Pick your numbers

9 Feb 2015

At every election, it seems, we are told that the poll is ‘historic’, that it is the ‘most important in a generation’ because the country is ‘at the crossroads’.


What makes 2015 a contender for these titles is that our electoral system seems to be collapsing before our eyes. In a new report for the Electoral Reform Society, Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde uses polling data to demonstrate how relatively small shifts in support among the parties can have dramatic effects on the shape of the next Parliament, and therefore the next government.


Indeed, some of the outcomes predicted in this report seem so random as to suggest voters would be as well buying a lottery ticket as being handed a ballot paper. As Professor Curtice notes, this is an election where it looks like there will be no relationship between votes cast and seats won.


Among the findings are:


  • UKIP could come 6th in seats but 3rd in votes, and SNP could come 6th in votes but 3rd in seats
  • The SNP could get a game-changing 50-odd seats or a paltry few depending on relatively small shifts in the vote
  • It will probably be easier for Labour to win a majority than it will be for the Conservatives. Even with its difficulties in Scotland, Labour is likely to need a 5 point lead to win a majority, whereas the Conservatives will require a 7 point one
  • A 7 point improvement in the Lib Dem vote to 15% would have little effect on Labour’s chances of a majority, but means the Conservatives would need as much as a 10-point lead
  • Norwich South is the Green Party’s best hope of gaining a second Westminster seat


Electoral reformers rarely miss a chance to point out the problems with First Past the Post – but the arguments have never seemed less theoretical and more tangible than they do now. Using a two-party system to conduct six-party politics just won’t work. The current voting system is not fit for purpose.


It has even stopped doing the one thing it was meant to be good at – delivering clear, decisive results. As Professor Curtice states, it is a “fair prospect” that no one party will achieve an overall majority and that the UK is “faced with considerable uncertainty” as a result.


The decline in both membership and voter base for the two largest parties is well understood. Their days of achieving 95%+ of the vote share are well and truly over, with some polls showing them struggling to settle around the 60% mark.


What Professor Curtice brings together in this report, however, is something less well understood – how the Lottery Election can lead to the most random of outcomes for the country. UKIP coming third in votes but sixth in total seats? The reverse position for the SNP, who could decimate Labour in Scotland to be the third-largest party in the Commons on a tiny UK-wide vote share? Or not. A relatively small shift in their support (and the geographical spread of it) could see them gain not 53 Westminster MPs, but barely more than the six they currently have.


This report makes it clear that we are heading for a most unusual election. It puts beyond doubt that we do not have a voting system in which we can genuinely say every vote counts.


When the lottery balls have finally settled in whatever position fate places them, real decisions on how our democracy is to operate will need to be taken. Let’s make this Britain’s last Lottery Election.


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28 Responses to Pick your numbers

James Munro 9 Feb 2015

Excellent stuff

Dapne canham 9 Feb 2015

I have just looked at the rankings of world democracy. We hover around 10th. Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and New Zealand are well above us. Surely we can learn something from these countries.

David Harvey 9 Feb 2015

We certainly are in for an interesting 80 days, but have one major issue with your piece.

FPTP is a stupid way to represent multi-party politics, but just becasue the system is flawed, it does not mean we cant use it to demonstrate that there is a need to change.

Despite the contradictory "guidance" from the electorla commission, if you cast a spoilt ballot it will be counted as a "rejected vote".

In #GE2010 0.67% of votes were counted as "rejected", but in 438 of the 650 constituencies there was a larger share of non-voters than votes received for the winning candidate.

If you can educate half of those people that spoiling your ballot is a vote for 'none of the above', and increase the number of rejected votes from less than 1% to doubble figures. That would the catalist for electoral reform

Frank 9 Feb 2015

i doubt it. The winner(s) will cash in and hope that next time things have returned to "normal".

Mark Scott 9 Feb 2015

Don't spoil your ballot paper. It's far too easy for such papers to be written off as the work of loonies, illiterates and show-offs.

Instead, as soon as you are given it, fold up the voting slip and post it, blank, into the ballot box. That way you are clearly indicating that you intend to withhold your vote from each and every one of the listed candidates. You are voting for "none of the above".

Nigel Cheeseman 9 Feb 2015

Not voting, spoiling your ballot paper or inserting into the box blank will not have any desirable effect whatsoever. No one in the parties could care less. Witness the low turnout in police and crime commissioner elections (England and Wales). Whoever ends up running the government after May 2015 will not have been backed by a majority of the electorate.

It's not just the voting system that's at fault; supposing the AV referendum had gone the other way. Would it make a whole lot of difference to the outcome? Unlikely. A few seats one way or another. Electoral reform on its own might produce a more proportional result for the parties; that'll still give the power to choose the government to a small bunch of people.

A complete change in the way we look at power and a wholesale move to governing ourselves rather than electing a dictatorship is what is needed.

Daniel Shimmin 9 Feb 2015

I'm not a fan of UKIP, but I think that this election will be an opportunity for the general public to wake up to the absurdity of our electoral system. We may not always like how the majority vote, but it behoves us to respect their opinion in the makeup of the Parliament.

Quentin 9 Feb 2015

As long as groups like the ERS continue to push for systems like the Alternative Vote and the Simple Transferable Vote, reform will get nowhere. Both systems are complex and favour political parties. The UK should switch to Approval Voting. It's simple, easily understandable, and scales to multi-member constituencies (like the EU).

David Brandwood 9 Feb 2015

I cannot agree that STV favours parties particularly. With STV there is not even the need to register as a party at all. In any constituency a popular local candidate (such as the NHS doctor, or Martin Bell, or, some time ago, Dick Taverne) can be successful, but much more easily with STV than with simple majority (FPTP) as in those examples.
The systems that favour parties are the more explicitly 'proportional' systems, which require parties to be defined from the start. In particular list systems, especially closed lists, are outrageous, from this point of view. An unattractive candidate who would be hard put to get elected if put in front of the voters could be placed by the party managers at the top of their list and get in easily. STV is not explicitly proportional at all, but tends to give a result quite closely proportional to voters' first preferences because it so well responds to individual voters' preferences.
I would also like to challenge the idea of it being complicated for the voter. All the voter has to do is put the candidates in his (her) order of preference - and only as far as (s)he can be bothered. Any complication is in the counting and transferring of votes. We don't need to know how a television set or a computer, or even a car engine, works in order to use it. The Irish seem to know how to use the system.
As far as I can see STV (in multi-member constituencies) is by a good margin the best electoral system yet devised, and we should be continually educating the public to raise awareness and support, and avoid the debacle of the AV (STV in single member constituencies) referendum.

Stuart Moore 9 Feb 2015

In agree, in the referendum on pr these were the options and no one understood them, which I guess is why they were put forward as options.
I don't what Approval Voting is but I think we should move to a simple one person/one vote system with a minus vote option for local council elections

Jane Wilding 9 Feb 2015

Link to Approval Voting, please, Quentin?

Clay Shentrup 14 Feb 2015

The UK should definitely adopt Approval Voting.

Had the YesOnAV campaign instead pushed for Approval Voting, it would have been very difficult for opponents to smear it as "too complicated".


Clay Shentrup
Co-founder, The Center for Election Science

Malcolm Morrison 9 Feb 2015

More 'evidence'for the need for some sort of PR (Proportional Representation) - preferably STV (Single Tranferable Vote).

We should all be 'lobbying' out MPs

Stefan Kay 9 Feb 2015

Single Transferable Vote as used in Scottish Local Government elections, or at least an Additional Member system as used in the Scottish Parliament elections (and in Germany for many years) will deliver a number of MPs which broadly reflects public opinion.
Additionally, Westminster should, like local government, have to live with the result and not just be able to call another General Election.
Problem is Westminster simply will not reform itself - the obvious answer is to abolish the absurd House of Lords; make it the elected Upper House for a federal UK and have an elected English chamber - solves the West Lothian question and gives English votes on English laws.Neither major party will do it voluntarily though!

Norman Graves 9 Feb 2015

I fully agree with Prof. Curtice's analysis. We need to change the electoral system. The problem is to convince a majority of voters to go along with some form of proportional representation. The Single Transferable Vote system seems to be the simplest and most easily understood, but as we noted when this was put to a referendum, the majority of voters did not respond positively. Voters need to be convinced that the two party system is no longer valid in 21st century UK. There is a need to counter the vested interest in both the Conservative and Labour parties who wish stay with the first past the post system because it favours them.

Philip Jones 9 Feb 2015

if Curtice's prediction is fulfilled, the ERS and allies need to launch an online petition for electoral reform ASAP after the election - before the dust has settled, and parties' positions have hardened.

Peter Roberts 9 Feb 2015

It is inconceivable that FPTP can in the next few decades ever produce "representative" Governments. If we want Democracy we must have a Electoral system that ensures that a Government has at least the support of 50% of the Electorate, not around 20% as now under FPTP.This present system was designed for two Parties and is totally irrelevant today where 6 parties or even more deserve to be fairly represented in a Government. So it essential FPTP is replaced by STV before the 2020 election.

David Brandwood 9 Feb 2015

A point I have not seen, in relation to 'English votes for English laws' is that the Scots have two representatives for two different functions - SMPs for devolved Scottish legislation and MPs for other (defence, foreign affairs, etc.) issues. We in England should have the same advantage. Stefan Kay is right; there should be a federal parliament and an English parliament (if not several regional ones). After all, some of us might want to vote differently for these functions, depending on the parties' policies on subjects as different as the health service and Trident.

Michael Shaw 9 Feb 2015

Professor Curtice's analysis of the iniquities of FPTP is fine but he neglects (perhaps because his remit did not cover the topic) that with an overall majority, the party of government can claim public backing for its manifesto policies: a coalition will have an agreed set of policies but can claim no mandate for these. Should there be the requirement that, when a coalition is formed, the emergent set of agreed policies be subject to a referendum? If the referendum produced a majority, the coalition would have authority to govern but, if not, further negotiations would be required. Expensive but possibly more democratic.

Patrick Taylor 9 Feb 2015

As a previous financial backer to the society I am wondering about the wisdom or benefits of sending voting papers to electors three months ahead of polling day.

It is a practice that Electoral Reform Services Ltd was involved in with a charity last year when the AGM proxy/voting forms were sent out in early August but the Accounts to which they related were,as usual, not despatched until late October.

Personally I am a bit dubious as the voting papers might be lost or returned immediately without taking into account later news [or indeed Accounts].

Perhaps there is value and ERS Ltd can explain it to us reformists.

Adam 9 Feb 2015

These problems (high variance of potential results, non-proportional results) don't seem so bad, certainly not so bad as to overhaul an electoral system and replace it with ?

Is it really a problem that small changes in electoral patterns produce very different outcomes? It's a clear system that everyone understands: most votes wins each riding. Can this result in disproportion and the discounting of "losing" votes? Sure. Is that the end of the world? Nope.

The problems associated with party lists and the inability to vote against individual candidates, strengthening radical and marginal parties, permanent coalitions and post-election government forming, loss of constituency links, difficulty in understanding system/results, complexity in vote casting, etc. each seem worse.

The biggest problem raised seems to be that majorities become more difficult to achieve. But this is virtually the point of proportional systems - which will always weaken majorities. As far as I'm aware, only AV amongst proposed alternatives really stands to strengthen majorities further under some conditions.

Stephen Johnson 9 Feb 2015

The campaign must focus on getting popular agreement to get rid of FPTP.
As soon as you put forward the system you want to replace it unanimity breaks down.
ERS should concentrate on changing public opinion one step at a time.

John Streeter 9 Feb 2015

A referendum is a very blunt instrument. We should point out (again!) that such things are unnecessary with a system using STV in multi-member constituencies and ONLY that.

I'm tired of hearing about the iniquities of the FPTP system when too many people seem to be uninterested or supportive of it when it's in their short term interest.
I think that as a nation we have become too lazy to take politics seriously until an issue affects us directly. That's a very ENGLISH disease.

Minh 10 Feb 2015

FPTP is no longer fair, let get rid of it.

Neil Harding 10 Feb 2015

According to Lord Ashcroft, the new boundaries in 2020 could guft a majority to Tories on 29%. I wonder if that would be enough to stir up rebellion?

Ian Huntingford 11 Feb 2015

Surely we can find a way to move on from FPTP now.

What if there was a "Voting Change" candidate in every constituency, standing on a platform of just changing the voting system and then immediately calling another General Election? Then all parties except Labour and Conservatives ought to be prepared to withdraw their candidates and back the Voting Change candidates. The Voting Change candidates might even win a disproportionate share of seats due to the workings of FPTP - a wonderful irony!

Jeff Buck 11 Feb 2015

"Using a two-party system to conduct six-party politics just won’t work. The current voting system is not fit for purpose."

Six parties? I count seven... or are you ignoring Wales?

Nicholas Thorn 12 Feb 2015

I like the idea of spoiling ballot papers or posting them blank. How about spoiling them with a clear message?: What about PR. Surely if enough papers were thus treated the authorities wouldn't be able to ignore the message.