The UK’s voting system is broken: it’s time for electoral reform

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It’s time for electoral reformHearst Owned

Today (5 July) marks the end of 14 years of Conservative rule, which has brought the NHS to its knees, pushed hundreds of thousands of people into poverty, made home ownership a pipe dream for young people, and left graduates saddled with gargantuan debt. Quite the legacy! And so, Labour is finally back in power, with Keir Starmer’s party winning a likely majority of 170 (at the time of writing, not all seats have been declared) — its biggest since Tony Blair’s historic 1997 win, in which Labour scooped a majority of 179.

While this should be cause for celebration, Starmer’s win has been met with little enthusiasm from even the most staunch anti-Tories, with some dubbing the result a “loveless landslide”. Sure, everyone wanted the Tories out — but that’s not to say they wanted Starmer’s Labour in (even many former Labour voters have turned away from the party, owing to its stance on the war in Palestine, as well as Starmer’s recent comments about trans women). But who else is there?

Well, actually there’s loads of other options: there’s the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, there’s even the Monster Raving Loony Party. But, under our current electoral system — known as ‘First-Past-the-Post’ — none of these parties really have a shot at power. And yet, today’s results prove that it’s high time they did.

Voters are evidently dissatisfied with the current Tory vs Labour status quo, and fringe parties have seen major gains in vote share (the Green Party increased its vote share from 2.7% in 2019 to 7% in 2024 — a rise of 4.3%), slashing incumbent MPs’ majorities, and, in the case of some independent candidates, even unseating them. In fact, Labour’s ‘landslide’ only actually amounts to 34% of the vote (just 2% higher than their result in 2019, and 6% lower than Jeremy Corbyn’s vote share in 2017), and yet the party has so far won 64% of the seats (412 out of 650).

So, why does this happen? Why is our current system broken? And what’s the alternative?

How does First-Past-the-Post work?

Under our First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, each of the UK’s 650 constituencies vote for a single MP; the winning candidate in each constituency — AKA the person with the most votes — then assumes a seat in parliament to represent their party. If one political party succeeds in getting over half of all available seats (326 or more), they win the election. If they don’t, it’s known as a ‘hung parliament’, which is when coalition governments with multiple parties come into play.

The problem with this system is that in most constituencies, more people vote against the winning candidate than for them. For example, in Godalming and Ash, Tory heavyweight Jeremy Hunt received 23,293 votes (42.6%), but 31,403 people voted for other parties in that constituency — so technically against Hunt — and yet he won the seat. Some MPs have been elected with as little as just 30% of the vote.

This also means, as exemplified by Labour’s vote share above, that parties don’t get fair representation in parliament. The Lib Dems received 12% of the vote share, and bagged 11% of the seats (71 seats), while Reform UK got 14% of the votes, but only 1% of seats (4) (not that we want them to have any more). The Green Party got 7% of the votes, but also only won 1% of seats (4). The Tories, meanwhile, got 24% of the vote share and 19% of the seats (they lost 251 seats, but retained 121).

All of this makes people feel like their vote is ‘wasted’ because it essentially has no bearing on the final result. And so, what ends up happening is that people either don’t turn up to vote, or they ‘tactically’ vote in order to oust the party they hate the most. This involves voting for a candidate you don’t support — but who has more chance of winning than your favoured candidate — in order to prevent another candidate from winning. As an actual example: this could see a Labour supporter voting for the Lib Dems in Bicester and Woodstock because the latter is best placed to challenge the Tories (and the Lib Dems did indeed win the seat from the Tories).

Ahead of yesterday’s vote, a YouGov survey found that one in five people were set to vote tactically to oust the Conservatives — that means 22% of people didn’t vote for the party they preferred, simply because they hated a different one more. As Novara journalist Adam Ramsay puts it: “The subtext [of this system] is pretty obvious: ‘Abandon your hopes: vote against your fears’.”

What’s the alternative?

As per a recent YouGov survey, 45% of people are in favour of a Proportional Representation (PR) voting system (just 26% back FPTP), which most European countries — aside from the UK and France — use. Under PR, the number of MPs in parliament would be in proportion to the votes cast. So, for example, instead of having 4 seats with 7% of the vote share, the Green Party would get 7% of the seats, so around 45.

Now we live in a multi-party reality — with Lib Dems, Reform UK, Green Party, SNP, Sinn Fein, and Plaid Cymru being bonafide political parties with sitting MPs — this would be a much fairer system, and wouldn’t allow one party to have an outsized influence on politics, as FPTP currently does. Plus, as PR rarely leads to an overall majority, it would force governments to compromise, build a consensus, and actually listen to voters, who’d have much more say in the democratic process (though critics say this could lead to a ‘coalition of chaos’, in which decisions could never be made).

Of course, there’s cons. If this year’s general election operated under PR, Reform UK would have gained around 91 seats. (Lib Dems would get 78 seats, Plaid Cymru, 6, and SNP, 13.) This is a major criticism of PR, which some say is a pathway for right-wing extremists, as opposed to a haven of opportunity for more centrist or left-wing fringe parties. But, as evidenced by the outgoing Conservative government, extremism has already been present in parliament — the Tories have, on multiple occasions, been accused of using far-right rhetoric — whether it’s voted in proportionally or not. Besides, surely it would be better to have a small proportion of Reform MPs (tempered by the Greens and Labour) than a world in which Farage gets the party FPTP.

Why do we urgently need electoral reform?

As Cosmopolitan UK previously wrote, this general election is more of a loss for the Tories than it is a win for Labour. We can do better than the lesser of two evils. It should be the bare minimum that people can vote for the party they want to support, and believe that their vote matters. Today is evidence that the electorate is ready for change — not only did the winning party get just 35% of the votes, but this election has the highest percentage of third party votes for 100 years. If that doesn’t scream change, I don’t know what will.

If you want to find out more about electoral reform in the UK, the Electoral Reform Society offers information, resources, and advice about how you can get involved in campaigning.

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