In my second of three posts on electoral reform, I want to focus on wasted votes.
A wasted vote is defined as a vote which does not help elect a candidate.
By definition, our first past the post electoral system ensures at least half the votes cast are wasted (unless there are only 2 candidates and the winning candidate wins by 1 vote).
To explain the definition of a wasted vote, consider a normal constituency election in the UK. The votes for candidates who finish 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc are ‘wasted’ because of course they were not elected. The winning candidate only needs a majority of 1 to be elected in our electoral system based on plurality of votes so any votes extra to this are also considered ‘wasted’ as they have not helped elect this particular candidate. So the total of these and all the other candidates votes are classed as wasted votes.
Consider my own seat of Penistone and Stocksbridge. The result in June 2017 was as follows…
Angela Smith (Lab) 22807
Nicola Wilson (Con) 21485
John Booker (UKIP) 3453
Penny Baker (LibDem) 2042
Angela Smith was elected with a majority of 1322
This means 1321 of Angela Smith’s vote were wasted as these are all the excess votes above the majority of 1 which she needed to be elected. All of Nicola Wilson, John Booker’s and Penny Baker’s votes were wasted as they were not elected. This makes a total of 28301 wasted votes in my constituency out of a total of 49767 votes cast. This means 56.8% of the votes cast in Penistone and Stocksbridge were wasted. As we shall see this is actually quite a good figure for a system designed for just 2 parties. Where the top two parties get the vast majority of votes and the majority is small the proportion of wasted votes tends to be mid to high 50% which, for a plural system, isn’t that bad.
Nationally however there are vast differences and in 2017 68.4% of votes cast were wasted votes – that means 2 out of every 3 people who voted, wasted their vote because of our electoral system. This is actually a big improvement on 2015 and even 2010 – the other two years elections on these boundaries were fought.
The table below shows the break down by region…
Where there is a significant presence of a third (or fourth) party such as UKIP in 2015 and the Liberal Democrats in 2010 (and previous elections) the proportion of wasted votes is much higher – the 70% and higher sort of area.
Looking at the extremes for each election shows how variable these figures can be…
If you lived in Manchester Gorton, because of the massive majority of the Labour candidate, over 9 out of every 10 votes were wasted whilst we had almost as close to perfection as the first past the post system can offer in Newcastle Under Lyme where Labour won with a tiny majority from the Conservative candidate with the only other candidate, the Liberal Democrat, polling under 4% essentially making this seat a 2-party seat – typical of pre-1974 elections.
As I have said, by definition, first past the post can never produce lower than 50% of wasted votes but when around 70% (and more) of all votes are wasted serious questions need to be asked about how fair our electoral system is. In 2017 over 22 million of the 32 million votes vast were wasted in that they weren’t required to elect a winning candidate. In 2015 it was 22.8 million on a significantly smaller turnout.
Our current system worked reasonably well when over 90% of votes cast went to either Labour or Conservative and produced reasonably proportional parliamentary arithmetic (see my previous post – “Events Dear Boy”), however since the late 70’s when the proportion of votes cast for the two main parties (2017 being a sort of exception) has been less than 80%, our system becomes massively unfair to the smaller parties who are gaining a great share of the vote but the electoral system throwing up massive barriers to them breaking into the House of Commons. I am convinced that this is a major reason for a general depression in turn outs (though 2017 is another outlier here) – a frustration from the electorate that their vote, generally, doesn’t matter.
Of course your view on this will depend on your view of how you want the Commons to look. If you prefer one party to control, whether they gain 50% of not, the first past the post works well for you. If you would prefer each vote to count as much as possible and he Commons to reflect the votes cast, first past the post no longer serves its purpose.
The only way to reduce the proportion of wasted votes is to move to a more proportional system – possibly one where we have larger multiple member constituencies. Critics will say that the public had its say on this in 2011 with the referendum on the adoption of AV. Of course AV isn’t a proportional system and it is still a basic plurality system which would result in significant number (though probably slightly smaller) wasted votes. On of the Liberal Democrat’s biggest mistakes in coalition was not insisting they had a referendum on a real proportional system. The plain fact of the matter is that we have never had a referendum offering us a really proportional system.