The Independent View: The UK voting system is broken

One of the key arguments made by defenders of First Past the Post is that it produces clear outcomes on which strong and stable government is based. New analysis published today by the ippr (Worst of Both worlds: Why First Past the Post no longer works) shows why this claim no longer stacks up. It shows that the last general election result was not an aberration but a reflection of long-term changes in voting patterns across the UK which significantly increase the likelihood of more hung parliaments in the future.

Britain has evolved into a multi-party system, but it still has an electoral system designed for only two parties. There is now a long-term trend in the UK of voters opting for parties other than the Conservatives or Labour – and not just for Liberal Democrats. At the 2010 General Election, 35% of the electorate voted for a range of other parties – the vote share for the two main parties was the lowest ever and has been steadily falling since its peak in the 1950s.

Parties other than the ‘big two’ have also become more successful at winning seats in the House of Commons and now regularly win around 85 seats. So a winning party needs at least 86 more seats than its rival in order to win an overall majority, something that has happened in just seven of the 18 general elections since the war.

For one party to secure a workable majority of 20 seats it needs to win at least 100 seats more than its rival, something that has happened in only four of 18 post-war elections.

Support for other parties means that an increasing number of MPs will be elected on less than 50 per cent of the vote in their constituencies. In the 1950s, 86 per cent of MPs received over 50 per cent of the local vote; in 2010, just 33 per cent did.

Moreover, the number of people who were decisive in determining the outcome of the last general election is even smaller than the number of voters living in marginal seats. In the 111 decisive seats that changed hands, just over 460,000 voters – or 1.6 per cent of the electorate – gave the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats majorities in the seats they gained from Labour.

And because the current system is biased in Labour’s favour it could result in the ‘wrong winner’ at the next election, with Labour winning fewer votes than the Conservatives but winning more seats. First Past the Post has generated the wrong winner twice before (in 1951 the Conservatives won more seats than Labour on a lower share of the vote and in February 1974 the situation was reversed, when Labour formed a government on a lower share of the vote).

Since 1945, only three new democracies have introduced First Past the Post based on the British model – Albania, Macedonia and Ukraine – and even these countries subsequently decided to switch to a different system.

Britain’s broken voting system needs to be fixed. Without reform, we can expect more UK hung parliaments in the future – or at the very least governments elected with small and unstable majorities. We will have a system that is the worst of both worlds: neither representative nor stable.

Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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7 Comments

  • I found table 12 interesting, when we have so much experience and success with more proportional and fair systems than either FPTP or AV why shoul deither of these remain an option.

    FPTP is unfair, but AV is not proportional and only likely to benefit the third party.

  • 1) The argument that FPTP produces a clear winner has never been very strong. Several local councils here have been ‘hung’ between 2, 3 or 4 parties.

    2) ‘Moreover, the number of people who were decisive in determining the outcome of the last general election is even smaller than the number of voters living in marginal seats.’ I don’t see that AV or PR would solve this. What you are talking about is floating voters – I have not seen any evidence that PR has the effect of ‘hardening’ voting preferences. If you have some evidence, I’d be very interested to see it..

    3) My wife is Macedonian and I think you are being a bit disengenuous. As far as I know, the Parliamentary elections for Macedonia have always used PR in some form, The earlier post-independence elections used a German style mixed system, I think they still do though there has been tinkering. The elections for President are French style run-off FPTP. My understanding is that Albania is the same.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jan '11 - 10:24pm


    Britain has evolved into a multi-party system, but it still has an electoral system designed for only two parties.

    No, it was not designed for only two parties. It was designed for no parties (i.e. for the days before there were such things as organised political parties), and “designed” is the wrong word as it just evolved. It does not work always well for a two-party system, it worked in the UK only because of the way the votes were distributed. If there is a stronger homogeneity of vote distribution it almost wipes out the opposition (e.g. suppose EVERY constituency voted 51% for party A and 49% for party B). If there is less homogeneity, it distorts regional representation – which we did start to see in the UK where it gave e.g. the utterly false impression that the whole of the south-east of England was Tory, and the whole of the industrial north, Labour. In that way it exacerbated regional differences. It DOES allow third parties to prosper, so long as their votes are regionally concentrated e.g. the Northern Irish parties in the UK. So this again can encourage regional discord.


    Since 1945, only three new democracies have introduced First Past the Post based on the British model – Albania, Macedonia and Ukraine –

    Did you miss out the words “in Europe” here? What about the new democracies Britain left its former colonies? I think you will find it left all its African former colonies with FPTP, which enabled them to demonstrate the above mentioned effects that electoral system can have, with gruesome consequences mostly.

  • “The UK voting system is broken.”

    It doesn’t take a genius to work that out.

    Parliament is broken as well. Constituency representatives get elected on a promise to vote in a certain way in Parliament, but once elected they dump their promises and cave-in to pressure from their party whip.

    The big three political parties have become morally corrupt and perverse; they are broken, dysfunctional organisations.

  • ‘Britain has evolved into a multi-party system, but it still has an electoral system designed for only two parties.’

    The ‘System’ is a constituancy system and was NEVER designed for party politics at all was it?

    We have always elected an MP who can at any time move from one grouping/party to another with their constituants having no say in the matter. If you go back far enough MP’s were always changing from one grouping/party to another, more recently Churchill did it at least twice didn’t he?

    The electoral format must be changed to full PR as soon as we are able. I accept we can not have full PR in this coalition but we must make sure we win the referendum for AV as a significant step away from 1st past the post as i believe it wil then be less difficult to move on to full PR.

    PS: I for one am not hung up on having a constituancy MP, i would much rather have a system that trully reflected the will of the people.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Aug '16 - 5:41pm

    Please consider South Africa which had First Past The Post before it had a universal franchise. A verligte Afrikaaner President used FPTP to deal with hardline dissent, but realised that Proportional Representation was necessary. At that time the new electorate thought that they were voting directly for Nelson Mandela to be President as they looked at the photographs of the leaders of the various party lists on the ballot papers. The new parliament then elected Nelson Mandela as President of their rainbow nation and he tried to reduce intercommunal violence. In the process they did not empower the electorates to move candidates up or down the lists, providing opportunities for corruption. Alan Beith MP said something similar to Home Secretary Jack Straw MP in the Commons. Jack Straw went away “to consult” presumably Tony Blair.

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