On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Millions of British Voters Had No Choice

Millions of Britons could not exercise a proper choice at last June’s national elections, according to a new report from the British Electoral Reform Society.

The ERS report condemns the continued use of plurality voting in single-member electoral divisions.

The primary impacts were a massive distortion of voter ‘s freedom of choice and wildly differing rates of voter influence on the election outcomes.

According to a survey in May conducted for the ERS, around 20% of voters were motivated to vote for a candidate other than the one they preferred in their local constituency, simply to try to block a party they oppose being able to form government.

At that aim at least they may all have succeeded, since neither of the nation’s two traditional major parties were able to secure a parliamentary majority.

The Conservatives fell backwards to 317 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, and held on to office with the support of 10 MPOs from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The report also highlighted the extraordinary importance of voters living in just handful of highly marginal constituencies.

Eleven seats in the new parliament were won by the plurality candidate by fewer than 100 votes.

The governing Conservative Party came within a statistical whisker of retaining majority government.

According to the ERS “ … the Conservatives could have won an absolute majority on the basis of just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies.”

“A working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places.”

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Very small numbers of additional votes could have yielded the Conservatives a working majority, or even an absolute majority (image: ERS Report)

But millions of Britons in the much safer constituencies had very little impact on the general election.

Plurality voting, the report shows, has for over a century created a nation sharply divided between influential and non-influential voters.

The report concludes that the 2017 UK general election – like the recent 2015 general election – saw historically remarkable levels of voter volatility in party-switching.

But the distortion of choice caused by plurality voting means that election results are no longer reliable as measures of actual support for the political parties.

And the ERS is arguing, in effect, that the large swing to Labour seen in June consisted at least partly of millions of progressive voters sympathetic to the Liberal Democrat, Green and micro left-wing parties voting for Labour without actually regarding themselves as Labour supporters.

ERS terms all cases of electors not voting for their true choices as ‘tactical voting’, and estimated that up to 6.5 million voters belong to this category.

A much narrower use of the term ‘tactical voting’ – limited to relatively engaged party loyalists who know they are in marginal constituencies and temporarily shift their votes – is discussed in an earlier post – The present – and near future – of UK tactical voting – on this site.

The earlier post concludes that a core of no more than a few hundred thousand tactical voters were responsible for the June election swing against the government and the loss of its parliamentary majority.

Moreover, the present parliamentary situation is even more precarious should any new election occur soon. The number of additional deliberate tactical voters needed to render the DUP support insufficient to keep the current Conservative government in office could be as low as around 3,200 votes (depending on whether ‘closest’ seats are defined by relative or absolute numbers).

Just over 20,000 votes found in just the right seats would be sufficient to take 25 seats from the Conservatives.

These knife-edge considerations will be causing both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition to focus their attention and policy formulation on just a few dozen of the most marginal constituencies. Such attention comes at the expense of all other British voters, heavily distorting national policy making.


The ERS report, like previous studies after the 2010 and 2015 elections – also analyses how parliament would have been composed under different voting methods.

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The ERS calculated what might have happened in June 2017 under three alternative voting systems (ERS report)

Using the alternative vote method would have seen a modest number of seats won by Labour instead of the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Under this scenario Labour would have been able to form government if it could secure the support of both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.

Had Britain used the Additional Member System of party-proportional seat awards, the SNP and the Conservatives would have won even fewer seats, but these would have gone not to Labour but to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UK Independence Party candidates. Once again, Labour could have formed government if both the Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats granted their support.

Finally, the ERS estimates seat outcomes using its preferred voting system, the single transferable vote method (STV). Under this method Labour would have done significantly better – indeed, this method would have given Labour its best 2017 outcome – but the party would still have fallen short of a majority. However under STV, Labour could have formed government with the support of just the Liberal Democrats alone.

The ERS’s alternative speculations do not take into account whether people would have voted differently under these alternative systems. Most likely, votes for minor parties would have been greater with the pressure on true choice lifted. In addition, using a more open voting system might also have attracted more registered voters to participate altogether.

As the ERS points out, only the serving political parties can change the electoral law to introduce a new voting system for future elections. But in the fragmented House of Commons now in place electoral reform is certainly possible, even against the wishes of the current Conservative Government.

The Conservatives show almost total opposition to changing the voting system. The only Tory electoral reform movement is a minority Conservative viewpoint that supports the STV system, particularly among conservatives in strong Labour-voting areas such as the North of England, where their political interests are grossly underrepresented.

Despite its popularity with many proportional representation advocates, Labour has little reason to vote for change to the AMS party-proportional system – which would have yielded the party’s worst seat outcome last June. The parties which would benefit most from AMS into the future are the Liberal Democrats and all the micro parties. (Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has indicated that he thinks the AMS system is worthy of consideration, but possibly only in relation to the lesser issue of making the House of Lords an elected chamber.)

On the ERS numbers, no party will have much interest in shifting to the AV system. It is no-one’s favourite solution, and was rejected by the public in 2011.

But curiously, on the ERS’ alternative-result figures the STV option would have provided Labour’s best result, and a much improved Liberal Democratic result as well.

Which raises the nominal possibility that if Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and also the Northern Irish DUP were to join forces on the floor of the current parliament, they could pass legislation to introduce STV to British elections.

STV is officially the Liberal Democrats’ preferred system.

The DUP – like all Irish parties – have been comfortably using STV for nearly a century. And while the DUP are right now empowered temporarily by their leverage over the Conservatives, such opportunities are very rare under plurality voting, but might become more common for the unionists in future if STV was introduced for national elections.

On the ERS estimates the SNP would not have fared nearly so well in June under STV, but the party is comfortable with this voting system in Scottish local elections, and is considering adopting STV as their official preferred system for Scottish regional elections. The SNP would also face the welcome prospect of finding itself often in the balance of power in the House of Commons in future elections held under STV.

The Green party and other minor parties would also endorse STV, as it would give them both the prospect of occasional seat wins and also of some policy influence over larger parties in the search for preferential votes.

Would Labour go along with an STV reform? Most analysts believe that Labour holds hopes of winning undeserved parliamentary majorities again in future under plurality voting. But were the party to make a strategic reconciliation towards working with minor and regional progressive parties, it could instead secure more frequent turns in government and also entirely reduce the prospects of their historical Tory opponents ever winning unearned House majorities.

These considerations will no doubt keep the ERS, the Make Votes Matter campaign and many others seeking electoral reform in Britain active and motivated in the next few years.


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