First past the post distorts public opinion on small boats

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 22nd January 2024

Last week’s YouGov MRP poll showing Labour on course for a 1997-style general election victory created a big splash. In addition to asking about people’s general election voting intention, YouGov asked respondents about their views as to what should happen to people who come to the UK on small boats from France.

The issue has been a regular topic in the news recently, and the poll found that opinion is evenly split on whether those who arrive should have a right of appeal. Yet when fed through the prism of First Past the Post (FPTP), the no-appeal side wins by a landslide. How does this happen?

What does MRP (multilevel regression with post-stratification) mean?

MRP stands for ‘multilevel regression with poststratification’. MRP works by conducting a larger-than-usual opinion poll, in this case, YouGov interviewed 14,110 people, which allows researchers to analyse how different types of people are planning to vote. This data was then combined with Census data on the demographic make-up of each of the 632 British constituencies (Northern Irish seats were excluded from the analysis) that elect MPs to the House of Commons. Once these data were combined, a party vote share projection for each of these 632 seats was produced.

As well as projecting party vote shares, it is also possible to map other aspects of public opinion on to individual parliamentary constituencies using MRP analysis. This helps explore how the First past the post electoral system, which is used for UK general elections, can distort public opinion and affect the atmosphere in which political debate takes place.

What does the public think about small boat arrivals?

Across the UK as a whole, opinion is evenly split between those who think people who arrive in this way should be immediately removed from the country without a right of appeal (42%) and those who think, one way or another, that people should have a right of appeal (42%). The latter group is made up of those saying arrivals should have their claims assessed on a case-by-case basis (27%) and those saying arrivals should be set for removal but should have the right to challenge this via the legal system (15%).

First Past the Post distorts the public’s views

Once this data is fed through the MRP analysis, however, we can see how an opinion that is evenly balanced across the country (42% think there should be a right of appeal; 42% think there should not) can be turned into a landslide for one side over the other.

YouGov published results on this question for the 575 English and Welsh UK parliamentary constituencies. At 392 constituencies, the number of seats where the most popular answer was that there should be no right of appeal, was more than double the 183 constituencies where the most popular answer was that there should be a right of appeal.

A 42%/42% split nationally becomes a 68%/32% split in favour of ‘no appeal’ that we see across the individual constituencies.

It’s where the votes are that matters the most

The reason for this distortion is that under First Past the Post, the geographic distribution of an opinion is crucial. In this case, despite there being a close to 50/50 split in opinion, those who are in favour of arrivals having a right of appeal are more concentrated in a smaller number seats, piling up big ‘majorities’ in these places, whereas those with opposing views are more ‘efficiently’ spread throughout the country, meaning they make up the largest group in many more individual constituencies.

If you ever wonder why politicians focus on some issue over others, it’s because political parties design their manifestos to appeal to people who can help them win seats – even if the public as a whole is evenly split.

What is true for policies is also true for parties

In his recent article on the impact of the new boundaries for UK parliamentary constituencies, John Curtice explains why the same phenomenon means that if the electoral geography of voting patterns continues in the same way as the last general election, Labour would need a lead over the Conservatives of 13.7 percentage points in order to secure an overall majority of seats, whereas the Tories require a lead over Labour of only 3.4 points.

It cannot be right that the electoral system has such a distorting effect on outcomes. Surely what matters is the overall balance of opinion, not the extent to which people with different opinions are more concentrated or evenly distributed throughout the country? We need a proportional voting system, where the votes and opinions of all voters, in all parts of the country count the same.

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