In last week’s British (UK) election, Boris Johnson and his allies lost the popular vote by over 1.7 million votes, but won a majority of seats in the Parliament ensuring Johnson will remain Prime Minister. While his Conservative Party and pro-Brexit parties won only 47% of the vote, they gained 57% of the seats, fueling claims of a “landslide” victory.
The results misrepresent a divided electorate where the majority of voters actually favored either remaining in the European Union (EU) or letting voters decide Brexit in a new referendum. The call for, at minimum, a new vote over Brexit got lost in their First Past the Post plurality election system that can skew results and present a false mandate where none exists.
First Past the Post, the same type of winner-take-all plurality method the U.S still uses, allows a party to win district seats with less than a majority, even when more than half of the voters in any given district chose other candidates.
The eight UK parties favoring remaining in the EU or a new referendum split the vote and lost seats they should have won. The Conservative Party (aka Tories) meanwhile ran up plurality wins, some by as little as 35%, gaining the advantage. The Brexit Party, the one allied party they could have split the vote with, stood down allowing the Tories to win all their seats.
First Past the Post voting has an outsized impact in parliamentary systems like the UK where the Prime Minister is elected winner-take-all by who wins the most seats in parliament, not the popular vote.
The problem for Britain is not partisan. In 2011, its two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, joined to sink a national referendum to change their plurality system, preferring preservation of the two-party system to majoritarian, representative elections.
Instructively for England, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales all have upgraded to a fair vote method like ranked-choice voting that translate votes into meaningful representation.
Even in the U.S., 20 cities and several states have or are moving towards replacing plurality voting with ranked-choice voting to eliminate problems of vote-splitting and majority winners.
England may not follow its Great Britain partners or former colonies for now. But the debate over the polarization and manufactured mandates how it votes has found itself one more example why First Past the Post is losing favor across England’s fractured political spectrum.
See Party votes and seats won results here.
Senior Policy Advisor