Professor Richard Rose

The British First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system has two major functions: Firstly, to create a stable government by turning a minority of votes into a parliamentary majority, and secondly to represent the division of political views among voters. As long as two parties between them win the great majority of the votes, both goals can be realised. That period ended in Britain in 1974, when the Liberals turned elections into three-party competition by contesting and winning votes in nearly every constituency.

This year’s general election produced a balanced result only in the sense that the electoral system got it half right and half wrong.  On the one hand, Labour won control of government with a large majority that will remain secure for the five-year life of the new Parliament. On the other hand, opposition parties did not gain the 200 plus MPs they would have received if seats had been distributed strictly in accord with the preferences of voters. 

The election spectacularly succeeded in manufacturing a government majority from a minority of votes.  The new Labour government won 63.3 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. Starmer’s majority was similar to Tony Blair’ first two majorities. It’s bigger than the majorities of Harold Wilson and Clement Attlee and greater than any Conservative majority since 1935, however Labour’s popular vote, 33.7 percent, was the lowest of any governing party in British electoral history. Its vote went up by only 1.6 percent from that gained under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 and half a million votes less on a reduced turnout. 

The Labour government won its massive parliament majority even though it won less than half the vote in most of the seats returning Labour MPs. It did so because many constituency votes were divided among five other parties successful in winning seats in England and six in Scotland and Wales. In the extreme case of South-West Norfolk, Labour took the seat from Liz Truss with only 26.1 percent of the vote, because voters dissatisfied with her split her previous big majority.

Thanks to the FPTP system, the Labour government is now the leading party in Parliament with 412 MPs instead of the 219 MPs it would have been awarded if seats had been distributed strictly in accord with the party’s share of the popular vote.  Thus, even though it is vulnerable to losing seats in a mid-term slump, by-elections and from defections and expulsions Labour is securely in control of British government for the next five years.

The FPTP system’s success in creating a majority government has come at the expense of a historically great misrepresentation of the views of voters. Moreover, it did so by penalizing some parties far more than others.  Although the Reform Party finished third in the share of votes, 14.3 percent, it won only five MPs, less than one percent of the 650 Commons’ seats. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats, with 12.2 percent of the popular vote, won almost the same proportion seats, gaining 72 MPs. The Greens also suffered from the electoral system. They took 6.7 percent of the popular vote, which would have won 43 MPs rather than the four they received in a system of proportional representation.

The Conservative Party’s share of the vote fell by almost half, 19.1 percentage points, to its lowest in history. However, it managed to hold on to 121 MPs instead of experiencing an almost total wipeout, as forecast by some MRP projections based on opinion polls. Instead of swinging to the Official Opposition, as happens in a two-party system, the Conservative vote split four ways. More than a quarter went to the right-wing Reform Party; another chunk switched tactically to the centrist Liberal Democrats; some former supporters stayed home; and a limited fraction of disaffected Tories voted Labour. Thus, the gap between the Tory share of votes and seats was only five percentage points. However, the fragmentation of supporters in so many different directions means that the new Tory leader will be pulled to move the party in opposing directions to regain support.

While party leaders like to claim they represent all the people, neither Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer nor Nigel Farage secured as much as half the vote in winning their constituency. Although the redrawing of constituency boundaries makes exact comparisons impossible, both Sunak and Starmer appear to have lost upwards of a fifth or more of their previous constituency support. In Sunak’s case, the loss was the fault of his government’s record while Starmer lost more than 10,000 votes to a left-wing pro-Palestine candidate, Andrew Feinstein.

While the facts are clear, decisions about electoral reform do not depend on facts but on political power. With a secure Commons’ majority, Labour can quash any move to make the electoral system proportional. Likewise, as the runner up party the Conservative priority is to get sufficiently ahead of Labour in votes to be leveraged back into government as before.  The Liberal Democrats’ success faces the party with an issue of principle. Having gained a fair share of seats through tactical campaigning, will they be content to mute their support for proportional representation or campaign for its use to give fair representation to the Green Party and the Reform Party of Nigel Farage?

Author Biography

Professor Richard Rose, University of Strathclyde, has been writing about how people view politics for more than half a century in books such as ORDINARY PEOPLE IN PUBLIC POLICY (1989).