How FPTP caused the catastrophic vote to leave the EU

The EU Referendum demonstrated the extent to which the “First-Past-The-Post” (FPTP) system has allowed politicians to become distanced from the people they purport to represent and has contributed to a sense of powerlessness amongst large sections of the UK population.

Three key effects of FPTP were at work:

  1. Safe Seats
  2. Distorted election results
  3. Distorted politics

1. Safe seats:
Under FPTP, safe seats (where a change in the party holding the seat would only happen in very unusual circumstances) account for the majority of parliamentary constituencies.

An MP in a safe seat does not need to worry about getting re-elected; he or she does not have to listen to their constituents and does not need to explain their position to them (for example why the UK’s membership of the EU is a good thing).

Voters in a safe seat are effectively powerless to make a difference to a General Election result. All they can do is contribute to the national headline percentage of the party they support, or use their vote as a protest. They have no responsibility for the result and, at some level, most realise this – they get into the habit of voting irresponsibly.

Consequently, when it came to the referendum, many “Leave” voters did not believe their vote would actually make a difference. Of those that did realise this was the one opportunity they had to cast a meaningful vote, many saw it as an opportunity to rebel against the establishment – to “take back control” from the politicians.

2. Distorted results:
FPTP leads to grossly disproportionate results, allowing single parties to govern based on considerably less than 50% of the popular vote.

In 2015 the Conservatives gained an overall majority in Parliament on less than 37% of the vote, leading directly to the EU referendum, because it was in their manifesto. (It has been widely reported that Cameron was happy to have this commitment in the manifesto because he believed he would not win a majority, and so would not have to carry it out.)

Meanwhile, FPTP resulted in 8 seats for the Liberal Democrats (instead of the 50 or so warranted by our vote share), diminishing the strongest voice in favour of the EU (or at least the media representation of that voice) at precisely the time it was most needed.

Paradoxically, UKIP only gaining 1 MP did not diminish the representation of their views in the media (there were other forces at work). We are left to speculate whether UKIP gaining parliamentary representation in proportion to their vote in 2005 or 2010 might have forced the pro-EU majority in Parliament to counter their arguments earlier.

3. Distorted politics:
FPTP does not just distort the results. The behaviour of politicians and parties trying to win under such a twisted system distorts every aspect of politics.

In order to win, the Conservatives are a broad coalition party, rather than the two (or more) parties they should be. The result has been to give undue influence to the anti-EU right wing of the party. Similarly, Labour is forced to be a coalition of multiple parties; this undoubtedly contributed to their ineffectiveness in the referendum campaign.

Does it matter which system?

It’s certainly true that some of the problems with FPTP that led to the Leave vote would be solved by almost any system of proportional representation (PR).

But the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is existing Liberal Democrat policy, has a number of advantages over other forms of PR. Under STV, every constituency has a reasonable chance of some change at each election – safe seats as they exist now would disappear. STV would give voters more choice of candidates and hence more control over the result. And if the party structure becomes disconnected from the changing views of the public, STV provides a safety valve, with voters able to exert a gentle pressure to re-align politics through their voting choices.

In summary

FPTP has multiple distorting effects – on the relationship between voters and MPs, on overall election results, and on the entire conduct of politics.

It is probably the single biggest underlying cause of the vote to leave. An insistence on replacing it with a proportional system must be part of any response to the referendum result.

The Liberal Democrats should continue to promote the Single Transferable Vote as the system of PR that best delivers fair representation and power to people, and thus best solves the defects in FPTP exposed by the referendum result.

* Dr Crispin Allard is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jenny Barnes 6th Sep '16 - 9:31am

    I seem to remember the LDs agreeing to a referendum on AV instead of proper PR as part of the coalition agreement. The party had its chance to make the change – or at least to make the change a red line – and fluffed it. I doubt we’ll get another chance.

  • nigel hunter 6th Sep '16 - 9:48am

    The Tories may be a mixture of parties but when it comes to wanting power they will stick together. Having a referendum on AV and not fighting tooth and nail for PR was a disaster but hopefully we have learnt to hold on to it and sometime break the mould and stop the countries decline.

  • I’m sorry, but this is not true. Virtually everyone voted knowing full well the referendum was one person one vote. It’s only Remain campaigners who keep insisting this or that electoral seat voted IN. This is because they don’t like the result and are thus attempting to delegitimise it as well as propagate division. Possibly some Remain voters are the ones who believe their votes should count for more because of where they live and it is they who have been, are being, mislead into thinking the way the votes were counted was about anything other than convenience. It was simply impractical to count tens of millions of votes in one location. I do not see the result as a disaster and am more than a little fed up with hearing that I was confused or would have voted differently if I thought Leave could win. I was pleasantly surprised when the country voted Leave and so were other Leave voters I knew.

  • Barry Snelson 6th Sep '16 - 10:19am

    I’ve read some weird logic on LDV but this is Olympic podium standard.

    Speaking as a reluctant remainer and also saddened by the mess we are now in, that to blame the failure on FPTP is not just contrived, but parallel universe.

    The fault was that Osborne and Cameron fronted “In” and brought into the campaign “celebrities” who the public secretly resent. A campaign based on threats was always at risk.

  • Peter Parsons 6th Sep '16 - 10:42am

    Worth a watch if you’ve not seen it:
    One of the conclusions is that the current electoral system and its effect on how political parties behave and campaign (and who they choose to basically ignore as a consequence) was a contributory factor in the outcome.

  • It’s certainly true to say that safe seats lead to low turnout and an absence of political campaigning. We keep having whinges from leave voters about how dare people think or worse say leave voters are stupid and misguided before or after giving their plain wrong reason for voting leave.

    Had we had a PR system it is unlikely we would have had the disaster of the coalition or a referendum few people wanted. Had the ratio in the coalition been 150 lib Dem MPs and 200 tories it would have been very different. Cameron and Osborne based their politics on FPTP, the idea they could bribe swing voters in marginal seats and win a majority of MPs on a fraction of the vote means parties never have to appeal to a broad base, let alone a majority of electors.

  • Maurice Frank 6th Sep '16 - 12:42pm

    STV gives you only 1 vote in a multi-member seat, a loss of voter power, and it does not enable a majority vote against a bad option. So we can’t express our choice fully. Its first experience in Scotland, 2007, was far from empowering – gaining multi-member seats was the only gain in it. In most seats the parties gamed the system by standing 1 candidate each, and won on the first count, so that no preferential counting happened. All that had happened then was a form of FPTP! and with less voter power than in real multi-member FPTP where at least you have as many votes as members. 2012 worked out better for the wrong reason, because there was a 2 party squeeze, so for 3 o 4 member seats that went fo further counts.
    That STV can actually return a FPTP result clinches it as the worst type of PR. I like a fully preferential, and open list, version of AV Plus.

  • Daniel Walker 6th Sep '16 - 3:36pm

    @Maurice I’d be interested to see the details of the STV-becomes-FPTP election of which you speak.

    I’m torn between STV (because it’s more proportional) and and open-list AV+ (because it has a stronger constituency link, which I think is what tipped Roy Jenkins over)

    They’re both *loads* better than FPTP, though.

  • Peter Parsons 6th Sep '16 - 4:49pm

    @Daniel, the results from the 2007 Scottish local elections are available online. If you have a look at the detail, parties seemed to be put up fewer candidates than the number of seats available. From an outside view it looks like they put up as many candidates as the number of seats they thought they could win in each ward.

    I still think it preferable to multi-member FPTP as, while there may be some voters who pick candidates from multiple parties, many voters simply put a cross by all the candidates for a particular party and some only vote for the first listed candidate for the party of their choice. At one of the recent local elections where I live one of the Conservatives who got elected in the ward where I live claimed in a letter to the local paper that the LibDem who also got elected did so because of “alphabetical ordering”.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 6th Sep '16 - 6:50pm

    I really don’t understand lib dem logic at all. Someone explain the following to me:

    FPTP is illegitimate because it doesn’t reflect how people actually voted? OK, but it’s alright for a FPTP elected unrepresentive parliament to over turn Brexit? Something that people did actually vote for in a democratic one person one vote referendum? How on earth does that work?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 6th Sep '16 - 7:21pm

    @ Jenny Barnes 6th Sep ’16 – 9:31am
    “I seem to remember the LDs agreeing to a referendum on AV instead of proper PR as part of the coalition agreement. The party had its chance to make the change – or at least to make the change a red line – and fluffed it. I doubt we’ll get another chance.”

    You’re probably right about the lib dems not getting a 2nd chance but there might still have to be a referendum on the voting system anyway. If people think the electoral system is illegitimate I think only a referendum will be able to restore trust in it or change it.

    Ironically, AV gives a more disproportionate result than FPTP in that the winning party tend to get a bigger majority under AV than they do under FPTP. I will admit that I have no problem with the party that got the most votes getting an absolute majority but I voted no to AV anyway just to spite Nick Clegg out of disgust at the way the students were lied to.

    My question is, to those who are saying Brexit shouldn’t happen because while the majority was clear (52 to 48) it was not huge

  • You don’t think that continually ignoring key voter concerns on issues like immigration had anything to do with losing the referendum ?

  • Peter Parsons 6th Sep '16 - 9:45pm

    @Rightsaidfredfan “I will admit that I have no problem with the party that got the most votes getting an absolute majority”

    How low would the share of vote have to be before this was no longer the case? Would you be happy with a majority government with a 30% vote share, 25%, 20%? All of these are possibilities under FPTP.

    It’s also worth noting that getting the most votes doesn’t always translate into getting the most seats (see e.g. Feb 1974 and 1951 general elections). With FPTP, where the votes are won is more important than how many are won (hence why the SNP has 56 MPs to UKIP’s 1) leaving many of us with votes which are, from the point of view of being able to have any impact on the outcome, worthless.

  • Peter Parsons 6th Sep '16 - 10:40pm

    @john, do you think that an electoral system which allows political parties to basically ignore large swathes of the electorate (those who live in the safe seats) because they don’t influence the outcome of elections might have played a part in key voter concerns being ignored?

  • How low would the share of vote have to be before this was no longer the case? Would you be happy with a majority government with a 30% vote share, 25%, 20%? All of these are possibilities under FPTP.

    The country needs a stable government, and the electorate needs to know who to blame so they can punish them at the next election, neither of which are likely under coalitions.

    So I’d be happy with a majority government under all those conditions. If it does well, that’s good, and if it doesn’t it can be chucked out at the next election and the other lot can have a go, which is the point of democracy: it allows for governments to be changed without the tedious business of having a civil war or coup d’etat, which is what you need under other systems.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Sep '16 - 11:09pm

    Glenn 6th Sep ’16 – 10:08am ” .. Remain campaigners … keep insisting this or that electoral seat voted IN. This is because they don’t like the result …”
    No, there genuinely is a grieving process, which started before the result was officially declared. We wonder, could we have done more? could we have done some things differently? It is some comfort that we won locally, but not much.
    Crispin Allard’s analysis is sound, but in the space available it cannot be the whole story.
    Consider Northern Ireland, which uses STV for local elections, Assembly elections and for the election of MEPs and in the Assembly it elects minister using a proportional system. Electoral pacts, boundary changes, devolution and other factor have produced some changes. They voted heavily to Remain and face losing financial support from the EU of about £3 billion. The Irish Republic did not have a referendum and is remaining the EU.

  • Stevan Rose 6th Sep '16 - 11:16pm

    PR permits small and extremist parties to have disproportionate influence on Government business depending on how the numbers stack up. In 2010 the BNP would have got 12 seats based on their vote. In 2015 the only numbers that work would have led to a Tory-UKIP-DUP Coalition. Sharing power with Corbyn’s thuggish Momentum Movement could be a future necessity. The irony of PR is that it enables the election of anti-democrats. FPTP can work in favour of small parties who know how to work it. Witness the SNP, but also Respect. Sorry, I’ve been converted to FPTP for the Commons. PR for an elected upper chamber though.

    FPTP played no part in the referendum, which was the ultimate in one voter one vote PR. But it distracts from the real causes of the loss – the failure to address real issues where the EU has some culpability. And the failure, quite rightly as it looks today, to scare the living daylights out of voters with tales of Armageddon. I really don’t think you can make the connection even if your job relies on it. It’s a good job I voted when my postal ballot arrived. Given the dreadful Remain campaign, I would have been tempted to vote Out come polling day.

    For the Commons you can promote what you like but it’s a waste of time unless you want to tell the electorate, who think they’ve rejected the Lib Dem PR system of choice by a significant majority, wrong question, wrong answer, try again, and then get beaten by a bigger majority.

  • Andrew McCaig 7th Sep '16 - 12:16am

    re. STV and Scottish local elections

    3 member seats are really a bit small for STV to work properly. Scotland would have done better to combine wards making 6 member ones. Then all the serious parties would have put up at least 3 candidates and voters would have had the chance to choose between them. That is the real power of STV, voters not parties get to choose who represents them. Still, even with 3 member wards STV is far better than election by threes as we have in parts of England

    I have a strong suspicion that STV was responsible for the almost Damascene conversion of extreme politicians in Northern Ireland such as Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams into the relative peace we have now. Voters from their own parties were tired of the Troubles and the leaders realised that STV favours consensus. Here is a lengthy analysis than concludes that STV is the best electoral system for a divided society, and the Referendum showed us that a divided society is what we have now in England and Wales, at least.

  • AC Trussell 7th Sep '16 - 10:00am

    Been saying this for years. But the arrogant “Blues and Reds” hate to compromise- the Tories failure in the EU show this. So they, and their Media will attack any opposition to their control by supporting FPTP.
    I think we could have changed the rules in the EU if we sent friendly, understanding people to persuade our friends in Europe instead of “Farage type” anti-social repulsive characters.

  • Richard Underhill.
    Remain did not win locally. There was no local vote. only a local a count. All the votes had exactly the same value everywhere. It was a headcount not constituency based election. Insisting otherwise is not really about grieving. It’s about trying to say this or that place voted In even when anything up to 40% of the local population eligible vote, and could be bothered to do so, voted Leave.
    The single biggest reason the vote went the way it did is because of the nature of the EU. Even a lot of the Remain support emphasised the need for reform. The only way FPTP feeds into this is because the Conservatives promised a referendum if they won a majority and stuck to their promise. From a purely Eurocentric point of view the Lib Dems would have been wiser to concentrate their fire on the Conservative Party in the build up to the 2015 general election by pointing out to the EU friendly establishment and commentators that a Conservative Government was a bigger threat to them than anyone else because at that point the British public were sending more anti EU representatives to represent them in Europe than pro-EU representatives. From a tactical point this was the real blunder. There was clear evidence that Euro-scepticism and unrest about mass immigration were consistent concerns amongst large sections of the electorate.

  • Gwynfor Tyley 7th Sep '16 - 6:58pm

    I agree that FPTP was the cause of the leave vote but not for the reasons given above.

    If we had had PR all along then the Governments that signed us up to the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and all transfers of sovereignty to the EU would have been by governments with a support of the majority of the voting population. As such there would have been no need for a referendum as either we would vetoed those changes or accepted them supported by the representatives of a majority of the population.

  • Daniel Walker 7th Sep '16 - 9:27pm

    There still has been no answer from the pro-FPTP people to the problem of de facto disenfranchisement of most voters. Because there isn’t one. If any of you had argued for FPTP on the basis that the strong constituency link is worth maintaining, I’d have more respect. Instead you’ve said things like @Tim’s “If it does well, that’s good, and if it doesn’t it can be chucked out at the next election and the other lot can have a go” which is flawed in that the vast majority of people cannot do any such thing.

    @rightsaidfredfan “I will admit that I have no problem with the party that got the most votes getting an absolute majority but I voted no to AV anyway just to spite Nick Clegg out of disgust at the way the students were lied to.”

    So you admit people often don’t answer the question put to them on a referendum, then? Interesting.

  • David Allen 8th Sep '16 - 12:29am

    Our system is lousy. Yet AV failed to convince, and alternatives such as STV might very well also fail to convince the public at large if put to a referendum.

    Arguments about power are unconvincing. Yes, FPTP is unfair to small parties, but PR or near-PR systems are unfair to large parties, who may be forced to dance to the tunes of the smaller “swing” parties.

    The scandal of “safe seats” is a much clearer concern. It cannot be right that most votes just don’t count for anything.

    Here is a new idea. Scrap our purely geography-based democracy. Introduce age-based democracy. In (simplified) principle, define constituencies such as “All 21-25 year-olds in the North East Region”. Or perhaps “All 45-50 year-olds in the West Midlands who self-identify as male.”

    (Yes, with a similar constituency for female voters, and yes, with an instruction to voters that if they consider themselves non-binary, they may freely elect whether to vote in the appropriate “male” or “female” constituency.)

    No seat would be safe. Parties would be at peril if they maintained ageist policies, whether in favour of or against the elderly. The young might take the opportunity to form young people’s parties and fight for Generation Rent. What’s not to like?

  • Daniel Walker 8th Sep '16 - 7:50am

    @David I get where you’re coming from, and I absolutely agree that safe seats/ineffective votes are the main concern. Evidently, we disagree on the solution, which is fine, obviously.

    My counter argument is that PR seems to work fairly well in many other states without tiny parties having undue power (I’ll grant you Isreal as an exception. Belgium’s issues are not primarily a result of PR, I think) because they generally have approximately 5 non-regional main parties, rather than our historic norm of three. (not really the case at the moment, alas)

    I don’t really think your plan is particularly practical, sorry, although I approve of teh out-of-the-box thinking.

  • Steve Comer 8th Sep '16 - 7:53am

    I’m a lifelong supporter of STV, but to win the arguments in a Britain hidebound by old ways, we need to have an answer to the “instability” argument. FPTPers will throw up the current crisis in Spain as an example, where the fragmentation of what used to be a 2+ party system under PR into a multi-party system has led to Government deadlock, and a probable third election in a year at Xmas time.

    WE may know that the answer is that Rajoy should stand down t facilitate a new Government forming, but our opponents will blame the system not the politicians.

  • Denis Mollison 8th Sep '16 - 2:22pm

    What is “instability”? If “instability” means new parties getting a look-in, and a chance for new political ideas (currently suppressed by the narrow Overton windows encouraged by FPTP politics) to flourish, bring it on. The arguments against proportional representation are fundamentally arguments against representative democracy.

  • Simon Banks 8th Sep '16 - 10:23pm

    Glenn is confusing the issue. Anyone with a serious interest in politics should be interested in why different areas voted differently. To ask why all of Scotland voted REMAIN or why Essex voted heavily LEAVE (but some bits of it narrowly voted REMAIN) is sensible. We knew Clacton, say, was heavily LEAVE, though the reasons could repay study since the LEAVE vote seemed to be mainly anti-immigrant and it has very few immigrants, mostly working in the NHS or care homes. Why London was heavily REMAIN but most other big cities were LEAVE asks for study, as does the difference between big LEAVE majorities in the Westcountry and small REMAIN majorities in similar parts of Wales.

    The surprise of the night to many and the reason why the result was 52-48 rather than 50-50 was the big LEAVE votes in places like Sunderland, Hartlepool, East Lancashire and Merthyr Tydfil. I think Crispin has hit the nail on the head. These places feel ignored and they’re right: they are ignored, precisely because of the electoral system. It was an anti-establishment vote and the EU was a convenient target.

    Let’s go on discussing why the votes across the country varied so much, and if Glenn finds it annoying, he can stop reading it.

  • Paul Mackilligin 16th Nov '16 - 1:56pm

    It’s a great irony that for those of us in England, the only democratic elections we have ever had, using PR, are those for the EU Parliament. People seem to have forgotten that UKIP won that last EU election. Cameron then – if you remember – promised that the Tories would hold the referendum the UKIPers wanted. he even said, “Under our voting system, UKIP have no chance of getting into power at Westminster, so if you want a referendum, your only chance is to vote Tory.” (paraphrasing but close) He promised a referendum in order to entice a few UKIP voters to vote Tory in May 2015. True, he didn’t expect to win.

    I’ve knocked on doors and talked to people about how they plan to vote, and I’ve spoken to many who say they won’t be voting. I’ve maybe met one non-voter who could be described as ‘apathetic’. The rest, when questioned, have turned out to be decidedly angry rather than apathetic. (I always encourage such people to go along and spoil their ballot, and point out that anything they write on their ballot will be read by the candidates.)

    In the EU Referendum the turnout was much higher than in elections, so clearly many of those habitual ‘non-voters’ chose to vote. Presumably they saw that in a referendum their vote would actually be counted and make a difference, but I’m sure there is a lot of bitterness – and rightly so – among these voters, and it might seem a waste of this rare opportunity to get ones voice heard if one simply voted for the status quo.

    I’m not saying that most people voting Leave did so out of (quite legitimate) frustration, but the result so close that I’m sure frustration at the ‘democratic deficit’ would have been enough to swing it.

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