Voters want to shop around more than ever – but they will be calamitously constrained by Westminster’s electoral system, according to new analysis by the ERS.
2015 and 2017 saw the highest levels of voter volatility – support moving between parties – since 1931, with the next election likely to see a repeat of this trend. The result is that a fresh General Election is likely to be an undemocratic lottery for voters.
Why? Three consecutive published polls this past week have shown three different parties in first place (Lib Dem; Brexit Party; Labour). The last time this happened was in 1986 when the Alliance, Labour and Conservatives all led at various points.
As Martin Baxter from Electoral Calculus says: “The electoral system is designed to favour the two largest parties…If you’re one of the parties in the top two, you’ll do very well – if you’re third or lower you’ll do worse (except in Scotland with the SNP).”
So under Westminster’s winner-takes-all electoral system, the ‘biggest two’ parties are rewarded with exaggerated representation – while most others lose out considerably.
That creates an incentive for voters to ‘hold their nose’ and vote tactically. Baxter again: “The ‘rational’ thing for voters is all to support one party on one side or the other: Remain or Leave: if either side could unite while the other didn’t, they’d win in a big way.” The flip side is that one side is punished for having more choice than the other.
The huge volatility we are seeing reflects the fact that the old two-party political axis of economics and class appears to be over: elections now seem to be won on the battleground of Brexit. With lots of parties competing, that makes our elections more unpredictable than ever. The YouGov poll in particular was the first poll in modern British history where neither Labour or Conservatives were in the top two, while the latest Opinium poll is the first ever poll to have five parties in double figures – the Greens 5th on 11%.
How will this play out in a General Election? It’s impossible to say, but all three recent polls have the Brexit Party now ahead of the Conservatives – meaning they could win hundreds of seats in an election.
Equally however, if voters move back a few percentage points back to the Conservatives, the Brexit Party could end up with almost no political representation. (The Greens too are likely to be highly underrepresented.)
The upshot is that voters are more politically diverse than ever – but their wishes are likely to be stymied by Westminster’s ‘Victorian era’ voting system. This will be a disaster for already rock-bottom levels of trust in our political structures.
There are few such qualms in Holyrood or the Welsh Assembly, where proportional representation prevents the wild swings in representation we see under Westminster’s system.
As Professor John Curtice says: “There is little doubt that Britain’s traditional two-party system is facing its biggest challenge yet in the wake of the Brexit impasse. If that challenge persists it would seem inevitable that there will renewed debate about the merits of the first-past-the-post electoral system.”
Whatever happens to Britain’s party system, proportional representation is now looking much more ‘strong and stable’ than First Past the Post…