By Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems.

And the results are in. As the exit poll was announced when Big Ben struck ten on election night, several things were clear: we were witnessing the beginning of one of the most seismic election results in British history, with nearly half of seats changing hands on their way to producing a Labour landslide, and also about to come face-to-face with one of the most distorted parliaments in the history of modern democracy. Labour’s 63% of seats were won from just 34% of the vote – the largest overrepresentation ever in a British general election. The political right was devastated, the Conservatives falling to their worst result in history and Reform gaining just 5 seats, despite accruing over 4 million votes. The SNP and the Greens were also left severely short-changed. The sole cause of this representational carnage: First Past the Post.

Chart showing the 2024 general election results in terms of vote share and seat share for each party

Democratic deficits

The fact that British general election results are disproportional, frequently produce false majorities and underrepresent smaller parties is hardly a new observation. But just lumping this year’s election in with the rest would underplay the unprecedented extent to which this new parliament, thanks to First Past the Post, does not represent how the country voted.

Numerical indices of disproportionality are a good starting point here. The Gallagher Index, which is favoured by most academics and where zero indicates a perfectly proportional result, gives this election a score of 23.8. As the chart below puts into perspective, this is not just significantly above average for a UK general election but is the worst score since vaguely modern elections emerged in the 1880s. And this result was not just abnormally distorted by British standards, there is just a single other national general election in an advanced western democracy since the Second World War (France’s 1993 legislative election) with a higher disproportionality score.

Chart showing the disproportionality of each UK general election since 1885 according to the Gallagher Index

Alternative measures of disproportionality offer up a similar assessment of GE2024, with the Loosemore-Hanby and Sainte-Laguë indexes concurring that it is clearly the least proportional British general election ever, the latter giving it a score 49% higher than the second least proportional election (2015). However you assess it, this election was so extremely disproportional that it is an outlier by western democratic standards, let alone UK ones.

But aggregate disproportionality is not the only way in which First Past the Post lets down British voters. It also means that a huge percentage are left without a representative they voted for. While, of course, many MPs endeavour to speak for all their constituents, there will always be something of a disconnect caused by many not having a voice of their choice in parliament and the fact so many have been elected on fractions of the vote (just shy of 100 MPs had winning shares less than 35%). Over post-war elections, 47% of the voters have on average ended up with an MP they had no hand in electing. In 2024, this was true of a record-breaking 58%, comfortably the worst score ever in a UK general election.

Chart showing the proportion of voters in UK general elections down the years left without a representative of their choosing

And it’s not just that more than a majority of voters have an MP they didn’t vote for. An additional 16% of all votes were ‘surplus’ votes cast for winning candidates beyond the total needed to win – these voters could all have stayed at home and made absolutely no difference to the overall seat tallies. When you add these two types of ‘wasted’ votes together, 74% of all votes were non-decisive – the second-highest rate on record, marginally less than in the 2015 election.

A look at Scotland reveals just how much the voting system is to blame for these democratic deficits. There, 57% were left without an MP they voted for. This can be compared to the situation with the Scottish Parliament, elected by the proportional Additional Member System, where only 13% of voters do not have at least one MSP of their choice.

Chart showing the share of voters for each party who are represented by an MP of their choosing
Chart showing the share of voters for each party who are represented by an MP of their choosing

Beyond the regional variations, there is also a huge inequality in who got represented by party. If you’re a Labour voter, you probably have a Labour MP – 78% of you do. But only 31% of Conservatives and 46% of Lib Dem supporters have the same privilege. For Reform and Green voters, the shares are even more dismal (2% and 5% respectively). And yet politicians wonder why there is such a huge disconnect from mainstream politics for millions of voters. Put simply, why would people feel represented when they demonstrably aren’t?

Chart showing the average amount of votes it took to elect an MP of each party

This is part of the wider inequality in terms of how much your vote counts depending on whom you cast it for. One Labour MP was elected for every 24,000 votes cast for the party, compared to 56,000 for the Conservatives and 49,000 for the Lib Dems – giving a Labour vote 2.4 times the aggregate electoral strength of a Tory one, and twice that of a Lib Dem one. But that’s nothing compared to the Greens, who only have one seat for every half-a-million votes, and Reform, whose vote-to-seat ratio is 35 times that of Labour. 

Another way

Of course, elections don’t have to be like this, producing such staggering failures of representation. There is another, better way. To demonstrate this, we’ve put the votes cast last Thursday through three potential schemes of Proportional Representation that meet the principles of Make Votes Matter’s Good Systems Agreement. These are an Additional Member System, based roughly on the version used for the Scottish Parliament; a Regional List PR system, similar to the one previously used to elect members to the European Parliament; and a Single Transferable Vote set-up, not dissimilar to the arrangements used for council elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

There are some obvious caveats here. This is just a projection of votes as cast under First Past the Post and it is likely that, had the election been conducted under an alternative voting system, there would be at least a small degree of difference in how people voted. After all, one Ipsos poll suggested one-in-five voters intended to vote tactically for a party that was not their first preference. Moreover, this is not an exhaustive list of potential alternatives, just a representative sample of the kinds of system MVM believes could be a good fit for the UK, and because certain assumptions are made in modelling these results, it is possible that similar estimates will vary a little.

Projections showing how the results of the 2024 general election might have looked under three different proportional systems

Unsurprisingly, these PR projections far better reflect the shares of the vote attained by the different parties. Our AMS model removes a staggering 80% of the disproportionality seen in the actual First Past the Post results. While Labour do still manage to obtain a small ‘winner’s bonus’, it is no longer in the form of a grotesquely outsized majority and is not coming at the expense of reasonably fair representation for all significant parties. 

There is some variation between the different systems: STV takes greater account of wider preference votes, meaning parties with broader popularity get a boost, while our List PR set-up slightly benefits the larger parties due to its fairly small constituencies. Nonetheless, across the board, all three systems give a far more proportional and representative account of the 2024 election.

Chart showing the share of directly represented voters under different voting systems

And the improvements in representation don’t stop there. Again, while there is variation, our alternatives would all ensure that roughly twice as many voters had an MP they voted for compared to First Past the Post. The distribution across parties would also be far more equitable, with the vast majority of voters having at least one Conservative and one Labour MP (with STV, for instance, the shares would be 97% and 99% respectively). Beyond giving more voters direct representation of their views in parliament, it would also mean that each parliamentary party was more representative of their voters. For instance, there would be a more accurate balance of rural Labour MPs and a far more proportionate number of Tories representing the North of England or central London, where a considerable portion of their voters live, typically under Labour MPs.

Make votes matter

While the shortfalls in representation contain within this year’s results are shocking even by the standards of First Past the Post, we should not lose sight of the fact that massive distortions in how we vote are the norm under our current voting system and will continue as long as the system endures. Millions of voices unheard at each election. And with voters’ ever-decreasing attachment to the two main parties, we are opening our doors to the kinds of volatile and wild results that FPTP has caused in Canada in the last few decades – which have included multiple wrong-winner results and governments elected on less than a third of the vote. 

Our alternative systems outlined above all maintain, in some form, a clear element of local constituency representation, while combining that with fairer, more proportional representation. There can no longer be any falling back on myths about instability (which research earlier this year comprehensively debunked), certain systems enabling ‘unsavoury’ forces to gain a foothold (no party would win a seat in our projections who didn’t under FPTP), or voters being unable to throw unpopular governments out (this election would have led to a decisive change in government under any system). Ultimately, it’s a simple case of whether you can accept the poor representational outcomes that First Past the Post unnecessarily produces. 

We believe it’s time to make votes matter.

Featured image credit: Francesco Zivoli