First past the post: The UK voting system explained

The House of Lords is pictured ahead of the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Britain October 14, 2019.
The House of Lords is pictured ahead of the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, at the Palace of Westminster in London, Britain October 14, 2019. Copyright Victoria Jones/Pool via REUTERS
Copyright Victoria Jones/Pool via REUTERS
By Andrew Lebentz and Jez Fielder
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button
Copy/paste the article video embed link below:Copy to clipboardCopied

The system used to decide elections is called 'first past the post'. But it's more complicated than it sounds. Let Euronews' Andrew Lebentz talk you through the quagmire.


You hear it in broadcasts, you read it online, but is the phrase 'First past the post' as simple as it sounds?


Well, that was easy. So it's just which party leader gets the most votes?

No. It's more complicated than that. As we have come to expect with British politics, there's a lot more to it.

Fortunately, Euronews World Executive Producer Andrew Lebentz is on hand to make it easy.

Watch the explainer in the media player above

Why is it called 'first past the post'?

The United Kingdom is the only country in the European Union not to use a form of proportional representation. In the UK, whichever candidate has the most votes in each constituency is declared the winner.

How does it work?

The entire country is divided into constituencies. They each contain a similar number of citizens, which represent the electorate. In order to get a wide variety of the electorate sample, some of these constituencies are dense populations based in cities while others consist in vast rural areas.

First-past-the-post votes actually mean that many of the seats are foregone conclusions, because in some places, the electorate always votes the same way.

For example, Hemsworth in West Yorkshire is probably the safest seat in the country as it has been a Labour seat since 1918.

Similarly, Liverpool Walton, in Merseyside, has been held by the Labour Party since the 1960s and represents the largest majority victory in the country with nearly 86% of the vote.

For the Conservatives, their equivalent is Christchurch in Dorset, where they won with nearly 70% of the vote. 

On the other hand, marginal seats are the seats with the smallest majorities and have swung from one party to another over the years. North East Fife is the most marginal seat in the UK, with an SNP majority of two votes.

This election really focuses on these 40 seats, where two or more parties closely contest each other. The key to victory, therefore, lies in winning these constituencies.

Other marginal seats include Kensington in London, which turned for the first time from blue to red with Labour’s Emma Dent Coad's win in the 2017 election with an advantage of just 20 votes. And Perth and North Perthshire in Scotland, where the SNP candidate held off a Tory rival by a mere 21 votes.

One seat away from being Prime Minister

In the Parliament, all seats are being contested. Meaning that the party leaders themselves also have to make sure they win their seat if they want to become Prime Minister.

In order to pull a majority, all parties hope to reach the magic number of 326 MPs. This key figure outlines the security of an overall majority, out of which the party can form a government.

But if no party manages to reach that threshold, the only other solution is a coalition government. This is called a 'hung parliament'. 


This is what happened in 2017. 

Theresa May called an election believing a majority was likely, but ended up falling short with 317 Conservative MPs.


Coalitions are not considered kindly by the electorate. Without fundamental agreement and cohesion, split government find it very hard to pass meaningful legislation. 

The main candidates

Boris Johnson is attempting to win his first election as the UK’s Prime Minister. He saw his majority cut in half in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the 2017 election and it would only need a 5% swing to Labour for him to be unseated - something that hasn't happened to a leader for over a century. 

Jeremy Corbyn has represented his London seat Islington North since 1983. The Labour leader's constituency is considered a safe seat and he's hoping that enough gains will enough to bring back a Labour government for the first time in nine years.


Video editor • Alexis Caraco

Share this articleComments

You might also like

UK election: Johnson calls for 'healing to begin' after resounding victory

UK general election: The numbers you need to know to understand Thursday's pivotal vote

Scotland: a fascinating battleground for the UK's General Election