Pick your numbers

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 9th February 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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