Should the ERS look at the rules for… Tennis?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 14th July 2023

As tennis players line up for the Wimbledon semi-finals, and candidates hit the doorstep for multiple by-elections, we’ve been thinking about how useful sporting analogies are when it comes to politics.

As, when you think about it (if you are the sort of person who regularly thinks about electoral systems), Tennis is a first past the post contest. Just as in how in a First Past the Post election, you need to win constituencies to win the election, in Tennis you need to win sets to win the match.

And just like first past the post, a player can win the most games but still lose the match. There have been multiple occasions where the party with the most votes hasn’t won the most seats.

In Tennis, a player has to win a minimum of six games, with a two-game difference, to claim a set. A player must win three sets, in a best-of-five sets match to win the match.

If a player narrowly wins the set they win, but massively loses in the set they lose, they can claim a match on a minority of the games.

Tennis with Keir and Rishi

Say Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak decide to have a game of tennis. Keir has a fantastic start winning the first two sets with all six games to none for Rishi. But Rishi makes a comeback, winning the next three sets, but with a lead of just two in each set.

Keir has won two sets, to Rishi’s three. But, when you add up the number of games, Keir has won 25 games, while Rishi only won 19.

Time for ERS rules Tennis?

Should we then scrap the set structure of Tennis and just make it a straight race, with every game counting equally? Maybe they could play for two hours and the player with the most games wins? Is it time to get out the Proportional Representation for Tennis banners? Obviously not.

The point of Tennis is not to fairly represent the games played, but to provide a fun and exciting sport where players can suddenly win from behind, and the fortunes of players can rise and fall over the match.

The limits of sporting analogies

Fundamentally elections and sports are different things. Sporting analogies always fail to properly represent elections as they reduce the voters to just points in a tennis game or meters in a horse race that the players need to accumulate.

Elections are not a game for the political class to play, with elevation to parliament as the cup for the best performance. They are the fundamental way that we govern ourselves in a democracy.

The point of an election is not to reward the best player, but for the voters to be properly represented.

The next time someone compares an electoral system to a horse race, just think where you are in that race, just a stretch of turf for the horse to trample over as they pass.

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