UK election results 2024: Why do some popular parties win so few seats?

Reform UK has won just four seats with 14 percent of the vote, while Conservatives got 121 seats on 24 percent – why?

The United Kingdom’s general election has resulted in a landslide victory for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which has won 412 seats of a total of 650 seats (65 percent) in the House of Commons.

Counting is still continuing in a couple of seats, but while Labour has 64 percent of the seats, it only actually won 34 percent of the actual votes.

Conversely, Reform UK, the far-right party campaigning on issues such as immigration, has received 14 percent of the votes so far, but only four seats, or 0.6 percent of the total. The Conservative Party has won a bit more of the vote – about 24 percent – but has taken 121 seats (18 percent of seats) – a huge difference.

So why do some parties with lots of votes only receive a handful of seats?

How many seats have each party won?

  • Labour Party: 35 percent vote share, 412 seats
  • Conservative Party: 24 percent vote share, 121 seats
  • Liberal Democrats: 12 percent vote share, 71 seats
  • Reform UK: 14 percent vote share, 4 seats
  • Green Party: 7 percent vote share, 4 seats
  • Scottish National Party (SNP): 2 percent vote share, 9 seats
  • Sinn Fein: 0.7 percent vote share, 7 seats
  • Plaid Cymru: 0.7 percent vote share, 4 seats

Why does this happen?

This anomaly occurs because the UK uses the plurality voting system known as “first-past-the-post”, which works differently from the various systems of proportional representation used in many other countries.

There are 650 constituencies across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the four countries in the UK.

Voters in each constituency make one choice from a list of candidates and, after the votes are counted, the candidate with the most votes wins the seat in the House of Commons.

If a party wins a large number of seats by small margins, it will be reflected through an imbalance between overall votes and overall seats won. Theoretically, one party could win 51 percent of the vote in every seat, while another could win 49 percent in every seat. The first party would receive 100 percent of the seats, however.

The party that reaches 326 seats – one more than half of the total 650 – will form a government without the need for a coalition with other parties, regardless of how well other parties perform. The party with the second-highest number of seats forms the official opposition.

If no party wins 326 seats, the party with the most seats may agree to form a coalition with another party.

Does this mismatch between votes and seats happen frequently in the UK elections?

  • In the 2017 general election, the Liberal Democrats won 7.4 percent of votes and only 12 seats, 1.8 percent of the total. In 2019, the party won 11.5 percent of votes but only 1.7 percent of seats.
  • In the 2015 general election, the Liberal Democrats won 7.9 percent of votes, but only won 1.2 percent of seats, returning just four MPs.
  • In 2015, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 12.6 percent of the votes but only one seat, or 0.2 percent.
  • The Green Party polled 3.8 percent of votes in 2015 but got just 0.2 percent of the seats.
  • In 1997, the Labour Party gained 43 percent of the vote but won 64 percent of the seats.

What do critics of the UK electoral system say?

While the first-past-the-post system might work efficiently when only two or three candidates compete for votes, it is less relevant in modern times, observers say.

“In an increasingly multiparty political environment, with voters less committed than ever to the two main parties, first-past-the-post creates hugely distorted results,” Steve Gilmore, a spokesperson from Make Votes Matter, which campaigns for the introduction of proportional representation in the UK, told Al Jazeera.

“A party’s share of the seats in parliament bears little resemblance to the share of the vote they received. In other words, on Friday, parliament will not represent how the country voted.”

Critics argue that the first-past-the-post system sometimes allows the election of MPs from parties that did not get enough overall votes, just because the party was popular in some constituencies.

For example, in 1997, Labour won with 43 percent of the vote, which means 57 percent of voters did not vote Labour.

Critics also blame the first-past-the-post system for low voter turnout since voters believe their single vote will have little effect on the result.

They argue the system also encourages tactical voting. This can mean voters not choosing their favourite candidate, but instead choosing someone more popular to ensure their least favourite candidate does not win.

As of January 29, a tracker by the British public opinion and data monitoring company, YouGov, showed that only 26 percent of people were in favour of keeping the first-past-the-post voting system.

Some 45 percent of respondents believed the British voting system should be changed to an alternative voting system called proportional representation (PR).

What would have been the result under PR?

Under proportional representation, parties are allotted a number of seats in line with the proportion of the vote they won.

Reform UK would have won 14 percent of seats in the House of Commons getting 14 percent of votes, a significant number – 91.

If the PR system were in place, the Conservatives would have won 156 seats, and the Labour Party would have won 221 seats (crucially, not an outright majority).

The Greens would have won 45 or 46 seats; the Liberal Democrats, 78 seats; Plaid Cymru, six or seven seats; and the SNP 13 seats.

Under PR, the number of seats for regional parties such as the SNP could see a slight drop. “No PR system would ever be perfectly proportional, so it would always tend to give a bit of a boost to the larger parties – just not nearly as much as the current system,” Alan Renwick, professor of democratic politics at University College London, explained.

“Under a fairer, proportional system, everyone’s vote would count, wherever you live and whoever you vote for. Governments would have to win support from across the whole country, and would have to deliver on the issues that matter to the majority of voters to stay in power,” said Gilmore.

Why doesn’t the UK use PR?

While first-past-the-post was a standard voting system in many countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, most have shifted away from it, but not the UK.

“That’s partly because we never had a moment of revolutionary change, and partly because keeping first-past-the-post has generally been in the interests of the party in power – this system tends to give the largest party an advantage,” Renwick explained.

“The Conservatives and Labour have always formed governments and haven’t seen their interests as served by switching to PR. And there has been minimal popular pressure for change – most people have generally liked the simplicity of first-past-the-post and the alternation of single-party governments,” he added.

Renwick said the first-past-the-post is “simple, and it’s generally good for accountability – it makes it easy to throw those in power out if you don’t like what they’re doing”.

Has the UK ever considered changing the electoral system?

In May 2011, there was a UK-wide referendum on whether to bring in an alternative voting (AV) system instead of first-past-the-post. It was known as the AV referendum.

However, only 42 percent of voters turned out to vote in the referendum, and nearly 68 percent were against introducing AV.

According to the independent advocacy organisation Electoral Reform Society (ERS), under an AV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins more than half of the overall votes, the one with the least votes is eliminated “and everyone who voted for them has their vote moved to their second choice”. “This process is repeated until one candidate receives over 50 percent of the votes and is elected,” ERS explains on its website.

It says AV would reduce tactical voting and prevent “extremist”, polarising candidates from winning seats.

Where else in the world has the first-past-the-post system been used?

The United States, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, among many other former British colonies still use first-past-the-post to elect their legislatures. Canada and India elect their lower houses through first-past-the-post.

Last month, results from India’s 2024 lower house elections were released. The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a vote percentage of 36.6, grabbing 240 seats, or 44.2 percent. The nearest rival Indian National Congress won 21.2 percent of the votes but only 18.2 percent, or 99 seats.

Both of India’s large parties contested the election in alliances comprising regional parties. The Congress-allied Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) won 0.7 percent, or 4 seats with a vote percentage of 1.6, meanwhile BJP-allied Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) won 0.9 percent of seats, or 5 seats with 0.4 percent votes.

In 2019, the BJP won 37.3 percent of votes and 55.8 percent of seats, or 303 seats.

Australia did away with first-past-the-post in 1918, Ireland in 1922, South Africa in 1994, Tanzania in 1995, and New Zealand in 1996.

Source: Al Jazeera