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If British election 2010 results trump popular vote, what next?

If British election 2010 results yield a majority of parliamentary seats for a party that comes in second or even third in the popular vote, could it lead to a change in Britain's centuries-old 'first past the post' electoral system?

By Correspondent / May 6, 2010

British Election 2010: Effigies of the leaders of the main British political parties, Gordon Brown, Labour, left, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats, center and David Cameron, Conservatives, are displayed on the balcony of a pub, as the country goes to the polls to elect a new Parliament and leader in London, Thursday.

Alastair Grant/AP



British voters taking part in a photo-finish election went to the polls today in what could be the last-ever poll held under a centuries old system if the British election 2010 results are as close as current polls indicate.

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With Britain's "first past the post" electoral system under close scrutiny, some here are worried that the ruling Labour party could win the most parliamentary seats even if it comes third in the national popular vote.

“It would be odd, but it can occur,” says Professor Cees van der Eijk of the University of Nottingham, who studies political behavior. “When it happened a number of times in a row New Zealand, it generated enough distress and disquiet that the system was changed.”

Britain, too, could be on the brink of change.

While most parliamentary systems select MPs based on proportional representation – with each party given a number of seats roughly equal to its proportion of the national vote – British electoral districts operate similarly to those in the United States, in which winners take all.

While that's led to strong parliamentary majorities for winning parties for most of modern UK history – avoiding the often chaotic coalition-building that sometimes hampers efficient governance in countries that use proportional systems such as Israel, Iraq, and Italy – it has limited the influence of smaller parties in national politics.

To the system's admirers, that's one of its strengths. But the Liberal Democrats, currently expected to come in third when results are released tonight, have long pressed for a shift to a proportional system.

Their calls for reform have typically fallen on deaf ears. Now though, there's a very real prospect that the centrist LibDems could emerge as king-makers when the results are in, courted by both Labour and the Conservative Party to join a coalition to form the next government.

The price they are expected to ask for their support and provide enough votes in parliament to seat either Labour's Gordon Brown or the Tories David Cameron as the next prime minister is proportional representation in future elections.

Does Britain want a change?

In one part of central London this morning though, some voters appeared indifferent to the idea of moving away from the current system.

“It’s simple, isn't it?” said Gene Murphy after emerging from a wooden cabin acting as a polling booth in the constituency of Hackney South and Shoreditch. “It’s playground rules – whoever gets the most votes wins.”

Like many others around the country, the result in Mr. Murphy's constituency is almost a foregone conclusion.

Bookmakers have given the incumbent Labour MP, Meg Hillier, an 83 percent chance of retaining the seat, which she won in 2005 with 16,178 votes, more than half of those cast. Her nearest rival was a Liberal Democrat who received 6,549 votes.

The result illustrates, to an extent, one of the supposed faults of "first past the post" system. In constituencies where one candidate enjoys a large, seemingly insurmountable level of support, many feel that a vote for an alternative is simply wasted.

Votes that don't count