With the Tory leadership contest underway after Theresa May stepped down, we could potentially be heading towards another UK General Election.
It made me wonder whether the current electoral system that is in place – First-Past-the-Post (or FPTP) – really provides an adequate way of electing a governing body to represent the largest number of people.
How Does a General Election in the UK Work?
Firstly, I will give an explanation of the voting system in the UK and the conditions needed for a Political Party to gain an overall majority. In this case, I am ignoring the scenario of a hung parliament.
In the UK, there are numerous voting areas called constituencies or wards which offer multiple prospective candidates from the National Parties.
They each have a defined agenda aimed at representing the voters in their constituency.
By winning a local election, a representative gains a seat in the House of Commons, and can then drive the agenda to the benefit of their constituents.
The candidate with the greatest number of votes in each constituency wins the seat in Parliament.
How Many Constituencies are there in the UK?
There are currently 650 constituencies which make up the UK voting area, splitting up roughly 46 million eligible voters (where the voting age is 18).
For a Political Party to win a General Election, they need to gain a majority which is to achieve a minimum of 326 seats from the 650 available constituencies.
This raised a couple of interesting questions which I would like to explore in this article:
What is the Minimum Number of Votes to Win an Election?
To begin the analysis, I need to create a few assumptions. I understand that some readers will have differing opinions about the assumptions made, but this is for illustrative purposes:
- The 650 constituencies have an equal density of voters: 70,770 (46,000,000/650). I will call the total number of voters in a constituency “n”.
- There are four competing parties (an assumption made due to the prevalence of Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems and The Brexit Party in the UK). They are represented by Party i, where i = A, B, C, D. We can define the total number of political parties as “P” where P > 1 to expand the model further.
- There is a 100% voting turnout in each of the constituencies.
The minimum number of seats “Party A” needs to win an overall majority is 326.
In each of these constituencies, the minimum number of votes needed to win in a First-Past-the-Post system is defined as (n/P) + 1.
This where the other three parties share the other 74.99% of the vote equally, giving Party A the overall majority by one vote.
They need to win in 326 constituencies, so the minimum number of votes to win an election is then 326 * ((n/P) + 1).
They do not need to win a single vote in the other 324 constituencies.
By putting in the numbers, the minimum number of votes required by Party A to win a General Election as:
326 * ((70770/4) + 1) = 5,768,081 votes
That means that the UK could have (although this is idealistic and incredibly unlikely) a party with a majority which represents only 12.54% of a total voting population.
What is the Maximum Number of Votes to Lose an Election?
Going even further into this extreme situation, I wanted to calculate the maximum number of votes that a party could receive and still lose an election.
If I use the situation above as a basis where Party A has won the election, “Party B” could win the other 324 constituencies outright with 100% of the vote (defined as 324 * n).
Party B then could receive one vote less than Party A in each of the 326 constituencies it loses with Party C and D getting 0 votes.
When I enter the values into these two equations, we get:
(324 * 70770) + (326 * ((70770-2)/2)) = 34,430,574 votes
This means that the UK could theoretically have 74.85% of a voting population who agree on the manifesto of a single party, and still lose an election.
If the assumptions are relaxed to reflect the real state of the electoral system (uneven densities of voters in each constituency – e.g. Isle of Wight had 110,924 eligible voters in 2010, and Orkney & Shetland had just 33,755 – the results can look even worse.
Situations of this ‘unfair’ system have been demonstrated before in different elections.
In Canada, the Progressive Conservatives had previously won 16% of the total number of votes, but only 0.7% of the seats.
Similarly, in Lesotho, the Basotho National Party achieved a 24% vote share, but only 1% of the seats.
A move to change the current system was part of the promise from the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition Government who held a referendum to replace it with the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011.
What is the Alternative Vote?
The Alternative Vote is a system where voters rank their preferences for candidates.
If from this first round of voting, one candidate gets over 50% of the vote (votes counting for first preference), the vote concludes.
If there isn’t a majority, the candidate with the lowest vote is eliminated, and for those voting papers, the second preference is added to a vote.
Each candidate is eliminated, and the next preference taken until there is an overall majority.
The referendum ruled in favour of keeping the current First-Past-the-Post system, although this has done little to dispel its critics.
By reassessing the past General Elections with the Alternative Vote, it was made clear that since 1900, there would have been no change to the overall outcome of an election in the UK had it been adopted.
Despite our dismissal of an alternative, FPTP still has its flaws, and we are perhaps only accepting it because the issues it can cause have not yet occurred.
Maybe it is time to explore some of the other voting possibilities, before we allow the First-Past-the-Post system to elect a party which is by far a minority rule.
Well researched & informative
All very true. I wonder if smaller constituencies have are narrower in their voting preference. I imagine London, as liberal and cosmopolitan as we believe it to be, has a broad spectrum of opinions. My point is that I don't believe representing the country by splitting it into constituencies is entirely representative. What we need is Plato's philosopher king…but how could we ever trust one?
This idea was rejected by UK voters in 2011. The majority was over 2 to 1 against. The reason I voted no was that it was far to complex, with multiple vote counts and recounts being necessary. Had the voting been restricted to a 1st, 2nd or 3rd choices only, I would have gone for that.
So a hybrid of the Alternative Vote and the FPTP system would be an idea that you would support? I agree it would be far better than these two ideas combined, It is a shame we probably met the Government's quota of "voting referendums" for the moment, but hopefully an idea like this will be visited in the future.
Can we ever trust anyone in a position where they have the power to influence change? Unfortunately I believe that most of us are now only in the capacity to speculate and that true national democracy has never really existed (Political Parties rarely fulfil every one of their promises outlined in their election manifestos).
With respect to your comment about smaller constituencies being more narrow minded in their voting, I believe there could be a negating effect where the larger the constituency, the less a voter will feel like their vote will have an impact on the outcome of an election. This probably isn't enough to counteract narrow mindedness in constituencies. There has to be something said about "safe seats" which regularly vote for the same Political Party – how can anyone who is against that feel like their vote will be the difference to swing the constituency to another party?
If you want to keep it simple, there is an even better system: approval voting. Keep the FPTP machinery, just allow voters to support more than one candidate !
I wonder what the majority of the people are saying about wanting to change it and why. I’m sure some things need to change, I just hope people are able to come to an agreement instead of not doing anything about it at all.
This is very interesting. Isn’t this how they are choosing the Conservative party leader? I do think that this might a bit long winded for a general election, although it is by far the fairest way.
This is such a crazy system. I hope they can get it more organized.
Great info. Very informative. It’s very true
a very well done article!
I was not aware of how things are working in the UK. Thanks to your informative post, I learn something new today.
OMG….so enjoyed all your stories here. An interesting sharing, thanks! cheers, siennylovesdrawing
Hopefully, it can become more organized sooner than later!
This is a very interesting article and I’ll go along with any voting system that gets Jeremy Corbyn elected 😉
Nice. Great points. Your article really made me ponder.
Whatever the UK do they should think before executing the plan. As we alll have seen Brexit didn’t turn well.
The system is pretty close to what we have in India! No wonder..:P
I had no knowledge of the UK system prior to reading this. Great info! When things get this disorganized, it’s almost like no one does anything to render a solution. I hope there is an agreement that can be made soon!
wow, this is eye ? opening. How can such a system exist that could in any circumstance have a flaw that could favor such a small %. Is this true?
Great to know how things work in other parts of the world. Thanks for sharing!
Interesting read as it is drastically different from the US voting system. But, similar to the Japanese system as the prime minister is chosen because his party won the elections. Abe is the leader of his party, which holds the majority in the Diet.
I don’t have any idea about UK voting system but This is such an informative article great points!
Very informative and well researched. Good job!
I’m in the US so this was so interesting to read to get a perspective on how you guys vote over there in the UK!
I have many friends from UK and I will forward it to them. They will love it!