Every vote counts?

The first-past-the-post voting system has had its day, argues Mat Mathias

Winner-takes-all. It’s an idea that’s fun for rugby and football matches. Not so much when it comes to running a democracy.

We saw that last month, when we learnt that under Westminster’s winner-takes-all voting system, a million votes didn’t count in terms of electing an MP in Wales.

And a quarter of us took time to go to the polling station, take selfies, tweet or just stop to chat – and then hold our noses as we voted against a party we opposed, rather than for one that represented our views, beliefs and aspirations.

These figures come from a report ERS published this week on the 2017 general election – ‘Volatile Voting – Random Results’.

It’s a huge spur to remind people that how we elect our MPs isn’t working. In the last 20 months we have had four elections and a referendum – which sounds like a hideous Richard Curtis film – and if we are expecting more people to get out and vote, we need their votes to count.

First Past the Post (FPTP) is meant to give the Mother of Parliaments a majority government which is ‘strong and stable’.

But it hasn’t done that – in 2010 it brought a Conservative/Liberal coalition, while in 2015 it delivered a slim majority on 38% of the vote. Now in 2017, it forced the Conservatives into a case-by-case deal with the DUP, even though their vote share actually went up.

So, to clarify, that’s:

2015: 38% of the vote – majority government (time to sort out anti-EU backbenchers).

2017: 42% of the vote – ‘weak and wobbly’ government, confidence-and-supply deal, Big Ben stopping.

The FPTP vote-wasting machine that is meant to work for the two main parties doesn’t even work for them anymore.

This was the most polarising election in years, with over 80% of the electorate voting  Labour or Conservative – and still nobody formed a majority Government. The Labour surge was real a couple of months ago, but in some constituencies, the opposition majority was so big that those votes didn’t turn into seats, and that increase was wasted.

Closer to home the Conservatives had their best vote share in Wales for decades, receiving every vote in three. Yet they lost three seats. A fifth of the seats for a third of the votes just doesn’t seem proportionate – but then this is typical of a broken voting system.

The question is then: do we carry on ignoring thousands upon thousands of votes, just so one day one of the main parties finally get an artificial majority for four or five years?

Politics is in such a state of flux – and we know there are other ways of doing things. Surely now is the time to consider them?

Through YouGov, we modelled the results under three other voting systems, asking 13,000 voters how they’d vote using the Alternative Vote, the Additional Member System we use for Assembly elections, or Northern Ireland and Scotland’s Single Transferable Vote system.


Party STV Seats
Labour 22
Conservatives 14
Plaid Cymru 3
Liberal Democrats 1
Greens 0


Under proportional models, we would get results that people really voted for it – and they would be able to expect seat shares reflecting vote shares. There’s better representation for smaller parties and, crucially, hundreds and thousands fewer lost votes or ‘hold-your-nose’ tactical ballots.

We know that FPTP has had its day – which is why it’s fantastic the Welsh government are exploring options for local PR.

It’s time for our democracy to let people not only feel but know that their vote will always count –and that their voice will resound in every institution.

Read the ERS’ report on the 2017 General Election here


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


Mat Mathias is Campaigns and Projects Officer at ERS Cymru.

4 thoughts on “Every vote counts?

  1. Clywch! Clywch!

    The direst consequence of the FPTP is the Duopoly that it creates – Lab / Tory – where they cling to each other for fear of upsetting the precarious balance. Labour is full of good people and who have a decent worldview, but are being regularly sold down the river as a result of this system. Some see Jeremy Corbyn as a way out, but until a proper voting system is introduced, the polarisation will continue. We’ve already seen a partial collapse of parliamentary democracy, and the stasis prolongs this dangerous state of affairs. That way totalitarianism lies.

    The secondary consequence is devaluing the Senedd – in case it upsets things in Westminster – hence continually blurring the difference between devolved matters and those set by Westminster – with Labour often calling for things to be changed that are within the (Labour-led) Welsh Government’s powers so to do – but haven’t.

    This is why Independence is not a party political issue. Labour would benefit most.

  2. Nomatter how sensible Mat Mathias’s argument may be it doesn’t take us to the real issue of how to bring the two main parties at Westminster to the point where they willingly vote to, as they will see it, loosen their grip on power when they’re in power, or reduce their possibility of regaining the same level of power next time around. It is impossible to envisage the current incumbent in No. 10 considering PR for a second. The Electoral Reform Society and others have been campaigning for it for years, without success. Under the 2010-2015 Coalition the PR referendum campaign was half-hearted at best. It will take an election as close as the last one but with a different resulting coalition for the issue to be put again (the DUP are more Tory than the Tories). The alternative is a constitutional crisis of some kind. The only trigger on the horizon I can see for that would be for the worst fears of a hard Brexit to be realised, something more than a sprat to catch a mackerel.

    Alternative crises invited.

  3. Robin, there was no PR referendum under the 2010-2015 coalition. The Alternative Vote system offered then is not PR since it retains one of the big flaws of the present system; constituencies are represented by a single member of Parliament. We are supposed to live in a ‘representative democracy’, however Green voters in constituencies other than Brighton Pavilion cannot have their views relayed to parliament by their ‘representative’ and similar Conservative voters in Brighton Pavilion cannot have their saw either. We need larger constituencies, each with about 10 members (so a total of 42 or 43 constituencies) so a popular party in the area will get 3 or 4 MPs in the region and a less-popular one may manage 1 MP so their supporters have a (proportionally smaller) voice in parliament. The tricky part is that, if these are based solely on population as at present rural MPs will cover far too wide an area, so a balance between area and population needs to be worked out.

    Once you have subtracted the speaker of the house and the 7 Sinn Fein MPs there are currently 642 voting MPs in the commons, so 322 votes are needed to win a division. Even with the DUP (and I’ve no idea what their policy is on PR), the Tories’ have a majority of only 4, and according to the Make Votes Matter campaign there are some honourable exceptions within the Tory party who recognise the need to ditch First Past The Post (FPTP).

    Ignoring Labour therefore the likely vote is 300-321 votes in favour of retaining FPTP against 54 in favour of PR. Thus if Labour can be brought on-side in its entirety there is a chance for change, particularly if the DUP support PR. It is perhaps a long shot but perhaps more likely to succeed than getting enough ‘minor party’ candidates elected under FPTP, unless all the other parties abstain from the next election to allow a single-issue PR party to stand against the Tories at the next election.

  4. Point taken about the last referendum; for me it’s STV or nothing in larger constituencies but maybe not as big as 10. I fail to see how Labour will do anything other than stick with FPTP. They still entertain hopes of getting into No. 10 under the current system and there is no immediate prospect of that changing, so I still think it will need a progressive coalition or a crisis.

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