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10 July 2024

People complain about first-past-the-post – but everyone knew the rules

The Liberal Democrats showed how the system should be played.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The votes have been counted. The winning party, despite tepid enthusiasm for its offering and a share of just over a third of the popular vote, has somehow won a majority. A party that had until polling day been in government is now in tatters, having lost more than two thirds of its MPs. The populist right came third in terms of vote share, and second in over 100 seats, but will have next to no representation in the House of Commons. The system appears broken.

I am talking, of course, about 2015, when David Cameron won an unexpected victory, the Liberal Democrats collapsed, and Ukip got almost four million votes but ended up with one MP. Nine years later, Keir Starmer’s majority is much larger than Cameron’s, but the same trends are apparent.

Strangely, I do not remember much debate in 2015 about whether Cameron had truly “won” the election, or if his low vote share should prompt a period of caution from his government. First-past-the-post is a brutal system. Win a majority, however many votes were cast in your favour, and you can do pretty much as you please. That’s the way it is, and if it means a party that gets less than 5 per cent of the national vote can be the third largest party in Westminster with 56 MPs (as the SNP was in 2015), so be it.

This time, the conversation is louder because of the sheer size of Labour’s majority. It’s also amplified by eighth-time-lucky Nigel Farage, who is finally an MP, and will be making his case that Britain’s voting system is “rigged” and his supporters are not getting the representation they deserve from the Palace of Westminster. But Farage and the succession of Conservative leaders who pursued the hardest of hard Brexits showed no such concern for the democratic deficit after the referendum. Those on the losing side of that perilously tight vote were told to stop denying the “will of the people”.

Perhaps the most fascinating oddity of this election is that the Lib Dems increased their vote share by 0.7 percentage points and won more than six times as many MPs. They actually won 177,000 fewer votes this election, resulting in their best ever result, than they did when they were humiliated almost five years ago, but when turnout was higher.

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The Lib Dems’ tactical victory is a particular worry for the Tories. Talking to Conservative campaigners ahead of polling day, there was palpable dread at the march of Ed Davey in the Blue Wall. The Lib Dems, they explained, are like Japanese knotweed: once a previously Tory seat has a Lib Dem MP – someone who has the luxury of focusing solely on local issues, and whose party isn’t damaged as the prime minister’s popularity inevitably wanes – it stays Lib Dem (unless they enter a disastrous coalition). The 72 MPs Davey now leads in Westminster will be a major factor not just in the way the Labour government is held to account, but in how the Conservatives structure their rebuilding efforts. Or they would be, if the remaining Tories weren’t so panicked about Reform.

The point is, it is legitimate to say both that the British system is monstrously unfair and leads to results that can be wildly disconnected from what voters actually want (as Reform is arguing), but also that this is the system we have, so parties that want success should plan accordingly.

That’s what Labour did: campaign director Morgan McSweeney has been open that his priority was to win a Labour majority. The way to do that was to focus on where Labour’s votes were distributed to win more seats, rather than on vote share. Had voters been heading to the polls under proportional representation, we can be fairly certain McSweeney and Labour would have fought a different campaign, as would the Liberal Democrats and everyone else. And voters would no doubt have behaved differently too. We know tactical voting played a big role, with anti-Tory voters taking a seat-specific approach. You can’t simply map votes across from one system to another and say that’s what the result would be if the UK had PR.

That’s not to say that a conversation about the UK’s voting system isn’t long overdue. First-past-the-post works in a two-horse race; with the vote fracturing between four or five parties, it is unlikely that any party will win more than a third of the vote, making the winner-takes-all outcome seem more and more at odds with the electorate. Reform’s Richard Tice thinks a different system would also increase voter turnout, if people felt their vote truly counted. The Lib Dems have long argued for electoral reform, and made an ill-fated referendum on an Alternative Vote system the main condition of their coalition with the Tories in 2010. It will be interesting to see if, having achieved a historically high number of MPs, they now make a common cause with Reform and the Greens. The Labour Party, whose members backed PR at their conference in 2022, should be ready to have that conversation, as should the wounded Conservatives.

But there’s a lesson for Nigel Farage here too. Reform has had four and a half years to optimise its strategy. Farage, who led Ukip in 2015 to what was in many ways a very similar performance, has had almost a decade to capitalise on that success. Had he focused more on making the party he founded electable under the current system, the make-up of this parliament might look very different. There is nothing unique about how this election has played out in terms of votes vs seats. If some are suddenly distressed about the eccentricities of the UK system after relaxing through previous elections, we should be wary of where their concerns are coming from.

[See also: Britain’s shock of the new]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change