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Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Labour’s Historic Win: A Victory Shrouded in Electoral Disparity

Labour's 2024 parliamentary majority masks a historically low popular vote share of 33.9% — the lowest for a majority government in postwar Britain. The UK's electoral system has a distorting majoritarian effect that disadvantages smaller parties, but generally produces more stable Governments when compared to European counterparts.

Image Credit: Custom image by FEE

“We did it!” declared Britain’s newest Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, in his victory speech on Friday. With a surprise call for an early election, various mediocre policy announcements, head-to-head debates, and the rapid emergence of smaller political parties, the UK General election is finally behind us.

After 14 years of Conservative-led Governments, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party won one of the largest majorities in British electoral history. The Labour Party have now secured 412 out of the total 650 seats in Parliament (excluding the speaker’s seat). The Conservatives lost a total of 252 seats, and their vote share plummeted from more than 40 percent in the last general election to below 25 percent.

But if we scratch below the surface, Labour’s stonking Parliamentary majority disguises the fact that they won remarkably few votes. In fact, this election saw Labour win a majority on the lowest share of the popular vote in British postwar history. The Labour Party will now occupy 63 percent of seats in the House of Commons with less than 35 percent of the national vote share. According to the BBC, this gap between the share of total votes won and their share of seats is the largest since records began.

To put this into context, this vote share is actually less than what far-left former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn managed in 2017 when the party lost to Theresa May’s Conservatives.

This disparity between votes and seats significantly affects smaller parties. Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, the insurgent party on the right, received 14 percent of the national vote, but only managed to win a total of five seats in Parliament. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party, won 12 percent of the national vote, but managed to win 72 seats in Parliament.

To understand this electoral discrepancy, we must first understand the UK’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system. In the UK, a general election is essentially 650 mini-elections. There are 650 constituencies across the country, each with approximately 70,000 voters. Each constituency has an election to decide who their Member of Parliament (MP) will be to represent them in the House of Commons. It is a winner-takes-all system—whoever gets the most votes in a constituency wins the seat. At the national level, the King will ask the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons to form His Majesty’s Government.

This system is called First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), and has a distorting majoritarian effect which favors larger parties. If you are a smaller party, and your voters are spread out, you are unlikely to win many seats. By contrast, if you are a larger party, and your voters are more concentrated, you are likely to win more seats.

The debate around the fairness of FPTP has fluctuated in importance on the political agenda. Larger parties have an incentive to favor the status quo (turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas!), but there are some genuine reasons as to why many people favor FPTP over other systems. It generally does produce stronger and more stable Governments, especially when compared to our European counterparts. Belgium, for example, once took 18 months to form a Government through their proportional electoral system.

However, FPTP does not always return a majority. In 2010, the Conservatives had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to form a Government. In 2011, this led to the national referendum on reforming the FPTP to a more proportional electoral system called “Alternative Vote.” The referendum saw 68 percent of voters reject the change.

The disproportionate result of this election gives ammunition to voices that wish to place proportional representation at the top of the political agenda, and raises questions about how democratic the result really was. This week, Farage said that “these results prove the system doesn’t work.”

While it is unlikely that the new Government would consider electoral reform, one thing is clear: the conversation about how Britain elects its leaders is far from over.


  • Reem Ibrahim is the Communications Officer and Linda Whetstone Scholar at the Institute of Economic Affairs.