Posted by Michael Patison on June 16, 2017
On Thursday, June 8, the United Kingdom went to the voting booths to elect the 650 members of Parliament (MPs) for the second time in three years. Prime Minister Theresa May called the early, or snap, election in order to secure a larger majority for her government’s Brexit negotiations. Polls at the beginning of the 50-day-long campaign seemed to put May and her Conservative Party on course for a landslide victory and a majority of at least 50 seats. As the campaign progressed, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party slowly made up ground in the polls, but a comfortable majority for the Conservatives was still expected.
Instead, the Conservatives lost their small, preexisting majority. With 42.4% of the popular vote, the May’s Conservatives took 317 seats, or 48.8% of the House of Commons, 9 short of a majority. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was the election’s surprise, taking 262 seats, or 40.3% of the House, from 40% of the vote. After the 2015 general election, in which the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won just 1 seat (.15% of the House) despite winning roughly 13% of the popular vote, this election’s disproportionality is certainly less obvious, but the votes-to-seats comparisons still manage to showcase a couple of the issues association with the first-past-the-post, winner-take-all (FPTP) electoral system used to elect their MPs: basic vote-to-seat disproportionality and the inconsistent value of an individual vote in FPTP elections.
After polling 42.4% of the popular vote, the Conservative Party won 317 seats, or 48.8% of the available seats. Though certainly not the worst example of vote-to-seat disproportionality in UK parliamentary electoral history, last week’s election still showcases this aspect of FPTP’s shortcomings. For instance, based on their share of the popular vote, the Conservatives should have garnered 273 seats, not 317. Similarly, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 35 of Scotland’s 59 seats, while its vote share would have entailed just 21.
On the other hand, 4 different parties would have won more seats than they did under a proportional seat allocation system. The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), who won 12 seats (1.8% of the Commons), would have taken 47 instead; seat-less UKIP would have taken 12; and the Green Party, which won 1 seat in its stronghold of Brighton, would have won 11 instead. FPTP also discourages voters from “wasting” their vote on smaller, often regionalist parties, one of which, the Yorkshire Party, would have likely just missed out on a seat.
In Northern Ireland, 17 of the country’s 18 parliamentary seats were won by two parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (10) and Sinn Féin (7), while an independent Unionist won the remaining seat. Under a proportional system, the independent Unionist would retain her seat, the DUP and Sinn Féin would win 7 and 5 seats, respectively, and three other Northern Irish parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party would fill in the remaining 5 seats with 2, 2, and 1 seat each. The Northern Irish result is also notable because Sinn Féin is an Irish nationalist abstentionist party, so this is the first time since the Reform Act in 1832 that there has been no Irish nationalist representation actually sitting in Westminster.
Interestingly, despite these widespread, and occasionally stark, examples of disproportionality, the Labour Party reflects more or less exactly what their share of the vote entails, having won 40.3% of the seats from 40.0% of the vote. So does that of the Welsh national Plaid Cymru, who won 4 seats.
Vote-to-seat disproportionality is a byproduct of several factors. The most noteworthy of these where the UK general election is concerned are uneven vote distributions and majorities and wasted votes, particularly in safe seats. There are few better examples of these two problems than a comparison between the results in North East Fife and Knowsley. In North East Fife, Stephen Gethins of the SNP retained his seat by a margin of 2 votes, tied for the smallest electoral majority since 1910. On the opposite end of the spectrum, George Howarth won the Liverpool-area Knowsley constituency by 42,214 votes, more than most winning candidates received in total, and more than the total votes cast in several constituencies. There was just 1 wasted voted in North East Fife against 42,213 in Knowsley. In Scotland, the SNP won 35 seats with just 4 majorities over 10% and 7 under 1%. On a national level, 46 (of 650) constituencies saw majorities under 1,000, 27 saw majorities under 1%, and the smallest 10 were all under 100 votes. These wildly disparate majorities inflate the vote power of a few voters living in marginal seats and dilute the power of those living in safe seats. This problem could be remedied by combining single-member constituencies into larger, multi-member ones, and using single-transferable vote (STV), where voters get to rank the candidates in preferential order.
Finally, FPTP almost guarantees some sort of unpredictable result, or at least some sort of disconnect between a party’s popular vote and their seats in Parliament. What makes results so unpredictable is that the disconnect is rarely, if ever, consistent. In this election, Theresa May’s Conservative Party polled 42.4% of the popular vote, receiving 317 seats (48.8%), 9 short of a majority. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives polled the exact same percentage, but won 397 seats (61.1%), a 72-seat majority and 80 more than May. Four years later, Thatcher again polled roughly the same (42.2%) and managed a 51-seat majority. In Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 that swept the Labour Party into power, he received a similar 43.2% of the popular vote, but managed to win 418 seats (63.4%), an 88-seat majority.
The Lib Dems offer a variety of examples for this chronic inconsistency. In 1987, the SDP-Liberal Alliance (the Lib Dems’ immediate predecessor) polled 22.6% of the vote, but won just 22 seats. The Lib Dems polled roughly the same percentage in 2005 and 2010, but won 62 and 57 seats, respectively. Since 1945, the Lib Dems (and its predecessors) have never won more than half as many seats as their share of the popular vote would indicate in a proportional system like STV.
Ranked-choice voting (RCV) and even STV are not unknown quantities to the British public. A version of STV called alternative vote (AV) is used to elect portions of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the London Assembly, while all UK European Parliament members are elected in multi-member constituencies using RCV. Additionally, the Conservative Party’s leadership elections function in some ways like an STV election. In a 2011 nationwide referendum, the British public voted 2 to 1 against a measure that would have adopted AV to elect the country’s MP, replacing the current FPTP system.
These issues associated with FPTP elections plague both American and British democracies. Using STV to elect candidates in multi-member constituencies, or even using RCV to elect members in the pre-existing single-member constituencies, would help increase proportionality and would equalize individual voter power.