Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
  2. Elections
11 July 2017updated 04 Sep 2021 4:10pm

Voters aren’t rushing to the two main parties out of choice

It was the electoral system, not polarising leaders, that pushed the public towards Labour or the Conservatives.

By Darren Hughes

If you only looked at the surface, last month’s election was a resounding endorsement for the two main parties (or, one set of voters hated the other side’s party leader more). More than 80 per cent of voters opted for the two main parties on 8 June. 

And yet, and yet. As with so much in politics today, it’s not quite that simple.

Firstly, we have to look at the oddities of the voting system. Despite this big vote share, no party secured a majority. The Conservatives won the same vote share as the landslide under Margaret Thatcher in 1983. And this was Labour’s highest vote share since 2001 – when they again secured a huge (but diminished) majority. Even on first past the post’s own (warped) terms however, there was no mandate to rule alone.

It’s true that people turn out to vote when they think it really matters, and when there are clear policy differences between parties. But the idea of a straightforward contest between two choices, each that the other side finds, as the New Statesman‘s Jonn Elledge puts it, “utterly hateful”, masks how the system is shaping how people vote and masking their preferences.

Voters are highly diverse in their policy wants-and-needs, and there’s often a surprising degree of overlap between the two camps. But when voting for a wide range of parties in 2015 landed Britain with only a slim majority government – and almost no representation for Greens and UKIP – this time they felt they had to game the system.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

We know that because, a week before polling day, one in five voters said they planned to “hold their nose” and vote tactically – double the rate of 2015. That is a decision based on pragmatics above pure love or loathing for a party leader.

Content from our partners
Data on cloud will change the way you interact with the government
Defining a Kodak culture for the future
How do we restore trust in the public sector?

Many used the increasing number of vote-swapping sites, while others second-guessed other voters off their own bat. Either way, voters became masterminds in deciding who stood the best chance in their seat. This one election, many millions lent their vote “just this once”. But it wasn’t just the voters doing it.

Ukip stood in just 377 seats this time. That’s down from 624 in 2015. Their vote share collapsed. Of course it did – almost by mathematical necessity it was bound to. Whether it was a national decision to stand down or a series of local moves based on resources is a moot point – standing down made the choice for voters before they could themselves.

Similarly, the Greens stood in only 468 seats, down from 573. But more important than these numbers was the rhetoric of “progressive alliances“. It gave the message that, in marginal seats, it was OK for Green supporters to opt for Labour. Again, whether that was the party’s intent or not doesn’t matter. Voters read it as a suggestion to vote tactically – and the Greens lost half their votes.

Elledge argued that: “It strikes me that one of the things most likely to get your vote to turn out is your opponent. Turns out that all the two-party system needed to revive it was a pair of leaders the other lot could find utterly hateful.”

But this wasn’t a vote based on hatred – it was based on the brutal absurdity of a voting system that, after the most disproportionate election result ever in 2015, made people think: “The only way I can vote is for Labour or the Tories.” Political decisions of all shapes struggled to squeeze into that rectangular ballot box slot.

And let’s not forget – the result in Scotland was actually a shift to multi-party politics, not the opposite. The Conservative haul of over a dozen seats (up from one) is a pluralist game-changer north of the border.

Whatever the case, referendums have had a hugely disruptive effect breaking down party loyalties. There is no great return to tribalism.

Last month, voters played the lottery election. Like most lotteries, there weren’t many winners. 

Darren Hughes is acting chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society.