Some Votes are More Equal Than Others

UK 2010 election: What if proportional representation had been used?
How the Commons Ought to Look – image by oledoe (who doesn’t endorse this post) via Flickr

The Tories have now, it seems, taken to calling the proposed constituency boundary review “equal value for equal votes“.

The review was designed to equalise the size of constituencies across the country.

At the moment, Conservative-held constituencies are larger, on average, than Labour ones. (That is because the Tories are strong in the growing areas of the country, like the Shires, while Labour are strong in the shrinking ones like inner cities. So over time, without boundary reviews, Tory constituencies get larger and Labour ones smaller.)

This means, say the Tories, that the current system unfairly favours Labour.

Well, I guess it does. But it favours the Tories as well.

Consider the last general election result. The proportions obtained by the biggest four parties were:

Conservative – 36.1%.
Labour – 29.0%.
Liberal Democrat – 23.0%.
UKIP – 3.1%.

The House of Commons at the moment has 650 members. Based on those proportions, here are the number of seats the parties should have got in a properly fair electoral system:

Conservative – 235
Labour – 189
Liberal Democrat – 150
UKIP – 20

And how many did they actually get?

The Tories got 307. That is 72 more than they were fairly entitled to.

Labour got 258. That is 69 more than they were fairly entitled to.

The Liberal Democrats got 57. They should have got 93 more.

And UKIP got none at all.

The unfairness of slightly wrong boundaries pales into insignificance compared with the unfairness of the first past the post system itself.

The Liberal Democrats have always been pretty hard hit by our unfair electoral system. But at least they do have representation in parliament. UKIP represent a significant number of voters in Britain, and their voice has been suppressed and excluded from parliament.

Well, our system is an old one and perhaps the people are happy with it. But it ill behoves the Tories to strut about claiming to believe in electoral fairness, when they really just want their unfair advantage to be even bigger.

Proportional Representation is not Necessarily Un-Conservative

Maybe It’s Time to Think the Unthinkable on the Voting System

The Liberal Democrats are now almost tied with the other two parties in the popular vote, according to opinion polls. Much of their recent rise in the polls can be attributed to the televised Leaders’ Debates.

Even before those debates, however, the Liberal Democrats were nudging towards 20% in the polls – more than half the level of the Tories and Labour.

The Liberal Democrats have long demanded a Proportional Representation (PR) system for electing MPs. Such a system is already used for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. (A different variation is used for the European Elections, but that variety uses enormous multi-member constituencies that severely weaken the links between constituency members and their electorates, so in my view is far inferior.)

The traditional Tory answer to the Liberals’ demand has been to defend the current “First Past the Post” system thus:

  • First Past the Post tends to produce definitive results, with one party having an overall majority.
  • First Past the Post tends to magnify differences in the popular vote, so that the party with the highest popular vote generally wins an overall majority.
  • PR would give too much power to the party with the smallest vote – the Liberal Democrats – since they alone would be amost guaranteed a part in the governing coalition.

These arguments were completely convincing with a system in which there were two main parties with a big share of the popular vote, and the third party’s support was insignificantly small. In that two-party system, those advantages of First Past the Post were compelling.

Traditionally, the winning party (Conservative or Labour) would receive well over 40% of the vote and be well ahead of any other party. 40% is not a majority – but it’s not far off. And if the next party has only 30%, it is possible to make a powerful case that the public interest of having a decisive government with an overall majority makes it reasonable to give the winning party the majority of seats in Parliament.

However, once the third party’s support becomes significant, First Past the Post works very much less well. At the last general election, in 2005, Labour won an overall majority with just 35% of the popular vote in the UK as a whole (and a smaller proportion of the popular vote than the Conservatives in England).

2005 Election Result - Votes ans Seats

2005 Election Result – Votes and Seats

This time, if current polls are to be believed, Labour could be the largest party in Parliament with their share of the popular vote being substantially smaller than that of either of the other two parties. The Liberal Democrats could have the largest share of the popular vote – and still have less than half the number of seats of either of the other two parties.

This election is clearly being faught under the present system, and we should accept the result. But that situation is not tenable or defensible in the long run. It is not so much that First Past the Post is discredited or bad in principle, as that it does not work well when there are more than two parties with high levels of support.

So what about a PR system? What would the effect be?

Tories have traditionally battled against PR, because of those arguments I listed above, and also because of party advantage. There has been a view (and still is amongst most media commentators) that the Liberal Democrats would always ally themselves with Labour in Parliament, resulting in the Conservatives being in permanent opposition.

That is not necessarily true. The main reason for the Liberals’ current reluctance to work with the Tories is that the Tories are adamantly against PR.

In any case, under PR, something very different might happen. All three main parties (including the Liberal Democrats) are at the moment coalitions put together to survive under First past the Post.

The Conservatives are composed of the Free Enterprise, Eurosceptic right – people like John Redwood – and the Traditional Tory left – people like Ken Clarke.

Labour are composed of the Socialist left – people like John McDonnell – and the “New Labour” right – people like David Miliband.

And the Liberal Democrats are composed of the heirs of the old Liberals, with an emphasis on civil liberties, small government and decentralisation, together with Social Democrats, believing in a mixed economy, government intervention but not necessarily control, and European integration.

Under PR, these party coalitions would no longer have any reason to exist. It is very easy to imagine each of the three parties splitting in two. Giving those parties their European-style labels here’s what we might end up with.

The Conservatives might divide into a Free Democratic Party, led perhaps by John Redwood, and a Christian Democratic Party, led perhaps by David Cameron.

Labour might divide into a Democratic Socialist Party, led perhaps by John McDonnell, and a Social Democratic Party, led perhaps by David Miliband.

The Social Democratic part of the Liberal Democrats might splinter off and join the new Social Democratic Party, leaving a rump Liberal Party.

There would also be other parties represented in Parliament, including the Greens and UKIP (althougn UKIP might well merge with the Free Democrats).

Possible governing coalitions could be:

– Free Democrats (with or without UKIP) plus Christian Democrats plus Liberals
– Democratic Socialists plus Social Democrats plus Liberals
– Social Democrats plus Christian Democrats
– Democratic Socialists plus Social Democrats plus Greens

or one of several other less likely combinations. This is, broadly, what happens in countries like Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel Waves to Supporters at an Election Night Rally

Therefore it is far from clear, to me, that supporters of the current Conservative Party would be permanently in opposition under PR.

What is more, under the present alignment of parties, it is possible with a more popular Liberal Democrat Party that the Tories will never again win more than around 35% of the popular vote. That could mean permanent opposition for the Tories under the present voting system.

It is also apparent that some of the extra support for the Liberal Democrats that we have seen over the last few days has come from people who previously had not voted at all. As a Tory I would prefer those people to be coming to the Conservatives – but if this development encourages them at least to take part in the democratic process, that is good for all of us and for our country.

Of course, over the next two weeks, the Liberal Democrats could slip back in the polls – or the polls may even be completely wrong. In that case, we could be back to business as usual. But Conservatives need to be thinking about this and getting their minds around it. If this election produces a result in which the Liberal Democrats come first – and are rewarded with a relatively very small number of seats – and Labour come a distant third – and are rewarded by being the largest party in Parliament, then the demand for PR could in any case become unstoppable.

Gordon Brown’s AV Trap for the Lib Dems

Labour have been talking recently about a referendum on introducing a new system of voting. They have billed it “proportional representation”, but the system they will propose is the Alternative Vote system.

Under the AV system, instead of voters putting a X against a single candidate, they rank candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted, first preferences are looked at first. If nobody gets more than 50% of the first preference vote, then the lowest candidate is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to their second preferences. This process continues until a candidate goes over that 50% hurdle.

I thought it would be interesting to speculate on what the result of the last election would have been under such a system. Obviously, it is impossible to tell accurately what voters would have voted under a different system. But you can look at likely distribution of second and third preferences, and so predict what the outcome would have been.

I started with a dataset of all the election results for England, Scotland and Wales taken from The British Parliamentary Constituency Database, 1992-2005, Release 1.3 compiled by Pippa Norris, which you can find here on the Harvard University website.

I made some assumptions on the likely distribution of lower preference votes. If you’re interested, you can find details of the assumptions I made at the bottom of this post. (Of course, there is lots of room for disagreement on those assumptions, and different assumptions would produce a different result, but I tried to guess what real voters would do.)

With the help of Microsoft Access, I ran an analysis of what the result would have been in 2005 with the AV system and those assumptions I had made.

Here are the results (with the actual results that occurred in 2005 under first-past-the-post in brackets):

Conservative: 190 seats (197)
Labour: 359 seats (356)
Lib Dem: 66 seats (62)
Plaid Cymru: 3 seats (3)
SNP: 7 seats (6)
Others: 2 seats (3)

The astonishing thing about this result is that it is almost identical to the result produced by first-past-the-post!

If you believe this analysis (and maybe you don’t – such figure-crunching, well-beloved of Peter Snow, is never really robust) there are two conclusions to draw from this:

  1. AV is not a Proportional Representation system at all (although Labour have been promoting it as such)
  2. AV might make little difference to the election results in practice.

I think this sheds a good deal of light on why Labour have been doing this. This is all about party political calculation and not about fairness. The aim is to use that referendum promise to try and persuade the Lib Dems to support Labour in the event of a hung parliament after the next election, but not actually to give the Lib Dems a truly proportional system.

Will the Lib Dems fall for it?

Here are the assumptions I made about where second preferences would go:


Labour Voters:
Conservative 20%
Lib Dem 40%
No second preference 40%

Conservative Voters:
Labour 20%
Lib Dem 40%
No second preference 40%

Lib Dem Voters:
Conservative 30%
Labour 40%
No second preference 30%


Labour Voters:
Conservative 5%
Lib Dem 10%
SNP 40%
No second preference 45%

Conservative Voters:
Labour 10%
Lib Dem 10%
SNP 60%
No second preference 20%

Lib Dem Voters:
Conservative 20%
Labour 30%
SNP 20%
No second preference 30%

SNP Voters:
Conservative 40%
Labour 10%
Lib Dem 10%
No second preference 40%


Labour Voters:
Conservative 5%
Lib Dem 40%
Plaid Cymru 20%
No second preference 35%

Conservative Voters:
Labour 5%
Lib Dem 40%
Plaid Cymru 5%
No second preference 50%

Lib Dem Voters:
Conservative 20%
Labour 20%
Plaid Cymru 10%
No second preference 50%

Plaid Cymru Voters:
Conservative 5%
Labour 20%
Lib Dem 5%
No second preference 30%