European GE Turnouts

Rates of General Election Participation in European Countries

The table here shows the rates of participation in sixteen European countries. The UK is the only nation that has continued to use the first-past-the-post election system. Except for France**, all the others use proportional representation.

The table is kept up to date with revision made as soon as possible after new elections are held (Column 2). It is a snapshot making available data that can be used for a variety of purposes, the main ones being:

a) to evaluate and rank UK turnout against principal European countries (Column 7).

b) to allow readers to form a view on any relationship between the rate of turnout and the system of election in use (Column 6).

c) to indicate the approximate change in the number of UK voters who would turn out to vote if the rate of participation matched that of the other countries in the table (Column 8).

d) to calculate an average rate of turnout across the sixteen countries. As of November 2019 this stands at 73.6%. If we want to compare ourselves with the eleven countries above us in the table, their average is 79.3%.

**France: a two-round presidential election usually ends up in a run-off decided on a simple majority between two final candidates.  We show the second round turnout.

2017 UK Election – a glance back to the mythology vs the facts

It’s been eighteen months since 555 & Counting was updated. The main explanation is things cropping up to hinder plans and create delays. That’s topical! All the same, the untypical voting pattern in 2017, out of alignment with the UK’s four previous elections, did have an influence in knocking us slightly off course. As did the Brexit imbroglio, too omnipresent to be prevented from silencing all arguments needing to be advanced for electoral reform.

The myth abounded even among eminent scholars that UK politics had bounced back to rude health. They claimed 2017 to be a massive return to two-party politics and ‘a big turn out’. Both were statistically untrue, as this website was pointing out in 2017 (see last para here) and (fourth para here). But real facts find traction in the public mind hard to come by. Factoids, truisms and positive sounding spins always get in the way.

As if to prove the point, I recently spoke to one of the country’s most celebrated and sought after election analysts after he’d given a presentation. He seemed slightly irritated that an evidently unqualified non-entity had stepped up to present him with the reality of those parliamentary seat distribution statistics. He dismissed them with disdainful waves of the hand and a comment something like ‘Oh, you always get that.’ Afterwards, I thought, had he been pressed or tired, he could have invited me to email him with the data.

This is the up-date of our European general election participation table that records the impressive improvement by Spain in its election held at the end of April 2019:

Sweden and Italy held elections in 2018. It’s doubtful even young readers will live to see the UK achieve Sweden’s 87.2%. But when comparing ourselves to the three European economies roughly our size, including Italy, we fall well short of them.

Now we fall well short of Spain too. If our 2017 election had seen the same turnout rate as Spain’s this year, an additional 3.3 million Brits would have gone to the polls. We continue to accumulate evidence that first-past-the-post electoral systems suppress turnout. The US uses it and their last election got a turnout of 55.5%. The most powerful head of state in the world was elected with the support of about one in four of his electorate. Something can’t be right, can it?

Our FPTP Turnout table analyses turnout rates in countries across the world that still hold to first-past-the-post systems. Forgive the spoiler but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the turnout rates are not at all impressive.

The limitations and warts of first-past-the-post have become all too apparent as well during the Brexit deadlock. It has made it clearer to a wider audience that our two-party system is demonstrably in deep malaise. Electoral reform is now even more urgent. We’ll go into what should be learnt from Brexit in more detail in subsequent posts on this website.

2017: Year of 7 European Elections

Seven parliamentary elections took place in European countries in 2017. In France and Austria turnouts declined, bringing them down to eighth and tenth ranks in our table then. The Czech Republic and Norway were static.

In Germany and the Netherlands, turn-out increased by 4.7% and 7.3% respectively. Both countries moved well up from their previous ninth and seventh places. Since then further elections in Europe have taken place and we now reproduce the most up to date table as at June 2019:

Advocates of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system often don’t know that it is the only one persisting among the developed democracies of Europe. Nor that along with the USA and Canada it is one of only three major western economies that retain it. But they argue that British voters would not like Westminster elections based on proportional representation. Across the Channel, though, eleven out of fourteen European electorates are more motivated than Brits to go to the polls, as our table shows. The last column projects how many more Brits would have voted at those  countries’ turnout rates.

2017’s increase in UK turnout of 2.6% from the relatively low starting point of 66.1% in 2015 and unimpressive twelfth place ranking, was touted by many as “a re-awakening of interest in politics”. Given the fanfare advance billing for Brexit – “the most crucial issue facing the nation since WWII” – 2.6% seems more like gently stirring from an afternoon nap. Numerically, though, 1.5 million extra voters did turn out, a moderate step in the right direction but fewer than Germany’s extra 2.7 million and not hugely more than the Netherlands’ 1.1 million extra, a country whose electoral size is a mere quarter of the UK’s. The issue of outstanding significance in the UK was massive vote redistribution mainly from the Liberal-Democrats and UKIP to Labour and Tory and from the Greens and SNP to a lesser degree.

In Germany, the right-wing party AfD attracted 13% of the vote, the same as UKIP in 2015. UKIP were allocated one seat in parliament, the AfD, ninety-four. Repeat: ninety-four. Under PR, UKIP would have got at least eighty. How we orbit on a politically different planet from the rest of Europe! Some would say democratically different too. This website may well not agree with UKIP policies but we unhesitatingly say they should have been defending eighty seats at the 2017 election, not one. Their standing in parliament would still be reduced no doubt. In fact under first-past-the-post’s ‘reality’, representation of their 1 million remaining voters’ views has magicked away altogether.

The UKIP party though has kept the lowest possible profile on electoral reform so we aren’t reaching for the box of tissues. With full knowledge of the situation they have placidly accepted living with the cruel fate that first-past-the-post, for all the foreseeable future, will unfailingly dole out to them and all parties of similar size and diffidence.

Handling the ‘NO DEMAND FOR REFORM’ claim

Quoting the failed AV-Referendum of 2011 is the easiest way for front-line media interviewers to block discussion of electoral reform.

This is a serious impediment to getting positive messages over to the public about PR. Electoral reform is discussed very rarely on mainstream media so any opportunities are precious. You will find a short video on our Facebook page called: Handling the false claim there is no demand for UK electoral reform.

The exchange is usually introduced by the reformer who makes a point about the FPTP system being unrepresentative and unfair. The interviewer typically responds quoting AV2011 and affirming it was rejected by the British people. The reformer nearly always tries to protest the truth, that it was never a true referendum for PR. The presenters know this very well but still cut things short by arguing it would have been a staging post in the right direction for something better…

In other words, the reformer is very easily made to seem on the defensive. A change of tactic is necessary and it can do no harm here to try and turn the tables by going on the attack.

So instead of going down the AV is not PR line, we should say that AV2011 was a mistake. It should never have happened. It was the Lib-Dem leadership’s fault that it went ahead at all.

It was a strategic blunder of huge proportions. There was no co-ordinated campaign and there was no widespread consultation or unity among potential partners. There was no coherent message, no flag flying* to get behind and the whole episode has been described as bad-tempered and ill-informed. It was held on the same day as local elections, renowned for low turn-outs, in many areas of England and sure enough the turnout was 42%.

A spade should be called a spade: the blame lies squarely with the Liberal-Democrat leadership. They wanted to chalk up something concrete to show for their Coalition status. On a hope and a prayer what they did was divert potentially more constructive pressure for electoral reform onto the sidelines, while providing enough ammunition to the status quo to last a generation.

There are several strands of evidence backing up the strategic naivety of the Lib-Dem leadership. Bear in mind that two of their party’s highest profile, flagship policies were electoral reform and Europe.

  • From the moment they decided to enter Coalition with the Tories, they made a number of bad judgements, the one mostly remembered being on tuition fees.

  • They demanded nothing on the EU – for example, a Minister for the EU or increased dissemination of positive aspects of EU membership.

  • Even if they thought they had a chance of winning it, they agreed to far too early a date for AV2011 which left no time for the necessary preparation and organisation referred to above.

  • The coalition was an opportunity to showcase a ‘PR-style alternative’ and demonstrate government need not resemble the fears FPTP advocates had always stoked up. The Lib-Dem leadership failed comprehensively – almost as if they did not grasp that the opportunity was a real one.

We should not attach blame to Liberal-Democrat voters. They made their feelings known in 2015 when support fell from an impressive 6.8m in 2010 all the way down to 2.4m.

The Liberal-Democrat legacy then is, if anything, a more tarnished image for PR and, more concretely, one year after the Coalition, a vote to exit from the EU.

Yet Mr Clegg when interviewed still convinces himself and tries to convince us that they did a great job of holding down the Tories. Denial is not helpful when looking for a way to topple the overbearing edifice that is AV2011. Parties to a future campaign for electoral reform must confess and agree that it was a big strategic blunder. The party to blame must take it on the chin and move on. It will be better for them and all the more condusive to the more assertive, positive and modern case for electoral reform this website promotes.

*It’s worth noting that the Remain campaign were much criticised for printing and distributing to every household a  leaflet containing its arguments for staying in the EU. Despite the fact that each full facing page in the document was a glossy, colour photograph, not a single image of the EU flag was visible (nor at any other time in the campaign as far as we recall). A grave strategic error?

2017 Chart

This chart shows the pattern of voting in the UK election general election held on June 8th 2017.

Compared with the charts for the previous four elections this for 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015, you will see an established pattern has been broken. The numbers voting for Labour and Tory showed big increases. The other, smaller parties fared poorly, losing not far short of half their support. Much of this was explained by the decline in the votes for the Liberal-Democrats, UKIP and SNP.

Looking more closely at the vote for Labour, the number of people voting for them increased by an astonishing 37%. By reporting the change in vote share, 10%, the mainstream media tend to obscure the true extent of the change.

As for the Tories, they also increased their vote numbers impressively, by 20%. There are good reasons to believe that many of the 2.3m people this represents were made up of returning UKIP-Brexiteers and those defecting from SNP in Scotland. The following table with the statistical breakdown of the results can be compared with the tables for previous elections.

This was a strange election called for manipulative reasons and originally presented as a mandate for Brexit consolidation. In this sense a one-off, it is too early to draw the conclusion that it marks a permanent shift to new voting patterns. It suits spokespersons for Labour and Tory to insist that we have seen a massive return to two-party politics.

But what makes all the difference is seats held in parliament. To get to the true picture we have to go deeper. Between 2001 and 2015 the average hold on seats by Labour and Tory combined was 86.75%. This time the two parties have grabbed 89.1% which is admittedly an increase – but only of 2.35% above the average. That amounts to 15 seats more in a 650 seat parliament. If that signifies a ‘massive return to two-party politics’ what did we have before?

FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions in the run up to every election

FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions in the run up to every election

Tory and Labour want an outright majority so at each election, their priority of achieving a ‘winner-take-all’ outcome takes over. To them, playing the electoral system seems more important than any concern for whether democratic election process is being served or not. In or out of power they have not been interested in:

  • the depth and validity of their mandate to govern outright
  • whether your and my vote gets counted towards the overall outcome in a meaningful way
  • parliamentary representation that reflects the growth of support for small and new parties.

A lot of that might be obvious but now we come to two further examples of FPTP’s power of democratic distortion that are not as easy to spot. We call them FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions.

Deception 1

In the weeks before an election hosts of experts, pundits, politicians and presenters push out a familiar mantra in one or another form of words: ‘Get out and vote. Don’t waste your democratic right; influence the outcome; vote with your conscience; it only takes 20 minutes.’

The thing they never make clear is that they are only talking to voters in contested seats.

In the much greater number of safe seats the advice they are giving you is pointless on almost every count. Mostly Labour and Tory, by far, have held the swathes of safe seats lying across England for decades. Under FPTP, cast a vote for any party other than the incumbent and you simply cannot influence the outcome. You might as well have stayed at home. FACT: Voting will take about 20 minutes but other than that, the advice the pundits and the rest are putting out is a complete deception as far as it affects you.

Deception 2

Think about what the media put on your screens when they analyse and debate the election. It centres on three basic factors:

  • the quality of the parties’ leaderships with particular focus on the prospective PM
  • the parties’ policies or manifesto, compared one against the other
  • the skills and qualities local MPs bring to their relationships with their constituents

Now recall that in the FPTP voting booth, you get one ‘X’ to mark in one box and if you attempt anything more, your paper is spoilt. It is clear then that the analysis of these differences only helps you if, as it happens, you conclude all three of them apply to the party of one of the candidates you consider voting for.

But what if they don’t. In your view, Party A might have the best leader, B the better policies and C a really hard working local MP. FPTP will not let you express all that careful analysis you will make and indeed, will be encouraged in the run up to the election to make as if it were possible for you to fully express your preferences.

FPTP turns every voter into a one-shot wonder. It lacks the sophistication to serve a 21C election process in an advanced democracy. Only a system of PR that allows you to make multiple choices or rank two or more candidates can give you that.

If we had such a system, many of which are happily in use across Europe, the Two Great FPTP Deceptions would no longer be relevant. It would be worth going out to vote in every constituency because all votes, including non-winning votes, would have a say in the overall result. Doing all the analysis would have made sense too, because after all that, you do not have to back your once-every-five-year opportunity into a single corner if that’s not what you want.

Electoral Reform is Urgent – the Dangers of Brexit and ‘Missing Marginals’

Electoral Reform is Urgent – the Dangers of Brexit and Missing Marginals

There are three points in this post. Two are about a need for urgency on electoral reform and the third concerns this website.

Let us first deal with the two matters that call for Urgency on Electoral Reform.

Brexit: surprisingly to us, no case was ever brought before an EU jurisdiction to get First-past-the-post declared unfit for purpose in a 21C democracy. Our January item showed how we are the last country in Europe to use it while the others all have one or other system of proportional representation. With Brexit almost certainly going through, any scrutiny by the EU we might have called on will be out of reach for good.

We will be on our own to wonder whether the power-holding segment of our homogenised political class might like to move to an even less democratic electoral system. Citizens should be capable of recognising this possibility when they look at an institution that prides itself for carrying over into the digital age attitudes and practices rooted in the 18C or earlier. If when MPs enter Westminster world, there’s a pompous, antiquated mindset that enough find it hard to stay out of, we are entitled to worry.

Particularly those who think Brexit is a short-sighted error – a regression for our democracy – need a way of getting some balance back. In the short term, an effective answer is electoral reform. Proportional representation broadly reflects the will of the electorate and takes away the ability of any single party to govern us outright without a genuine majority mandate. Let’s get a campaign underway. URGENT!

Diminishing Number of Marginal Seats: we recommend this link to the London School of Economics website which published ‘The Case of the Missing Marginals.’ It is indicating how their numbers are in decline. There are already about 425 safe seats where your vote for a party that’s not the incumbent is about as meaningful as casting it into the nearest drain outside the voting station. Only in the marginals does any serious contest take place, mostly between Tory and Labour but not exclusively. The parties funnel the lion’s share of their campaign budgets into the marginals.

So from a practical point of view, fewer marginals and more safe seats is no bad thing for them. But if the number of marginals keeps diminishing ad absurdum, in theory only one party might be able to win general elections in perpetuity. It will not take much more to push us over the line to full-on ‘electoral dictatorship’.

Whether in safe seats or marginals, winning and most non-winning votes cast under proportional representation are both of value. They are meaningfully counted and will have a say in the final allocation of seats in parliament. So the worst effects of this disturbing ‘missing marginals’ trend can only be protected against in the short term by moving to proportional representation. This looks like high-octane campaign fuel to us! URGENT!

Contact Form: the contact form on our Homepage is functioning again after being out of order for some time. We apologise if you have tried to use the form and hit a dead end. Annoying for you and an embarrassing issue for us. We would like to hear back from you on any of the posts, issues and analyses on the site. The contact form is an opportunity to respond with comments, questions or requests to post your thoughts.

Turnouts in recent European elections: UK near the bottom.

We have compared turnouts – or participation rates – at the 2017 UK general election with the most recent elections of our 15 closest counterparts in Europe. We have included only two eastern European states and no Balkan states. Looking at the following table, you will see that only five countries had lower turnouts than the UK – Spain, Eire, Czech Republic, Portugal and Poland. Please note there is a more recent table available on this website.

This is only a snapshot in time but it is worth noting that the 2017 turnout of 68.7% was the biggest of the five UK elections held since 2001, the average of which is 64.1%. But still we only rank eleventh out of sixteen. It is reasonable to conclude from this data that a new twenty-first century pattern of low voter turnout has been established in this country.

Defenders and advocates of our First-past-the-post system, the only one in use in Europe, claim low turnout has nothing to do with the type of electoral system. The data tends to indicate the opposite – that a proportional representation system of voting encourages people to get to the ballot box. There are significant factors. For example, they know that their vote is going to be counted in a meaningful way even if it’s not a winning vote. Also that if they support a smaller party, one that achieves a minimum threshold of say 5%, it will get its fair share of representation in parliament.

The election that grabs all the political attention in France, where they do things differently too, is for Head of State. Their 2017 election returned a record rate of abstentions which demoted them down the table from fourth to eighth place.

The last column in the table projects the millions of additional votes that would have been cast in the UK election had it matched the turnouts achieved by other countries. If made comparable with Belgium, Sweden and Denmark, an astonishing 8 to 10 million more votes would have been cast. In the UK, the biggest statistical grouping in elections is ‘non-voter’ – abstentions!

Very significant inroads could be made into the massive non-voter group were the UK achieving the more modest turnouts of the countries ranked fifth to ninth, when an additional number between 1.3 and 3 million might be expected to turn up at the polls.

However, the experience of a first-past-the-post system is that little can happen under it to evolve political change. Tory or Labour typically secure an unearned mandate for outright government though that was not the case in the odd circumstances of the snap election of 2017. The Tories were returned as the largest party but with no overall majority, prompting them to start talks with the DUP regarding a working arrangement for power. The Tories are visceral critics of PR and despise it in particular for encouraging stitch up deals and giving small parties too much influence. You have to look far and wide for greater hypocrisy than that.

FPTP change; stuck in a snowdrift?


Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565)

The artistry and detail in Peter Brueghel’s masterpiece ‘Hunters in the Snow’ is enough to take your breath away. But the story it depicts is equally intriguing. A group of hunters cross the foreground, heads bowed returning with a very slim catch. Even their line of dogs looks depressed, stooped over with snouts almost dragging the snow.

In the middle ground, though, all the folk are out on the frozen village pond clearly having a great time playing winter games. They seem separate from the harsh reality of the environment, not wanting to acknowledge that they might become very unfortunate victims of it quite soon.

Probably we can all think of examples in modern life where we’ve seen this dynamic at play. 5.5.5 & Counting cannot help wondering whether the political parties in this country who want and need FPTP elections replaced are a bit like the villagers. Take Nigel Farage whose UKIP party laughably gained one seat on the back of nearly 4m votes in 2015. What could possibly be more urgent – more of a priority – than getting the ball rolling for a Brexit-like campaign for electoral reform? Yet off he went to the US to give valuable time and resource to, of all people, Donald Trump.

Now we have a lot of time for the Green Party but what was the point of Caroline Lucas a little while ago seeking a pact with Labour, a party that has never mentioned electoral reform in a manifesto. We have heard no more since. The Greens suffered under FPTP too gaining one seat with just under one million votes. They might be trying to send a strategically placed curling stone down the rink but look again at history. Mainstream interests invariably have the power to swallow up or clear out whatever it suits them to label a marginal interest and without ultimately conceding anything of much worth at all.

The Lib-Dems are a bit of a mystery. We know that as willing capitulators to the no-hope 2011 AV referendum and their subsequent electoral collapse, they must be feeling a little reserved and glum about where to go next. Could they ever admit that had they organised and led a concerted, focussed campaign on an appropriate timeline to get the messages over and over, a bit like Brexit did, the outcome could have been much different. Once, they would naturally have been at the head of an electoral reform campaign but now we think the leadership focus would have to be elsewhere.

The integrity and consistency of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP is thus far quite impressive. The one smaller party that did benefit from the FPTP system but still with a manifesto commitment to electoral reform because it is fair to voters. Sustain that and it’s the best and most powerful position of principle to work from. Continual media obsession with a ‘will she/won’t she?’ on a second independence referendum hogs all the attention on politics north of the border. But Sturgeon doesn’t need propping up by FPTP, independent Scotland or not. We think she’d say that if Labour returns 25%, that should translate to something like 25% representation in Holyrood, Westminster or wherever. Simple!

Rabbits aren’t going to come running out of their cosy warrens into the waiting nets of hunters and there will be sports and fun fairs again on a frozen Thames before turkeys in their hundreds of safe seats in England vote for Christmas. The Other parties must become acutely aware that nothing less than a professionally organised campaign in a Brexit format – a direct and sustained campaign without the lies and deceptions that targets the jugular of the political establishment – is going to shift anything.

The two-party system is being kept artificially afloat thanks to FPTP. Voters need to be given a stake in electoral reform and the critical question at this moment is not a campaign how, why, who, where? It’s when and what on earth is the delay all about? The snow melts away but winter soon comes round again to bite painfully with its harsh reality.

EU Referendum has roots in UK election system (posted April 2016)

The EU Referendum is just two months away. With so many shared problems embroiling so many countries, it hardly seems the right time to consider jumping the European ship.

The UK has stayed ‘in’ for decades, feeling uncomfortable and accustomed to firing off impressive displays of recalcitrance across the Channel. This Referendum comes about because certain aspects of our culture and character never stop reinforcing our self-image as a people apart from them. We can’t explore them all, so will stick with the one that is fully relevant to the 5.5.5 & Counting website and this country’s desperate need for electoral reform. Some very important differences are reflected in the UK general election system.

We have first-past-the-post (FPTP) which aims for and usually delivers a winner-take-all result. It means that a single party can govern outright with positive support down at 21% of the electorate (Labour 2005). That often translates to a little over one-third of those who voted. In Europe, that is nowhere near enough for a party to govern outright. Across European politics, it is normal for parties with the largest support to have to negotiate coalitions and other working arrangements with smaller parties. Once they get together something like 51% representation, they can go ahead and form a government.

tragedy and comedy masks

Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) – comedy or tragedy?

Then look at the way our system sets up MPs in the chamber for deeply adversarial exchanges. Dismissing the semi-circular seating most parliaments prefer, they sit in parallel rows confronting each other across a dividing gangway. And if you’re someone in the general public or the media who likes their politics à la Punch and Judy, you’re rarely disappointed. The insults and gestures launched viciously at each other during PMQs, for example, must be seen and heard to be believed outside of a reform school yard. But even in the more serious contexts of longer debates and ministerial statements they commonly break off into put-downs of their opponents. Personal mockery is all part and parcel and stimulates their own side into braying, jeering, whooping and laughing.

A current BBC TV documentary ‘Them or Us’ quotes Margaret Thatcher after a European summit complaining that the leaders across the table were so smooth she couldn’t get anything off them. There was no edge she could create from which you’d get a bit of anger and argument and then, in her view, agreement. But in terms of improving your negotiation skills, would you really want to follow her lead? She was only emphasising how different the theatre of politics she came up through was compared to theirs. Throughout the programme too, you kept noticing that the accent of the voices railing most aggressively against Brussels down the decades was English – Brit-Englishness.

Our politicians work their way up through a culture where confrontation and argument are expected to trump negotiation and common personal respect. They are not that bothered about fairness – to each other or the voters at large – and have no qualms about taking power on minority support. They’ll happily then govern and have their leader strut around on the international stage as if with the moral backing of the nation fully behind them.

The mindset they acquire – or bring – produces a feeling of entitlement to bully their way through. They are unlikely to be able to see it in themselves, our current leader, David Cameron, being a prime example. He only manages to come over as reasonable during the breaks he takes from spraying disparaging and offensive comments around in all directions (by the way, this website is highly sceptical about the depth of Mr. Cameron’s stated commitment to the EU, but that’s another debate).

Abrasiveness has never worked with Europe and never will. Until the UK takes a much more critical look at its own attitudes, Remain or Leave the future looks broadly the same. The people of the UK will be kept on the side lines, ruled over by an unrepresentative minority government still taking them nowhere on a host of issues, none more intractable than the unrelenting tide of immigration. This political class is too well established to do anything other than it already knows and does. 5.5.5 & Counting argues it’s not the EU, it’s our electoral system that stifles the prospect of much meaningful change for the better.