Fawcett briefing on women and voting

This article is taken from a Fawcett Society briefing on women and voting reform.

, 16 June 2001


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


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


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

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


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.

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 organisation 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

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