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?
Keith Davies says
You are right about the proportional voting system.
Unfortunately, FPTP leaves a lot of people asking themselves “Why bother to vote” in constituencies where their preference is very unlikely to win, feeling, as they no doubt do, powerless politically.
Not sure that’s good for democracy.
David Harvey says
“Why bother to vote”, that is just defeatist, vote, just dont vote for anyone. Despite the lack of information being provided by the Electoral Commission, you can spoil your vote. When more people do that than vote for the winning candidates, we will see electoral change!
Chris Blackmore (The Walrus) says
I’m not sure why we can’t try again to get proportional representation. It’s fairly obvious it’s the only fair way to do an election with more than two parties, isn’t it? And I don’t remember being told that the last referendum on the subject was binding until the end of the universe, do you?
What makes you think it’s fair for two parties? And anyway, once you have virtually any form of PR, new, small parties become practical and effective.
David Harvey says
Spread of votes is fundamental in FPTP, which is why I too, am not expecting a massive UKIP surge and take polling data with a pinch of salt. Just like the Lib Dems and Greens, they will get a lot of 2nd or 3rd places, but few wins.
Keeping extremist out of politics, doesn’t necessarily keep extremist out of the country, and by not providing a platform for discussion you may further isolate moderate individuals, giving the more extreme groups more credibility (search “self categorisation theory meta contrast”)
Ultimately, i feel that a general election should give the government a good understanding of how the country thinks, the problem with FPTP is that many votes are cast to stop a party they disagree with gaining power, so the government dont really know how the country think.
While the Conservatives did play a masterful hand with their “miserable little compromise” campaign during the AV referendum, the decision to promote electoral reform is available at every election, its just the Electoral Commission dont want you to know, along with all the politicians too.
you have a right to spoil your ballot paper, so that it is counted as a rejected vote. At the last election only 0.666% of people did this, but in 438 of the 650 constituencies there was a larger majority of non-voters than votes for the winning candidate.
When the number of spoilt ballots overtakes the number of votes for the winning candidate, they will have no democratic mandate and will have to change the system.
If you want electoral reform start by asking the Electoral Commission to advise voters that spoiling your ballot is a legitimate option.