back to top

Ed Davey Admits That "First Past The Post" System Will Help The Lib Dems

His party has long branded the current voting system as outdated and unfair. Now the energy secretary has admitted to BuzzFeed News that it might be rather useful, too.

Posted on

The Liberal Democrats have always insisted that changing the voting system is one of their main priorities.

They even forced a UK-wide referendum in 2011 on replacing first-past-the-post with the "alternative vote" (AV) method, which was soundly rejected by voters.

But now some Liberal Democrat MPs have changed their tune after realising that the electoral status quo could help them avoid disaster at the general election.

Officially, the party remains determined to change the way MPs are elected. Nick Clegg has branded defenders of first-past-the-post as "dinosaurs" propping up the "old politics of tribalism".

But senior Lib Dems admit that the system they publicly despise will actually help them in May's general election.

That's because it will allow the party's few popular MPs to get over the line via strong local support.

Under first-past-the-post, people get a single vote for who they want to be their MP and whoever gets the most votes in each constituency wins.

The Lib Dems are now polling at such a low level across the country that a more proportional system – where second and third preferences are counted – would not help them.

Energy secretary Ed Davey confessed to BuzzFeed News: "Our voting system is unfair. But bizarrely it's actually helping us this time.

"Our poll rating isn't high, I totally accept that, but actually we're still doing well in our seats. If you can win in individual seats – and actually I think we're doing a lot better than people think we're doing – and even gain a few new ones, that system is actually helping us.

"I still prefer, by the way, PR [proportional representation] – I think STV [single transferable vote] is the right thing because it puts more power in the hands of the voter. But for once it's actually helping us and I think we're going to win a lot of seats despite our poll rating."

A number of Lib Dem MPs privately agreed that the current voting system could help them win. "Ssh, don't tell anyone!" one joked.

The party has long campaigned for a change in the electoral system to make sure the number of MPs better represents the total share of the vote.

Although it won 23% of the vote in the 2010 general election, under first-past-the-post that resulted in the Lib Dems taking just 57 out of 650 seats.

The party would potentially have got far more MPs under the "alternative vote" (AV) system, which sees voters rank the candidates. If no candidate has 50% of first preferences, second preferences are then counted and so on until someone has a majority.

But Anthony Wells, YouGov's director of political polling, told BuzzFeed News that national support was now so low – just 7% in the latest poll – that AV would not help.

"It used to be that they got a much bigger share of the vote than the share of MPs they got, but their share of the vote has collapsed so it's no longer an issue," he said.

"Lib Dem support is concentrated on those little islands where there's Lib Dem MPs. So there's a little island of support in southwest London, a little island in the south west [of England], a little island in Cumbria, and the rest is a desert. Hence 'first past the post' is helping them.

"Suddenly they're not underperforming their vote massively because they're not getting so many votes. The AV system would no longer be great for them."

Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Emily Ashton at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.