Democracy, Voting, and Fairness

Yes, yes, yes, I know, we had a referendum about electoral reform and ‘we lost it’ as some would say. So why bang on about it?

There are several reasons for this: but the most recent is the fact that the Tories are threatening another attack on public sector unions by suggesting much tougher rules on voting in the context of strike ballots.

So it’s worth thinking about the level of support our politicians have in terms of the vote they get and the rules that govern this.

What do the rules about elections say at this point?

We have a ‘first past the post’ system for voting for almost all elections in this country. There are exceptions to this. In London, the Assembly is elected through a different system. Across the country, Members of the European Parliament are elected through a different system and elections in Scotland – both for the Scottish Parliament and for local councillors operate on different systems.

But for our representatives in Westminster, we still stick to the very simple and very unrepresentative system of ‘first past the post’ which leads to the yah-boo politics we have.


The first thing we need to look at (and especially because the Tories are talking about this in the context of strike ballots) is what percentage of the eligible population actually votes. Should there be a minimum level of participation before a vote is valid? And what should it be? In the context of strike action in the public sector, all sorts of different levels are being talked about, but 40% turnout is one that keeps being mentioned in the media.

Let us look at the turnout in the 2010 general election: this ranged from just over 40% to just over 77% among the 650 constituencies; the average was around 65%. That looks quite respectable but is only part of the story of course. And we are not talking about a vote that will affect strike action for a day or two. We are talking about a vote that will affect everyone’s life for the next 5 years. So it’s a lot more significant than a strike ballot.

And of course, general elections aren’t the only elections. Let’s look at turnout in some other votes.

Let’s look at local elections first. Since 1979, the average turnout in local elections has been 43%. But of the 34 local elections held between 1979 and 2014, the only instances when the turnout was above 50% were those where the local and general elections were held on the same day.

The average for those where this was not the case is 38.5%.

For the mayoral elections in London – across the 4 times this has happened – has been just below 38%.

European election turnout has always been very poor. On average it has been 33.5% with the lowest ever turnout being 24% in 1999.

And the recent first elections for Police and Crime Commissioners had a turnout of 15%.


But the other thing the Tories are talking about with regard to strike action in the public sector is the percentage of those voting who need to vote in favour for the ballot to count. The percentage talked about here is 50.

So let’s have a look at this in comparison to the general elections in 2010. How many (or what proportion) of MPs were elected with 50 or more percent of the vote in their constituencies?

Well, 433 weren’t. That means that 217 were. That is roughly a third. So two thirds of the people we elect and pay to represent us do not have even half the vote of those people who bothered to turn out to vote, never mind of all the people eligible to vote.

And with a first past the post system, essentially all other votes are lost. All other votes have been cast for people who will not get a chance to have a say on behalf of the people who wanted to be represented by them.

The percentage of votes lost, in each constituency is shown on the graph below:

Winner by percentage

The red line represents the percentage of lost votes; the blue line the percentage of votes that counted.

If this is averaged over all 650 constituencies then the picture looks like this:

Average percent votes lost

So more than half the votes cast in the last general election were cast in vain.

What would the House of Commons have looked like if we had a strictly proportional system?

There are many different systems of proportional representation. I am not going to explain them all here – that’s for another post. But if you simply take the votes – across the UK as a whole – and allocate parliamentary seats in proportion to the percentage of the votes each of the parties got, then the distribution of seats would look a bit different to the picture we have now.

Election Result - proportional

Would it have made a difference? Well, maybe not in terms of the forming of the Coalition – i.e. which parties would have been in it. In the result as it was the Coalition had 363 seats. If it had been a strictly proportional result and the there had been the same Coalition, they would have had 384 seats; but the Liberal Democrats would have been much stronger in the Coalition and might therefore have been able to achieve more and stick to some of their key election promises. I.e. we might not have had student fees increased to £ 9000, for example; we might have House of Lords reform; we might have had a decent referendum on electoral reform.

But more to the point, the election result as is was obviously affected by the electoral system we have. How often have you heard someone say: ‘I won’t vote for one of the smaller parties, it’s a lost vote. I’ll have to vote for the lesser of two (or the least of three) evils.’ I have heard myself saying these words in the past.

But what if I thought my vote would actually count even if I vote for the party I really want in? A lot of people would vote differently. So the actual result would have been very different.

One way of making sure that a clear message is sent to whatever government we get in May is to vote for the party you actually want to vote for; not to vote tactically; not to vote for someone you dislike a little less than the rest. Because that would make it clear that the days of two party yah boo politics is over for good. And would make it clear that electoral reform is absolutely essential and that it has to be based on a proper discussion of which system would serve this country best. It can’t be rushed through. But we must demand it, now, and through the ballot box.


About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
This entry was posted in Behind the Headlines, Constitutional Reform, Electoral Reform, Politics in context, The mechanics of politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Democracy, Voting, and Fairness

  1. Pingback: Democracy, Voting and Fairness: Take 2 | rationaldebate

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