The warped and wacky maths of our electoral system

Alan Story discusses the ‘electoral dictatorship’ and the importance of ‘getting Proportional Representation done’.

Get PR Done
Activists from the Councils for PR group campaigning at the "Rejoin the EU" march in London on 22 October. 
Alan Story

As we have just learned again, we often use the most unrepresentative ways to choose prime ministers. No surprise, they mirror what happens in general elections. The warped and wacky maths underlying our electoral system dictate that there are only two types of voters that really count: Tory voters and Labour voters.

A few stats give the broad outline. Either one of those two parties has won every single general election here since the 1920s. In Canada, which also uses first past the post (FPTP), a similar duopoly has existed since the country was established in 1867. Ditto for the United States since the 1860s.  

Indeed, over more than one hundred years in the UK, no other party has ever managed to climb from third or fourth place into second, let alone first, place. The relatively strong showing of the Scottish National Party in 2019 – the Nats won 48 seats in that general election – was down to the fact that its 3.9 per cent vote total was regionally concentrated.

The Lib Dems, by comparison, polled 11.6 per cent. That is nearly three times the overall vote of the SNP, but the Lib Dems won only 11 seats and dropped one seat. Yet the 2019 Lib Dems vote was up more than one million votes compared to 2017. Votes up, seats down? The logic is hardly a democratic one; those increased Lib Dem votes in 2019 were added in the so-called ‘wrong place’.    

Electoral Reform Society chart


As this simple chart shows, it is two UK-wide parties, Labour and the Tories, which benefit most from FPTP. No other party, again excepting the SNP, has been able to build up the needed electoral momentum and shake off the “wasted votes” label.

Tory votes ‘worth’ more than Green votes

Votes for the Tories, for example, are ‘worth’ almost 30 times the votes cast by Green voters. In 2010, when Caroline Lucas first won Brighton Pavilion, the Greens had a mere 116 local councillors. Today, and four general elections later, the Greens now have 557 local councillors, but Lucas remains the sole Green MP (unlike in proportional representation (PR) systems across Europe, local electoral success seldom leads to triumphs in national legislatures elected through FPTP.)  

This built-in unfairness is further illustrated by how UKIP fared in the 2015 election. It elected only a single MP after polling 3.8 million votes – that was a sizeable 12.6 per cent of the total votes and 40 per cent of what Labour under Miliband polled that same year – and you do have to at least scratch your head and ask, ‘One MP? How can that be fair?’ (For reference, the Greens received their highest vote ever in 2015, namely 3.8 per cent of the total, and re-elected Lucas.) 

By contrast, the two cardinal laws of PR voting are: a) all votes are equal, and b) seats won should match votes cast. A party gaining 11.6 per cent or 12.6 per cent of the overall vote under a PR system would gain about 12 per cent of the total seats. You do the maths. Twelve per cent of 650 seats is a lot more than a mere 11 seats or a single one.

And when you learn – to wrap up the wacky and dispiriting maths for now – that ‘a total of 10 per cent of House of Commons seats haven’t changed hands since the end of World War One and a staggering total of 192 seats have not switched since World War Two ended’ and that ‘the problem may actually be getting worse’ in recent years, according to the Electoral Reform Society, well, it is not hard to conclude that it is time, past time, to GET PR DONE! 

More than passing interest 

So it was a matter of more than passing interest when Labour Party delegates at their Liverpool conference in late September 2022 decided to change that party’s policy of more than 100 years standing: they set aside support for FPTP and passed a motion that called for Labour to make a manifesto commitment to PR.

Unlike at the 2021 conference, two major trade unions, UNITE and Unison, supported the pro-PR motion that had already been endorsed by hundreds of Constituency Labour Parties. In fact, PR conference motions were the ‘most popular among CLPs for the second year running’, Labour List reported. Speaker after speaker went to the lectern to say that passing the pro-PR motion would be a chance to win ‘power for the many, not just for the few’. 

What convinced Labour delegates was some combination of pragmatic and basic fairness reasons… and the victory was the culmination of several years of intense campaigning. 

The passage of this motion means that, as a matter of policy, ALL major political parties in the UK, except the Conservative party, now support a change to some forms of proportional representation voting. Even Tory councillors are now supporting calls for PR; see below.  

Referendum not wanted

The type of PR needed and the process to achieve it remain undecided. Few electoral reformers favour the holding of a referendum. ‘Our experiences in Canada with referendums on PR have been rather disastrous… they are a manoeuvre by those opposed to change to make sure we don’t get electoral reform’, explains Réal Lavergne, the former president of the most experienced pro-PR campaign group in the world, FAIR VOTE CANADA.

That most Conservatives still revere the archaic FPTP system of elections that originated when land-owning aristocrats dominated parliament and voting was restricted to property-owning men should come as no surprise after their own political hijinks of recent days and weeks.  

Small wonder that they should be terrified by the “wisdom” dished out by The Daily Mail back in August: “Scrapping first past the post could put the Tories out of power for a generation”.

Other than mere tribalism and a refusal to share power, it is not 100 per cent clear however why Labour leader Keir Starmer also reveres FPTP and rejects PR. Despite the overwhelming support for PR among the ranks of Labour Party members, Starmer says casually that PR is ‘not a priority’ for him (and, by extension, for Labour as well) and moves on to other matters when interviewed. Without a strenuously organised campaign, PR is not expected to be a part of a Labour manifesto.

Starmer and leading members of his shadow cabinet such as Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper and David Lammy all sit in rock-solid (or at least relatively safe) Labour seats. All oppose PR and all want to maintain the status quo.  

It is really quite absurd. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was (and is) a well-known and staunch opponent of having Trident missiles on British soil. Yet Labour policy was (and is) to support Trident. Corbyn respected his party’s decision. If Corbyn had chosen to ignore Labour Party policy and, instead, had put a ‘No Tridents’ pledge into Labour’s 2017 or 2019 manifesto, there would have been hell to pay. Starmer, however, feels there is no problem in putting his own views ahead of the overwhelming democratic preference of his party’s members and, ironically, on an issue of how to improve democracy.  

Starmer: ‘Listen to your members’

At the recent Green Party conference in Harrogate, new deputy leader Zack Polanski sharply chastised Starmer for endorsing a ‘broken status quo’ and added: “let me say this to Keir Starmer – listen to your members.”

But the issue cuts even deeper. At stake is an obvious conflict of interest.

A conflict of interest occurs when an individual's personal interests – family, friendships, financial, or social factors – could compromise his or her judgment in making a decision. It would be a conflict of interest, for example, if an MP awarded a government contract to a company owned by her husband. 

Let’s look at electoral systems. They are supposed to express the wishes of voters, not parties. As a mate and I found out last year, most MPs in ‘safe’ seats support FPTP. This is not surprising as that system all but guarantees their re-election. But FPTP, unlike PR, also disenfranchises all those voters who do not support their re-election.

Giving dominant parties and current MPs veto power to reject a voting system that many of them oppose, such as PR, can hardly be said to follow principles of good governance. Why? Because it is a conflict of interest and a decision undertaken for personal benefits, such as a bigger pension, amongst other reasons.

The groundswell of support in Labour ranks for PR comes at a time when opinion polls show a majority of voters also support electoral reform. As well, new organisations promoting PR are springing up and campaigning. One is Councils for PR (C4PR), a joint project of Make Votes Matter and GET PR DONE! 

Set up in May 2022, C4PR aims to persuade local councils in England to pass a motion calling for proportional representation to be used for elections to Westminster. To date, fifteen councils have done so, including five in the previous week alone in cities such as Exeter and Milton Keynes, and often as a result of a collaborative effort by Green, Lib Dem and Labour Party councillors.

Notably, all Conservative members of Richmondshire District Council, except its leader, voted in favour of the pro-PR motion when it recently passed. Tory PM Sunak is the local MP. 

Put an end to elective dictatorship

Labour seems likely to win the next election whenever it is called. Various commentators have suggested that a Labour minority government operating in a hung parliament may offer the best chance of getting legislation passed that could usher in an era of MPs elected by PR.

Yet it is far from certain that the current Labour leadership have yet to take on board the wise words of former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook back in 1993:

“I am not prepared to put up with a system which once every generation, every 30 years, gives us an opportunity to get in with a majority the way the Conservatives do and govern the same way. It is not we who pay the penalty, but the people we represent. When we win, let us seize the opportunity to change the electoral system so we do not have ever again to return to elective dictatorship of the kind we have experienced.”

Yes, we urgently need to change the government. But even more importantly, we need to change how we elect governments. 

Alan Story is co-founder of the cross party/no party campaign group GET PR DONE!