When the Elections Act (2022) passed into law in April 2022 much of the focus of commentators was on the requirement for voter ID to be produced by citizens in order to cast their vote in UK elections. This requirement was first put to the test in the Local Elections of May 2023. However, within the legislation were also changes to the way certain elections themselves were to be conducted and many people believe this was a very party politically motivated change with the electoral benefit being felt by the Conservative Party.
What changes to voting systems did the Elections Act (2022) make?
The important changes made to elections in the UK can be be found in Section 13 of the Act:
Behind the legalise of statute language what this means is that all the elections that were previously held using the SV system were replaced with First Past the Post. This means elections for:
- The Mayor of London
- Police and Crime Commissioners
What is the Supplementary Vote and why was it selected for mayoral elections?
The Supplementary Vote is a majoritarian voting system. This system was first devised in the 1990s and is an alternative to systems that eliminate candidates in different rounds and through multiple elections.
The system was used in elections for most directly-elected mayors. For example, it was used for the election of the Mayor of London. From 2012-2021 it was also been used in the election of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Under SV there is one ballot paper and voters cast two votes in order of preference.
The first stage of counting is simply to count all the first preference votes. If after counting these votes a candidate receives over 50% of all votes cast they win the election. If no candidate wins 50% then the top two candidates go through to a second round. If a voter voted for one of the second round candidates as their first preference their vote stays with that candidate. However, in addition, if any other voter who voted for one of the finalists as their second preference that will go towards the count.
One of the main benefits of SV is that under it he winning candidate can claim to have a clearer mandate than under FPTP. This is because in the second round over 50% of votes that are counted must got to the winning candidate.
Why might the Conservatives favour First Past the Post for mayoral elections?
There is a suspicion that the Conservatives were keen to change mayoral elections to FPTP because it is political beneficial for them to do so as it will make it easier for them to win mayoral races. Traditionally, the left of centre vote has been very fragmented, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens competing for votes. Yet, the right of centre vote has been less fragmented, with Conservatives more likely to hoover up votes within this cohort of voters.
However, under SV the fragmented left of centre vote is not as damaging to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Whilst they might not win the votes they might like on the first ballot, a large number of Labour or Liberal Democrat voters are likely to vote for the other with their second vote meaning that they can win the election overall. This can have a significant impact on election results. This trend can be seen in London and elsewhere:
London – 2021
Labour’s percentage increase between 1st and 2nd round was 15.2% compared to 9.5% increase for the Conservatives.
Sheffield City Region – 2018
Labour’s percentage increase between 1st and 2nd round was 26.9% compared to 11.5% increase for the Conservatives.
What was said about the issue during parliamentary debate?
The change to the voting system was added to the bill late. The government said that this was being done because:
“First Past the Post is the world’s most widely used electoral system. The change to First Past the Post will further strengthen the accountability of elected mayors and PCCs to their electorate, making it easier for voters to express a clear choice. The person chosen to represent a local area should be the one who directly receives the most votes.”Cabinet Office Press Release
However, the issue was contested in Parliament and became a large part of a debate within the House of Lords.
The Liberal Democrat Lord Shipley said:
“…it changes a system of support from the supplementary vote system, which requires more than 50% support at the ballot box, to first past the post, which does not require 50% support, there is a fundamental issue of principle. Why do the Government think it proper for an elected mayor to have such widespread powers over resources, but to be elected by possibly as low as under a third of those voting?”
Alternatively, in the same debate the Conservative Baroness Noakes said:
” The British people understand the first past the post system, which is why they supported it in 2011. It gives a clear result to the candidate with the most votes, and that is the heart of accountability. If that candidate does not perform to the electorate’s will or expectation, they can boot him out; they can vote him out at subsequent elections. That is the key advantage of the first past the post system: it gives a very clear result”
Later in the debate, Lord Campbell-Savours who had actually invented the Supplementary Vote system was less restrained in highlighting why he believed this was being done:
” …it is no more than an attempt to abolish an electoral system that has stood the test of time so as to secure an electoral advantage for the Conservatives. The Government are effectively seeking to corrupt a system that is fair and, in the absence of full proportional representation, more proportionally reflects the opinion of the wider electorate. The Conservatives have always opposed the supplementary vote system since its birth as it challenges the Conservative bias built into the first past the post electoral system—nothing more and nothing less than that. They have opposed it for over 20 years. “
Is there evidence that abandoning SV has already helped the Conservatives?
There is an election in 2022 that stands out as an example of SV having helped the Conservatives. The results of the Mayoralty of Bedford make interesting reading in this regard.
In the 2019 election for the Mayor of Bedford under SV the Liberal Democrat candidate won clearly after the transfer of second votes:
In 2023, the Conservative candidate Tom Wootton won by just 145 votes under First Past the Post, winning just 33.1% of votes overall.
This may be an example where a electoral gain has been made by Conservatives due to their ability to use the their parliamentary majority to force through the legislation required. The winning candidate of course also has a much weaker mandate to govern – itself a problem of simple plurality voting systems.
The removal of SV and its replacement with FPTP as a voting system is a significant change to the way certain elections will take place in the UK. It is also likely to be a change that materially benefits the Conservative Party, raising questions over the ability in the UK of a majority government to make constitutional changes in their own interests.
First Past the Post – A single-member plurality system used in the UK for General Elections, English and Welsh Local Elections and, since 2022, for the election of directly elected mayors and police and crime commissioners.
Supplementary Vote – A majoritarian system that was used in England for elections for directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners until 2022.
Metro-Mayors – Directly elected Mayors of Metropolitan areas. For example, Andy Burnham is the directly elected Mayor for Greater Manchester.
Elections Act (2022) – An Act of Parliament that changed many aspects of electoral law. Most notably, it removed the Supplementary Vote as a voting system in the UK, replacing those elections previously held under SV with FPTP.
At the top of the Section 13, I take it simple majority means the same as simple plurality..? Also do the electoral systems in all devolved regions get determined by UK parliament?
No. Plurality means just the most votes. You can have a plurality without a majority (more votes than everyone else combined). They are now devolved. Wales recently chose to give local councils the right to use STV for local elections. Some have done so.