A few days ago I wrote a blog in which I mentioned that 69% of constituencies in the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, as opposed to only 31% who voted to remain.
A reader chose to challenge me on this, calling this “misrepresentation”. I have, in response, directed him to the full electoral commission results data set, which is very easy to interpret, and which clearly backs up my claim – 263 constituencies showed a majority for leave, as opposed to only 119 which had a majority for remain.
“So what?”, you may ask. The referendum was run on the basis of one vote per person, so the absolute number of votes is what counts.
That is, of course, correct. The absolute number of votes amounted to 52% Leave vs 48% Remain – hence these are the figures that everybody always talks about.
But I still think it’s worth talking about the constituency figures. Or, more to the point, talking about why it is that votes are counted by constituency in a general election, rather than each person simply voting for the party they wish to see in government, and the party with the highest number of absolute votes winning.
Constituency-based voting – like the electoral college system in the United States – was put in place to try to balance out the representation of those living in densely-populated urban areas vs those living in more sparsely-populated rural areas. In a one-person one-vote system, it is easy to see how the 4.6 million registered voters living in London could easily outvote the half a million people registered to vote in Wales, or the slightly less than 4 million people registered to vote in Scotland.
We all know many Londoners feel that life outside London doesn’t exist, but the truth is it does. And the needs and interests of those living outside London are, in many cases, far removed from those of London’s inhabitants. The constituency voting system therefore groups votes together by geographical area, and gives each constituency an equal weighting – despite the fact that some constituencies, due to the density of their populations, have a far higher number of voters than others. Each constituency elects an MP, and the party with the highest number of MPs gets to form the government (if it has an outright majority) or, in the event that an outright majority has not been reached, has the first opportunity to approach other parties to try to form a coalition.
The system is not perfect, and disputes about constituency boundaries frequently arise, but it does at least ensure that those living in rural areas still end up with their interests being represented, which they otherwise would not be.
Which brings me back to the referendum. Given the reasons the constituency voting system exists – and given we already know that issues that affect voters in London are very different from those that affect voters in the north of England, or the Midlands, or in Wales, or Scotland, or Northern Ireland – why was the constituency voting system not used in the referendum?
One reason, of course, is the binary nature of the question. Voters were not electing MPs – they were deciding whether or not they wished to remain part of the European Union.
But let’s not pretend for a minute that the government, in deciding that the referendum would be run on a simple majority of votes, was not relying on the voters in the big cities to swing the referendum firmly to Remain. Therefore the fact that the overall majority was for Leave, is quite extraordinary – and is an indication of to what extent the views and ambitions of those living in London and other wealthy metropolitan parts of the country, are out of step with the rest of the UK.
I’m not arguing for one minute that the referendum should have been run on a constituency basis. With so many factors influencing every individual’s decision, it is right that the overall decision was taken on a one person, one vote basis. But I will never stop reminding people of the very high percentage of constituencies that voted to leave – or the reasons why we have a constituency voting system in place for general elections.
One of my more enduring memories of the morning of 24 June 2016, sometime around 6.00 or 7.00 am, when many in the UK were just waking up to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU, was of a BBC London news reporter announcing “Londoners have woken up this morning to find themselves irrelevant to the national referendum result”. Sadly I don’t recall which reporter it was who uttered the words (I think it was Ben Thompson but would not like to stake my life on that), but the momentousness of that statement – of the word “irrelevant” ever being used to describe London, will likely stay with me for the rest of my life.
The UK’s political, economic and social discourse is usually dominated by what is happening in London – the rest of the country finding itself a mere footnote. The absolute majority of people who voted for Leave may have been relatively small, but the reality of the way the vote broke down in constituency terms paints a very different story. This was a phenomenal, resounding reminder to those living in London and other wealthy metropolitan parts of the country, that the typically voiceless majority living in the rest of the country could no longer be ignored.
The fact that a few prominent London-based politicians, lawyers and businessmen are still trying desperately to overturn that result, shows just how hard they are finding it to come to terms with their own irrelevance. The one-person, one-vote system may not be as fair to rural voters as the constituency voting system, but on occasion, it still packs a punch in reminding elected officials just whom it is that they are elected to serve.
* For those who enjoy spreadsheets and data, the link to download the csv file of referendum results is here: