Fawcett briefing on women and voting


A change in the voting system could have significant implications for women’s involvement in democracy. Despite the historic election of 120 women MPs at the 1997 General Election, women still remain under-represented in UK politics and there is evidence that a change in the voting system would help improve women’s representation in parliament.

The first-past-the-post system is also failing women voters in the UK. Many women voters dislike the ‘playground culture’ of politics and often feel that their views are being ignored.

the current system

The system we have the UK is know as ‘first past the post.’ Under this system the country is split into constituencies each of which is represented by one Member of Parliament (MP). An individual voter gets one vote which they use to choose which candidate will represent their constituency in parliament. The candidate with the most votes wins. The party which wins the election overall, is the party which gets the most MPs in parliament.

what’s wrong with first past the post?

it doesn’t reflect the votes cast

None of the governments elected since 1935 has had the support of a majority of voters at the general election and the winner takes all system often distorts the overall distribution of votes cast.

For example:

  • In 1929, 1951 and February 1974, the party with the most votes actually lost the election.
  • The Conservative majority of 144 seats in 1983 was won on 42.2% of the vote. In the 1997 election, Labour won 418 seats – 63.4% of the total number of seats with only 43.3% of the vote.
  • At the 1997 election Labour won a seat for every 32,370 votes it received. The Conservatives won a seat for every 58, 185 votes they received and the Liberal Democrats won a seat for every 113,729 votes they received.

it doesn’t encourage the selection of women candidates

Women face many barriers in standing for Parliament, but the electoral system can play a big part in helping or hindering women’s selection. Under the current voting system only one MP is elected in each constituency. Party selection committees have to select one candidate and tend to opt for a safe choice, selecting someone who looks as much like an existing MP as possible. This is more often than not, white and male.

where you live determines how much your vote counts

Under the first past the post, where you live determines how effective your vote is. How many seats a party wins in an election is based not only on how many votes it gets, but also where the votes are cast.

For example:

  • In Wales at the 1997 election, 317,127 people voted Conservative representing one in five of all votes cast in Wales, but the Conservatives won no seats at all in Wales. Plaid Cymru won 161,030 votes, just under one in ten, and won four seats.
  • In 1992 more people voted Labour in Kent than Glasgow – yet the Labour Party won all eleven seats in Glasgow and none in Kent.

Smaller parties, whose vote is spread evenly across the country, may do particularly badly under the first past the post system.

For example:

  • In the 1989 European Election the Green Party got 15% of the vote, the largest green vote in Europe but got no representation.

most votes do not count

Most MPs seats are ‘safe’ this means that you know who your MP will be before you even vote. There is a steady decline in the number of people who turn out to vote and in safe seats the low voter turnout is an even bigger problem because voters know that their individual vote will make very little difference to the result. Younger voters in particular seem increasingly alienated from mainstream party politics and disillusioned with the political process.

Reforming the voting system to make each vote count towards the final result would make every individual’s opinion important.

elections are decided by a very few voters in marginal constituencies

Most General Elections results are decided by around 100 marginal constituencies and parties tend to concentrate on winning votes in these particular constituencies, in order to win the election overall.

In particular, the parties are interested in those voters in the marginal constituencies who are likely to switch parties – the floating voters. Election campaigns are increasingly targeted at these floating voters – less than a million people – who decide the result of the election.

As parties develop more sophisticated methods of targeting these voters, policies are developed to appeal to this small group of people rather than meet the needs of the whole country.

What are the alternatives to first past the post?

There are many countries around the world which use different voting systems. Fawcett is in favour of proportional representation: the term for any voting system where the number of seats won by a party is broadly proportional to the percentage of people voting for them, so a party winning 40% of the vote would get about 40% of the seats.

The Government set up a Royal Commission on Voting Systems known as the ‘Jenkins Commission’ to look at the different proportional voting systems and make recommendations. The Commission reported in 1998 and recommended a change to the ‘Alternative Vote Plus’ (AV+) System. This system is not used anywhere else in the world at present, but was the system which the Jenkins Commission felt would be the best option for Britain.

The Government promised in their manifesto in 1997 to hold a referendum and allow people to choose whether to stick with the first past the post system, or change to the AV+ system recommended by the Jenkins Commission.

alternative vote plus (AV+)

With AV+ voters would have two votes – one vote for a constituency MP, where you rank candidates in order of preference and the other for a ‘top up’ MP from a regional list. Candidates would need to get 50% of the votes cast in their constituency in order to win.

The majority of MPs (80 to 85%) would continue to be elected on an individual constituency basis, but in addition there would be ‘top up’ Mps allocated to different parties from regional lists. This will correct the imbalance between the share of votes cast and the seats a party gains in each area.

“will this new system allow small extremist parties to win seats?”

Under AV+ this is extremely unlikely, as the successful candidate in each constituency will need to win more than 50% of the vote within their constituency. Additionally small parties would also be unlikely to win enough votes to win a regional seat.

“will AV+ lead to unstable government?”

AV+ will not create permanent coalition government, but will make excessive majorities, which don’t reflect the votes of the country, less likely. Opinion polls carried out by NOP in 1998 showed that women and young women in particular thought that coalition government was a strength rather than a weakness. No one party has the monopoly on good ideas and working together may sometimes mean compromise, but happens within parties anyway.

how will a change in voting system make a difference?

it can encourage the selection of women candidates

Under AV+, parties have to select both a candidate for the constituency and a list of candidates to stand for the region. It would be hard for any party to justify a list of candidates that contained 82 men for every 12 women.

The countries with the highest proportion of women MPs, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, all use a form of proportional representation. Of course a change in voting system alone is not enough to increase the number of women in Parliament, but it encourages parties to select a range of candidates and by making discrimination more obvious, makes it easier to put pressure on parties to change.

making votes count

Under a proportional voting system all votes would count in the final result. The number of seats each party gained at an election would reflect the support for that party in the country as a whole. Smaller parties would receive fairer representation in Parliament. The electorate would not feel that their vote was wasted, helping to rebuild confidence in the political process and potentially increase voter turn out.

encouraging co-operation

Fawcett research has shown that women would prefer parties that listened and talked to each other. Many women are put off politics by the confrontational nature of current political debate. Even women MPs have described the House of Commons as similar to a school playground with MPs trading insults rather than discussing issues. Fawcett is not suggesting that a different electoral system alone could solve this problem but under a proportional system, parties would have to work together to form a government, which would encourage co-operation.

The organisations listed below work on voting reform: contact them for more information.

Charter 88
18a Victoria Park Square
E2 9PB
Tel: 020 8880 6088

Electoral Reform Society
6 Chancel Lane
Tel: 020 7928 1622

Mave Votes Count
6 Chancel Street
Tel: 020 7928 2076