Britons Equally Supportive of First Past the Post and Proportional Representation, but the Majority Prefers Keeping Current System

April 14, 2021
R&WS Research Team
Electoral Process | Electoral Reform
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On 24 March 2021, a poll conducted by us at Redfield & Wilton Strategies showed that a plurality (42%) of Britons said they would support the UK switching to a Proportional Representation voting system. In our latest poll, we further explore voters’ opinions on electoral reform, and ultimately find a general preference for maintaining the status quo.

Respondents were asked about two voting systems, the first being the current system used in UK General Elections: First Past the Post. In this voting system, the candidate with the greatest number of votes in a given constituency—not necessarily a majority—wins a seat in Parliament. A plurality (44%) of respondents said they support the First Past the Post voting system currently in place for General Elections in the UK. Less than a fifth (18%) of respondents said they oppose First Past the Post, while just over a quarter (28%) neither support nor oppose it.

An equal proportion (44%) of respondents said they would support replacing the First Past the Post system with a form of Proportional Representation, a system whereby parties are assigned a number of seats in Parliament based on the total percentage of votes reached across the UK. When compared to the previous question on First Past the Post, similar proportions of respondents said they would oppose (15%) or neither support nor oppose (30%) introducing Proportional Representation. There thus appears to be a lack of consensus about the UK’s electoral system, with many Britons being willing to support either system.

A plurality or majority of all age groups said they support First Past the Post and said they would support replacing the current system with Proportional Representation.18-to-24-year-olds are most likely to support First Past the Post (51%) while also being the most likely to support replacing it with a form of Proportional Representation (53%). Interestingly, respondents aged 65 and over are conversely the most likely to oppose First Past the Post (24%) and to oppose replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation (29%).

Support for the UK’s current First Past the Post system—and for retaining it—is highest among those who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election: 54% of Conservative voters said they support First Past the Post, compared to 43% of Labour voters and 37% of Liberal Democrat voters. Furthermore, whereas a majority of Liberal Democrat voters (63%) and Labour voters (52%) said they would support replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation, only a third (35%) of Conservative voters said the same. As we outlined previously, the Conservatives would have won 77 fewer seats in the 2019 Election under a Proportional Representation voting system, which may in part account for the greater degree of opposition to the voting system among Conservative voters, in addition to the general conservative aversion to what would be a major constitutional change.

Under First Past the Post, such smaller parties are often unable to claim the plurality of votes within a constituency, thus disincentivising voters to vote for third parties. While Proportional Representation systems incentivise voting for third parties, this incentivisation can come at the expense of forming a majority Government.

A majority (62%) of Britons said they would prefer a voting system that does not disincentivize voting for third parties, even if it makes it more difficult to form a Government. Alternatively, 38% said they would prefer a voting system that does disincentivize voting for third parties, even if it means it reduces voters’ choices.

Although the proportions of 2019 Liberal Democrat voters (70%) and Labour voters (66%) are greater, a majority (58%) of Conservative voters also said they would prefer a system that does not disincentivize voting for third parties, even if it makes it more difficult to form a Government.

Advocates of First Past the Post argue that it is a simple system, as voters choose one Member of Parliament to represent their constituency in Parliament. Indeed, some criticize Proportional Representation systems such as those used in the Scottish and Welsh Parliamentary Elections for being more difficult to understand. However, our research finds a large majority (69%) of respondents said they would prefer a voting system that is more complicated but more ‘fair,’ rather than a system that is more straightforward but less ‘fair’ (31%). It therefore appears as though much of the British public would welcome a more complicated system than First Past the Post if it meant results were more ‘fair’ or representative.

Similar proportions of 2019 Conservative voters (64%) and 2019 Labour voters (69%) said they would prefer a voting system that is more complicated but more fair, compared to 80% of 2019 Liberal Democrat voters.  

While the responses to these questions point to a preference for the features of Proportional Representation among the British public, a majority (58%) of respondents said they would prefer a voting system where it is possible for a single party to form a Government on its own with only a plurality—but not a majority—of the national vote, as is currently possible under First Past the Post. Still, a considerable 42% said they would prefer a system where it is impossible for a single party to form a Government on its own with only a plurality of the national vote.   

To varying degrees, a majority of respondents who in 2019 voted Conservative (64%), Labour (57%), and Liberal Democrat (50%) said they would prefer a system where it is possible for a single party to form a Government on its own with only a plurality of the national vote. This likely reflects an overall preference for single-party Governments, which tend to be viewed as more capable of acting decisively and of being held responsible for decisions.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for First Past the Post is that it is the current system that Britons know and use in General Elections. To that point, 59% of respondents said the UK should keep its current voting system for General Elections, displaying a preference for maintaining the status quo regardless of perceived benefits of switching to another system. Even so, a significant minority (41%) said the UK should change its current voting system for General Elections.

Among Conservative voters, support for keeping the current voting system is high (76%), while Labour voters are more divided between keeping (51%) and changing (49%) the UK’s voting system. By contrast, 65% of Liberal Democrat voters believe the UK should change its current voting system for General Elections.

It ultimately appears that most Britons would support replacing First Past the Post with a form of Proportional Representation, preferring how the latter system incentivizes votes for third parties and results in a fairer representation of the national vote. However, the British public is just as supportive of First Past the Post, with the majority inclined to believe the UK should retain the current system, therefore implying many Britons are flexible—and perhaps indifferent—on the topic of electoral reform. 

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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