No party has received an outright majority of the popular vote in any general election in the United Kingdom since 1931, yet in 19 of the 22 subsequent elections the party with the plurality of votes nationally secured a majority in the House of Commons. Given this discrepancy, there has been some debate over whether the UK should adopt a Proportional Representation voting system similar to that of other European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, and Denmark.
Proportional Representation means that the share of the seats each party attains matches the share of the votes they receive nationally (or in a given region). The largest proponents of such a system typically are third parties which are able to achieve a significant number of votes nationally but never at a high enough level in any specific area or constituency to win seats in Parliament. In the 2015 general election, for example, UKIP notably achieved 12.6% of the national vote but won just one seat. Others have contested the way in which electoral boundaries have sometimes been drawn to advantage one party (typically the incumbent party) over another.
Meanwhile, supporters of the First Past the Post method argue that the current model continues to ensure that voters receive local and regional representation that directly align with local interests. Moreover, having fewer hung parliaments has been considered by some to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage, as negotiations over coalition governments can slow the political process and even result in multiple elections. For instance, Spain, which uses a form of proportional representation, has twice seen two general elections within six months of each other in recent years: in 2015-6 (December and June) and again in 2019 (April and November).
In a poll last week, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that a majority (54%) of the UK public would largely support replacing the current First Past the Post voting system with a Proportional Representation system.
Support for Proportional Representation is consistent across almost all demographic groups, regardless of gender, region, age and who one voted for in 2019. The only demographic groups which do not support Proportional Representation are those over the age of 65 and, interestingly, those who did not vote in 2019. We should also note that this question could be phrased differently. It may be worth investigating whether response would differ if we instead asked respondents: if there was a referendum between keeping First Past the Post or switching to a national Proportional Representation system, what would you choose?
In the meantime, we note that a majority (53%) of those who voted for the Conservatives in 2019 would support a switch to a system of Proportional Representation, even as the party has consistently been able to win majorities through First Past the Post. A greater majority (63%) of those who voted Labour in 2019 are supportive of adopting Proportional Representation. Although some Conservative voters may hold the pragmatic view that switching to PR would hinder the party’s chance to continue to win absolute majorities, beliefs in localism and geographical representation (traditionally key tenets of conservatism), or a genuine aversion to a radical change of the UK’s electoral system may also explain their somewhat lower level of support for the change. In contrast, left-leaning parties have tended to favour the application of policies on a national level, for example a more centralised planning of the economy, and this tendency may be a factor in their greater support for PR.
Support for a mixed system of both First Past the Post and Proportional Representation was lower than support for the complete replacement of FPTP with PR, yet the establishment of a mixed system still received a plurality (44%) of approval, whereas just a small minority (17%) were opposed. A significant minority (39%) neither supported nor opposed the proposal, or don’t know.
Our question here somewhat resembles an electoral reform proposal from nearly a decade ago. In 2011, during the Alternative Vote Referendum, the UK public considered switching from First Past the Vote system to a ranked voting system. This change would have retained constituencies, but it would have meant that if a candidate did not win an absolute majority in a given constituency, the second, third or fourth choice votes from voters would come into play until a candidate achieves a majority of votes. Ultimately, the British public rejected a switch to this system. This rejection, however, does not necessarily mean that public preferred First Past the Post over all other systems. As our poll suggests, another form of Proportional Representation could be popular.
This past week, we asked respondents how likely they would be to change the way they vote under a national proportional representation system. Here, a plurality of participants indicated that their vote would likely remain the same if a system of Proportional Representation was adopted, yet a considerable, and electorally consequential, minority (29%) stated that they would be likely to change the way they vote.
Interestingly, it appears the adoption of Proportional Representation would likely significantly reduce the number of votes both the Labour Party and Conservative Party receive. 37% of 2019 Labour voters would be ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to change their vote if PR was adopted, in contrast to 29% of 2019 Conservative voters. Given that there were 3.7 million more Conservative voters than Labour voters in 2019, however, this difference in percentages would result in both parties losing about the same absolute number of votes (~ 4 million each).
The higher percentage of Labour voters who would be likely to change the way they vote may reflect the heterogeneity of the party’s current base, or it could reveal that a notable portion of 2019 supporters were tactical voters. The stronger support for left-leaning parties (of which there are a few more in number) among young people may also be another factor in this percentage difference, as younger people indicated that they were especially receptive to changing their vote: 42% of 18-to-24-year olds and 43% of 25-to-34-year olds think they would be very likely or likely to change their vote if the system changed to Proportional Representation. In comparison, only 15% of 55-to-64-year olds, and 20% of those older than 65 believe they would be likely to change the way they vote.
Ultimately, support for replacing the current system with a form of Proportional Representation cuts across all demographics, with the sole exception of non-voters and older people. Nevertheless, predicting how Proportional Representation would impact each party’s electoral prospects remains almost impossible given how such a change would affect how parties campaign and the sort of messaging seen during a general election. Even so, our recent polls suggest that, even now, an electorally significant quarter of the public would change the way the vote, purely based on a potential change in the system.