The Case for Electoral Reform in the UK

Of the 43 countries in Europe, the UK is one of only two democracies to use a First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system – the other being France who use a two round, winner takes all system. In Westminster, each seat is allocated individually to the candidate who gets the most votes in their consistency, with second and last place receiving the same consolation prize – nothing. In contrast, 40 other European countries use at least some form of proportional representation (PR), where seats are allocated broadly in line with each parties share of the vote.

With this in mind, the upcoming election provides an interesting chance for reflection; what would our parliament look like if we used a proportional system? How would it change parties campaigning strategies, and what would be the implications for voting behaviour?

General Election 2019

Following the 2019 election, the Electoral Reform Society published a snapshot of what parliament would have looked like if the UK used Single Transferable Vote (STV) – the same system as is used to elect the Northern Irish Assembly. In a nutshell, STV asks voters to rank candidates on the ballot paper, and if your favourite candidate has already met the quota for a seat, or stands no chance of winning, your second vote comes gets counted, until a candidate meets the quota and is elected. The process results in a team of 4 or 5 members of parliament who represent the diverse views of a larger constituency.

According to the electoral reform society’s projection, the main losers at the 2019 election would have been the Conservatives with a revised total of 312 seats, a loss of 52 – just shy of a majority.

Conversely, the Liberal Democrats – who were virtually buried by First-Past-The-Post in 2019 – gain 48 seats, rising to a total of 59 in a historic performance only topped by Charles Kennedy’s 62 seats in 2005. Elsewhere, the Labour party gain 18, the SNP lose 18, and the Brexit party secure three seats.


This result would have produced a Conservative-led coalition, and may have had a significant impact on the way that the country was governed over the past 5 years. What this may have looked like is pure conjecture; but given the campaign at that election was centered mainly around ‘Getting Brexit Done’ – and with the strength of feeling against Jeremy Corbyn and for solving the Brexit impasse – we may have seen two distinct blocks forming around a pro and anti Brexit sentiment.

General Election 2024

It appears that the Labour party are going to win an overall majority at the upcoming General Election. However, the qualitative analysis ahead of the election indicates that this outcome may reflect less a nation infatuated with Starmer and his policies, and more around a public desire to remove the Conservative Party from Government, following a turbulent few years in charge.

A quick glance at the polls reveals that in spite of Labour’s strong lead, they would be incredibly unlikely to enjoy a true majority, with no polls to date projecting them to receive 51% of the national vote. In fact, a side by side comparison of their projected seats and vote share reveals the extent of the lack of proportionality we enjoy in the UK. Using the national polling as a guide (and with a caveat that this is not looking at a seat by seat analysis) under a proportional voting system, Labour’s vote share might have led to a coalition, rather than the outright majority which they are likely to see on 5th July.

More interestingly, a proportional system might encourage a significant number of voters to select their authentic preference rather than being forced to vote tactically, and this could have remarkable implications for the parliamentary split. With the Reform party gaining traction; Labour connecting with voters’ desire to change; and an overall increase in support for third parties, the public appetite for transformation is clear at this election. One has to imagine that if the upcoming intake were elected proportionally, it would result in an incredibly colourful electoral map.

All five non major parties (those not Labour or Conservative) support the implementation of proportional representation. The Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru are explicit in their desire to shift to a STV system. The Greens advocate for the replacement of FPTP with a proportional system more generally, and Reform have argued for a referendum on PR.

In 2011, the Conservative-led coalition agreed to a referendum on moving to an Alternative Vote system, (which it’s worth noting that is not a proportional voting system, but would have been seen by Nick Clegg as a step in a more proportional direction).

With a relatively low turnout of 42%, and an overwhelming 68% of votes against the proposal, the public firmly rejected the proposition in a campaign which saw Labour and Conservative politicians join together to defeat any chance of electoral reform. Despite the obvious flaws and lack of representation for millions of voters across the country, the two major parties (and it appears the general public) are unlikely to advocate for a more proportionate voting system. Frankly, we are unlikely to see PR come to fruition in any of our lifetimes without a national campaign to deliver another referendum, or a revolution.

Electoral reform is a bit of a paradox. Why would either major party reform a voting system which guarantees their entrenched positions as the top two parties? Even when one of the major parties lose an election, they can be fairly confident that the positions they hold, developed over many years, will allow them to return to power after a spell in opposition, as has been the case for the last century.

So as we prepare to go to polling stations and mark a cross next to our preferred candidates. It’s worth considering what you’d do if you had to rank them instead. If you had no reason to vote tactically, and no fear that your vote would be wasted, would it change your vote?

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