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The Scottish Parliament and law making
The Scottish Parliament and law making

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4.2 The voting system for the UK Parliament

Each voter has only one vote and to vote they simply place a cross on the ballot paper to indicate their preference. The person who wins the highest number of votes within a constituency is the elected MP for that constituency. This electoral system is known as the ‘first-past-the-post’ system which is described in Box 6.

Box 6 The first-past-the-post system

The first-past-the-post system is the only system ever used in British general elections and it has many advantages over other systems. It usually produces strong, decisive Governments with an overall majority in Parliament; with every voter represented by one MP, it provides a clear democratic link between the people and Parliament and it is quick and simple for the voters. However, the system may also be unfair. As an example, an election for the constituency of Not-Real has taken place.

The three main candidates are from the three most prominent national parties. The result is as follows:

Candidate A: 25,000 votes

Candidate B: 20,000 votes

Candidate C: 10,000 votes

In this example, the clear winner is Candidate A with a majority over Candidate B of 5,000. However, 25,000 voted for the candidate who won that election but 30,000 voted against the winner. If more people vote against a candidate by choosing an alternative, is this democratic in terms of popular representation in Westminster?

In the 1997 UK General Election, the Labour Party gained 43.2% of the total votes cast and won 63.6% of seats at Westminster. The combined number of votes for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats represented 47.5% of the total votes (over 4% more than Labour), yet between them they won 32.1% of the seats available at Westminster. In the 2001 election, Labour had 43% of the total vote whereas all the other parties had 57% – yet Labour maintained its very powerful position in Parliament with 413 MPs out of 659 (63% of the total number of seats in Parliament). In the 2005 General Election, Labour won 37% of the vote and 55% of the seats in the House of Commons. The combined number of votes for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats represented 55% of the total votes (18% more than Labour), yet between them they got 40% of the seats available in the House of Commons.

The 2010 election resulted in the first coalition government in 70 years. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats shared power. In the election the Conservatives won 36% of the votes, the Liberal Democrats 23% and Labour 29%. The combined votes of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats represented 59% of the vote. The Conservatives had 306 seats, the Liberal Democrats 57 seats, the SNP 6 seats and Labour 258 seats.

The 2015 election resulted in an overall Conservative majority of 11 seats in the House of Commons (not including the Speaker). The Conservatives won 330 seats, Labour won 232, the Liberal Democrats 8 and the SNP 56. The Conservatives polled 11.3 million votes, 36.8% of the vote.

The 2017 election result resulted in a minority Conservative government with a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP. The Conservatives won 318 seats, Labour 262, the Liberal Democrats 12 and the SNP 35. The Conservatives polled 13.6 million votes, 42% of the vote.

UK Cabinet ministers
Figure 9 UK Cabinet ministers

No UK Government since 1935 has had a majority of public support as expressed through votes cast at a national election. The effect of this on law making is that a powerful UK Government with overwhelming Parliamentary power can usually push through its required legislation – but with only a minority of the country supporting it.

In May 2011 a referendum was held on the voting system used to elect MPs to the House of Commons. The question asked on the ballot paper was:

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?

Electoral Commission (2011)

Of those who voted, 68% voted for no change and 32% voted for change.