In the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives won an MP for every 38,000 votes it received. The Liberal Democrats got 336,000 votes for every MP; while for the Greens, their 866,000 votes won them just a single MP.
This shows our political system is blatantly unequal – some people’s votes count more than others. No wonder so many people today are turned off by politics and don’t see much point in voting. Or turn to populists who exploit their frustrations. So many feel alienated from the political system that decides so much of what goes on in their lives.
And, as bad, minority support results in majority power. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43.6% of votes cast – a clear minority – but took 56% of the seats and formed a ‘majority’ government with total - 100% - power.
The UK’s current voting system is at the core of this: it is unequal and disproportionate and so drives the disillusion, distrust and divisiveness that we see just about everywhere.
And of course this is not new. It’s been this way ever since at least World War II. Liberal Democrats have long argued for a proportional voting system where votes are equal – a fair voting system which will connect ordinary people to decisions which affect them and start to rebuild trust
Change is Urgently Needed
Disillusion with politics in the UK is widespread, as is distrust in our politicians. In the run up to the 2019 General Election, more than 60 per cent of people surveyed (BBC News March 2020) said they were dissatisfied with the way our politics works. And public opinion suggests that trust has been further eroded since.
Our voting system, known as First Past The Post (FPTP) drives this widespread distrust and alienation.
When surveyed, only a quarter of people said they thought their vote would influence the election result (BBC website report) . This reflects the fact that, under FPTP, votes are not fair or equal. While every eligible voter has one vote to cast, one person’s vote does not have the same impact on the result as another person’s vote. Most constituencies are “safe seats” – certain to return the same party in election after election. Only ‘swing’ voters in marginal constituencies are targeted by the parties; and so millions of voters are almost entirely ignored.
In a fair voting system, everyone’s vote counts equally and a party’s share of total seats at Westminster is proportional to its share of the votes. But this is not the case under FPTP.
In another survey, a third of respondents also said they would vote tactically (Electoral Reform Society/YouGov) rather than for their actual preferred party or candidate. This highlights the fact that FPTP severely limits voter choice. Voters are not able to express their preferences freely.
Under FPTP, we have 650 separate constituency elections. Voters cast their vote for one candidate, who is chosen by their party - people can only vote for one option within each political party. The party candidate with the highest number of votes wins, even if that is well below half the total votes cast. Voters are incentivised to cast their vote for a party they do not prefer (the least worst who can plausibly win), to avoid wasting their vote: they are often told “It’s a two-horse race!” or “Only Party X can beat Party Y here!”.
Indeed, in 2019, 70.8% of votes did not count towards the election result – they were cast either for losing candidates; or went to piling up large but meaningless majorities in individual constituencies. (Electoral Reform Society)
A system that offered true voter choice would give a high proportion of voters a representative for whom they had voted, waste as few votes as possible - and allow voters to express their true preferences. This simply doesn’t happen under FPTP.
There are three proportional – fair and equal - voting systems already in use for elections in the UK.
Liberal Democrats have long supported the Single Transferable Vote (STV). This is because STV maximises the power – the choice and voice – of the individual voter. People can choose not just the party they prefer, but individual candidates as well. Dispersing and localising power is fundamental to a healthy, robust liberal democracy and STV sits at the heart of our party’s values. STV today is used for all Northern Ireland elections except for UK General Elections; for Scottish local government elections and for numerous organisations and associations.
However- we also understand that deciding on a replacement for FPTP will need a negotiation not an imposition, even if we had the power to do so. As well as STV there are two other proportional voting systems – List-PR (used for the European Parliament 1999-2019 and for the Wales Senedd from 2027) and Mixed-Member Proportional (used for the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly) which are in use in the UK and familiar to and trusted by millions of British voters.
Make no mistake: changing our politics is about challenging elite power and control. People and parties that support FPTP conjure up fallacious justifications. The truth is they like a system that gives them disproportionate, undemocratic power. To them a functioning democracy where people feel connected and listened to – and where a majority view holds sway - is not important
But the public is increasingly seeing through the lies – and that FPTP supporters simply want their own power grab.. Well, we know change is essential and that’s why we fight so hard for reform. And time and history is on our side.