In a democracy we vote, and our votes determine who forms the government. Except we don’t. In reality, at national and local levels, the only votes which count are in a small number of marginal places, and political parties focus almost all their efforts on the people who live there.
Everywhere else voters can be ignored, because their MPs and councillors are elected repeatedly with comfortable majorities. So how unfair is this, and how different would the result be at national or local level, if our parliament and councils reflected the actual votes cast?
The national picture
Since 1945, the Conservatives have been in power for 64% of the time, despite the fact that a majority of voters have always voted in national elections for parties to their left. Most recently, in 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote share, but 56% of the seats in Parliament.
There are two simple reasons for this. First, to win a seat a candidate does not need a majority of the votes, only the largest number in that constituency. Usually, the broad left vote is split between Labour and Liberal Democrats, while the right wing vote unifies round a single party. So in most constituencies, the Conservative wins.
The second reason is our “first past the post” electoral system. Labour voters are heavily concentrated in a relatively small group of urban areas. So the typical Labour MP is elected with a very large majorities, but there are fewer of them. By contrast, Conservative voters are spread more evenly across the country, where they can win with smaller majorities. Overall, substantial numbers in rural constituencies vote Labour, but spread around, they are regularly outweighed in individual constituencies.
As a result the average number of votes cast for the winning MP in 2019 varies by party:
And, to demonstrate the inequity, the 4 million people who voted for UKIP at its peak were so widely spread that they elected no MPs at all.
As its advocates argue, first past the post usually ensures clear results, and avoids messy coalitions. But it is clear that at national level, it does not accurately reflect the views of voters.
Are local elections any fairer?
The first past the post problem applies equally in local elections, where the anomalies are even more dramatic, but often hidden, because different councils elect on different cycles. In East Anglia, 20 of our 45 councils elect a third of their councillors every year, while 25 elect them all every four years. So change happens faster in some places than others.
In the East of England, in the last elections before 2023 there were 21 districts where the mismatch between vote share and seat share was more than 20 points. The gap was greatest in St Albans, where the LibDems held 89% of the seats with only 48% of the votes. In the region, there were only four districts where the gap was less than 5%. Although the gaps were smaller in 2023, they were still significant, averaging 10%.
Until May 2023, the Conservatives had dominated this region, controlling more than half the councils. However, this year their vote share across the region fell from 46% to 35%, and they lost control of 13 councils. All other parties increased their vote share, Labour’s rose by 5%, and the Greens won their first council. But most striking was the rise in councils where no single party had a majority, and where some sort of coalition is now in charge (shown in grey on the map).
A proportional system might deliver different results in East Anglia
We cannot be sure whether a proportional election would produce different results in East Anglia. People would behave differently if they knew that the system was proportional, especially if they were allowed to rank candidates, rather than simply voting for one. However, we can make a rough estimate of possible changes using the 2023 voting figures.
On this basis in almost two thirds of districts (28) the largest party would have won fewer seats on a proportional basis than they did under first past the post. In the average district this would have reduced that party’s tally of councillors by 4 – enough to tip the balance of control in some councils.
On this basis there are five districts where a proportional result might have been different. In all five the proportional result would have resulted in a council with no overall political control. The Conservatives would have lost Braintree, Breckland and East Cambridgeshire. The Liberal Democrats would have lost Dacorum. The Residents for Uttlesford party would have lost Uttlesford.
Coalitions and minority rule
Most striking is the number of councils now governed by some form of coalition. Before last May’s elections there were 9 councils in the region where no single party had a majority. In May (under first past the post), that number increased to 20. Had this year’s election been proportional, the number might have risen further, to 24 – half the councils in the region. In this situation, the parties have to negotiate some form of agreement, which may be a formal coalition or something less formal. In all these cases they have to agree on a leader.
The table shows which party controlled each of these Districts before last May, what the outcome of the May election was, what might be a proportional result, and which party currently leads the council.
For a long time, voters in the East of England have tended to vote Conservative, and first past the post has emphasised that, giving them clear control of most councils. In 2023 that broke down, producing far more hung councils. Clearly a proportional electoral system would increase that effect.
We now have 20 councils in the region operating as coalitions or with minority rule. Each of the five parties is leading at least 2 of these coalitions, with a variety of partners. We will see, over the next few years, how well that works. Perhaps the negotiations inherent in coalition will give us more stable long-term government, and reflect what we really want, better than the Conservative hegemony of recent years, or the see-sawing politics we have lived with at national level.
It is an important experiment, which could have lessons for national electoral reform. But will an incoming government want to listen, and will it dare grasp the nettle?