The UK elections where failure was rewarded

Winston Churchill

Elections are simple affairs in which victory is determined by number of votes, right? It’s not so simple.

The UK’s first-past-the-post voting system has long been an issue that has divided people. On one hand, there is the argument that the system leads to strong and stable governments. Hold on a second, critics say, the last three elections have produced very unstable results indeed. In 2010, there was a hung parliament. In 2015, Cameron won the slimmest of majorities, and two years later, Theresa May returned the country to a hung parliament. When the system fails under its own set of criteria, there is a strong case against it.

There are many faults with first-past-the-post, the main one being its lack of representativeness in a representative democracy. Building on from this, the system can sometimes produce another anomaly. In the event of very close elections, first-past-the-post can mean the party that wins the most votes can actually fall short of winning the most seats.

Surely that can’t happen? Yes, it can. Such strange results have happened on three separate occasions since the end of World War One.

1974 (February)

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In British political history, 1974 stands out because of the two elections that took place that year. The one in February is also significant due to it producing a hung parliament, but it has another significance. Labour may have one the most seats (301), enough to put Harold Wilson back in Downing Street, but the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath won the most votes. In total, the Tories won 37.9% of the vote, just ahead of Labour’s 37.2%. Despite this close win in popular vote terms, the Tories won 297 seats – an agonising four seats behind Labour.

The parliament did not last long as the country went back to the polls just eight months later.

1951

After six years of Atlee’s Labour, Churchill returned to Downing Street in 1951 with a small Conservative majority government. The Tories may have won the most seats, 321, to Labour’s 295, but the latter won the most votes. Again, this was a close election. Labour won 48.8% of the vote compared to the Conservatives’ 48.0% share – just over 200,000 votes separated the main two parties.

1929

The election of 1929 resulted in a hung parliament. Led by Ramsay MacDonald, Labour won the most seats while the Conservatives won the most votes. Again, this was a very tight election; Labour won 37.1% of vote while the Tories won 38.1%.

Could it happen again?

Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament

These elections flag up an anomaly of first-past-the-post, which can be characterised as a strong criticism.

The elections serve as something to note for the future. For now, two-party politics is back. The polarisation in British politics meant a very close election in June. If that continues, it’s possible that in another tight future election either of the two main parties could end up the biggest even if they get less votes than their main rival.

Seat allocation should not be up to chance. Is it time for a fairer voting system?