial vote share would ever agree to it.

  • The constitution also needs reviewing to ensure nothing like Brexit can happen again. A supermajority requirement for major constitutional change is essential.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Aug '17 - 4:35pm

    I want to play Devil’s Advocate here, because I think that all this discussion about PR is missing an important point. Certainly whatever form of it we chose: AV+ (Jenkins), AMS (Holyrood and Cardiff) or STV (Stormont) would change the makeup of the Commons, with parties having a wide geographical support gaining representation (Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP), while parties with narrow geographical support (SNP, Plaid) lose representation.

    But there is a fundamental difference between FPTP and any of the proportional systems. Under FPTP, voters have a reasonable expectation that a single party will win an overall majority and so can vote on the basis of the party manifestos. Under PR, the manifestos become nothing more than a negotiating position for the parties after the election; had electors who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 known beforehand that we would ditch policies like on student tuition fees to go into coalition with the Tories, how many votes would we have lost? For a PR system to work, voters need to have confidence that politicians will act in the voters’ best interests, because having cast their vote there is nothing they can do about it until the next election. In the current state of British politics with trust in politicians at a low ebb as the Brexit referendum and the 2017 General Election have shown, it is difficult to see how we can build support for PR. Only when trust in politicians has been restored can we think seriously about PR.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Aug '17 - 10:59pm

    Martin: Gordon Brown supported AV personally, as he said at PMQ, which implies that he could not deliver the Labour Party. The assumption that MPs with strong majorities would be elected under AV might not be shared by those at risk.

  • Andrew McCaig 25th Aug '17 - 7:31am

    The projections are based on a YouGov poll asking about second and third preferences.

    Laurence: in mature PR systems like Germany people have a pretty good idea how voting for different smaller parties will affect what happens. (basically the flavour of the Merkel administration recently!)

    Caron: you should read the report more carefully. The ERS say that FPTP has failed to deliver in 3 elections in the terms of proponents of FPTP, delivering “strong” government. And of course the ERS has been around for 133 years, a lot longer than any of us. In that time it has succeeded in getting fairer voting systems in all parts of the UK except England (outside London).
    And yes of course, if 12% of people vote UKIP, then people should get UKIP MPs in proportion to that

  • John Probert 25th Aug '17 - 8:56am

    Revolutions, In some parts of the world, are made of skewed election results like these.

  • One thing is for sure, nothing can hide the very bad result at the last General Eelection, just look at those seats in Cornwall of all places, Truro, Cambourne, Falmouth , South East. Newquay etc. Will we ever come back from that in the next decade ot two, whatever the system?

  • I was pleased to see decent coverage of the ERS report in a lot of the press. This is definitely a subject that is gaining interest beyond the LibDems, but it seems that while most people support PR once they have stopped to think about it, many haven’t stopped to think about it, and even once it’s something they theoretically support, it’s rarely a deal breaker.

    There is a lot more detail on how the ERS report reached the various figures for each method, but they are also very clear that they are illustrative. The number of people polled wasn’t high enough to represent our own regional variation, and as they make clear, after a few years of living with PR, people and parties will start to behave differently.

    The Make Votes Matter campaign group is doing a lot of work too, and tends to keep their message more simple, pushing the idea that seats should match votes, which is very difficult to disagree with. They are especially targeting Labour and pushing the very simple premise that if you claim to be about democracy, and ‘the many, not the few’, then you should back an electoral system that suits the many.

    Yes, we might have had more UKIP MPs under a proportional system, but I think they’d soon be found out as useless, but if people really did like them, they’d deserve to stay, and at least some would be at the expense of right-wing Tories. So many people say they voted Brexit because they weren’t being heard, and while leaving the EU isn’t going to help that, we should direct that sentiment towards something that will. A voting system like STV would make all MPs much more accountable to the electorate, as well as help to heal some of the regional divides.

  • What about about fascist parties such as the BNP
    having MPs ? We could see openly racist MPs in parliament. Have to be very careful what we wish for.

  • The BNP pretty much collapsed as a political force at their first sniff of power, because the people saw just how useless they were. Racist ideology does much better in this country when those involved get to claim that they aren’t being heard, and that they are the real victims. Rigging the political system to prevent those people from having a voice plays into their hands.

    However, if 5% of the population wants openly racist politicians, then 5% of politicians should be openly racist. That’s democracy. And right now the racists have to vote for politicians who are obliquely racist instead. The US doesn’t use PR, and look what they ended up with?

    Regardless, FPTP encourages engrained sexism and racism, because it usually favours white men, and parties are discouraged from trying anything too different with their selection process.

  • in terms of fairness and proportionality, having two sorts of MPs and nation wide lists could mean that constituency links are maintained for some and it is easy to understand though the overall number would increase unless a wholescale boundary review was instituted.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Aug '17 - 2:52pm

    Why does no-one ever mention one of the most serious issues about FPTP, the way it distorts geographical representation? The collapse of the LibDems means we are back in a situation where almost all of southern England has nothing but Conservative MPs. So the false impression is given that everyone in the south is a Conservative, and is the sort of person who tends to vote Conservative i.e. wealthy. Poorer people in the south have no voice in Parliament. Sorry, but a Labour MP for a northern or urban seat just cannot speak properly for the needs of a poor person in a southern or rural area.

    Labour doesn’t care about this, they are happy to have this cozy arrangement with the Tories whereby dominate in some areas and write off others. That is one of the main reason why I, coming from a southern working class background, supported and joined the Liberals.

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