Fawcett briefing on women and voting
This article is taken from a Fawcett Society briefing on women and voting reform.
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.
- 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 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
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.
- 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
Smaller parties, whose vote is spread evenly across the country,
may do particularly badly under the first past the post system.
- 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
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
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
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+) Sytem. This
sytem 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
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
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
it can encourage the selection of women
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 pur 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 recieve fairer representation in Parliament. The
electorate would not feel that their vote was watsed, helping to
rebuild confidence in the political process and potentionally increase
voter turn out.
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 organisation listed below work on voting reform: contact them
for more information.
18a Victoria Park Square
Tel: 020 8880 6088
Electoral Reform Society
6 Chancel Lane
Tel: 020 7928 1622
Mave Votes Count
6 Chancel Street
Tel: 020 7928 2076