There was an article in the Guardian yesterday which extrapolated that, based on some recent Scottish polling, the SNP would get 55 seats and Labour would get 4. This is classic Westminster reporting; the whole thing based on a misunderstanding about how the voting system actually operates. For instance, there are two seats in Scotland that are staying Lib Dem pretty much no matter what. This hasn’t been factored in, just as so many other things haven’t either in terms of arriving at a 55-4 prediction. I realise that 55-4 isn’t proportional in and of itself, but it is indicative of how the voting system is misunderstood.
First Past the Post is notoriously simple – which is paradoxically why it is difficult to comprehend. The most votes in a constituency wins – straightforward, right? What this means in practice is that we will essentially have 650 by-elections on May 7th. Now, I’m not saying that national vote swing is irrelevant; I’m only saying it mostly is. In a six party politics era, it is even more meaningless to try and figure out who is going to win where on the basis of national polling than ever before. The SNP may well poll about 4% nationally and end up with 40 seats. UKIP could poll 15% and end up with one. Under FPTP, concentration of vote is absolutely everything. If your vote is spread evenly throughout the country, you’re sunk. As I’ve mentioned on many previous occasions, Kippers prepare yourselves.
No wonder the general public has such a warped view of what’s going to happen in May; if the people who write about this stuff all the time find it tricky to get their heads round, no wonder everyone else does as well. What happens on May 7th comes down to the following factors:
1. Can the Tories win anywhere they didn’t already in 2010?
2. Will the SNP wipe out Labour (or near enough) in Scotland?
3. Will the Lib Dems be able to hold onto their seats in the West Country – or will they fall to the Tories in bulk?
4. Can Labour win back seats in the south they lost to the Tories in 2010?
5. How much will UKIP influence whether the Tories or Labour end up as the largest party in terms of seats?
6. Will the Greens pose a credible enough threat to deny Labour seats they might otherwise have got off of the Conservatives or Lib Dems?
Almost every other question is irrelevant, including share of vote. In fact the polls are only really instructive in terms of understanding how they relate to those six questions above. They are a numerical set of data to put through that matrix, nothing else.
Best news is, we’re stuck with First Past the Post now, whether we like it or not. A little thing called the AV referendum sorted that one out. Everyone deserves a little pat on the back for that one.
I don’t mind FPTP being exalted as the system of choice. It does have some positives, such as keeping perceived extremists out (it may well get a boost in opinion from many quarters post-May, after it clobbers UKIP). However, if it is the system we’re going to live with for the next generation at least, could we all try and understand how it works, just a little bit?