How can a party lose support but gain seats? The upside-down world of Westminster’s voting system

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 14th September 2018

What would you expect to happen if a party gained support in a fresh election?

Most people would expect them to gain MPs. It seems obvious that a change in popular support should lead to a change in the number of MPs a party gets. Most people assume it happens now.

Yet for more than half the general elections since 1935, at least one party’s fortunes went totally the opposite way to how their support changed, according to our analysis. I.e. they either gained votes yet lost seats, or lost votes yet gained seats. This isn’t about population growth or any other anomaly – this is about the share of the vote and share of overall seats. And it’s about Britain’s broken voting system.

disconnected seats and votes

In 2017, the Conservatives increased their vote share by 5.5 percentage points and lost 13 seats. In the same election, the Liberal Democrats lost 0.5% of their 2015 vote share and won an extra four seats. Back in 2015, Labour increased their vote share by 1.4% but lost 26 seats.

Looking back over the 21 General Elections since 1935, in 12 of them, a party’s faring in Parliament has been at opposites to what happened at the polls.

Looking back over the 21 General Elections since 1935, in 12 of them, a party’s faring in Parliament has been at opposites to what happened at the polls. Click To Tweet

This happens because most votes cast in a General Election don’t have any impact on who is elected. Votes for candidates that don’t win, and votes for the winning candidate over and above what they need to win, go to waste. Over 22 million votes (68%) were wasted this way in the 2017 election.

With so many votes having no material effect on who ends up in Parliament, it’s easy to understand how a party could lose hundreds of thousands of these votes (in seats they stood no chance of winning and in seats where they have a massive majority) and yet not lose a single MP. But how can a party lose support but gain MPs?

The flip side of millions of voters who have no power is the handful of voters that have grossly inflated power.

Some leafy swing seats only need a few voters to change their mind in order for the MP to change. Eleven seats were won by fewer than 100 votes in 2017. Had 533 votes changed in 2017 we would have a majority Conservative government today.

A party that targets a few hundred voters in seats that they were close to winning at the previous election, and in the process loses thousands of votes they didn’t need, can end up with more MPs in total.

In some circumstances, a party doesn’t actually need to gain votes in order to win these swing seats. To win you just need one more vote than the person that comes second. If a third-placed candidate takes votes from the second-placed candidate, the distance to the finishing line is reduced. And if more parties stand, the threshold for winning gets lower – you can win on 25% of the vote in a four-way race.

And a candidate who previously came second can win a seat, not because they gained supporters, but because the incumbent loses support to a third party. It’s odd sort of race where the finishing line moves depending on the speed of the riders.

Imaginary scenarios and hypothetical exercises are all very well, but this disconnect between popular support and power in Parliament has real implications. Democracy functions because the public can hold the government (and the opposition parties) to account; parties get punished and rewarded by the public based on their behaviour.

But if a party can win supporters and lose seats or lose supporters and gain seats how can the public properly hold them to account?

If a party can win supporters and lose seats or lose supporters and gain seats how can the public properly hold them to account? Click To Tweet

Beyond fostering alienation and powerlessness among the public, this disconnect influences how parties behave. When a party knows that some of its supporters matter more than others for getting power, they will target the ones that can get them extra seats and ignore the ones they think are safe. In other words, whole areas get written off as ‘not our voters’ or unimportant to a party’s fortunes. When so many votes go to waste, that’s the majority of us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The idea of gaining votes and losing seats would be alien in the majority of parliaments around the world because they use proportional voting systems. In a proportional system if a party gets roughly half the votes they get roughly half the seats. If at the next election they get a third of the vote they get around a third of the seats.

We already use proportional systems in Scotland’s Parliament and local councils, as well as the assemblies in Northern Ireland, Wales and London. It’s time Westminster caught up.

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