Well, the election that I thought would be just a boring “typical” snap election in which the incumbent takes advantage of the unprepared opposition… did not quite turn out that way.
Some things happened that are not supposed to happen. And some things about the result are glaringly off the mark of what we should expect from the Seat Product Model (which, of course, is meant to predict average trends, not individual elections).
Top two dominance but no majority
A party is not supposed to gain votes, but lose seats. It is hard to exaggerate how extraordinary this is. The top two parties combined for 82.4% of the votes, the highest in the UK in a long time. The last time it was over 80% was in 1979. The last time over 75% was 1992, and in the three elections immediately before this one, the future had been around two thirds.
Yet, despite the recovery of the top-two vote shares, there is no majority party. Parliamentary majorities have been won on far less in the past, and one would not expect such dominance of the two leading parties (42.4% and 40.0%) under FPTP to fail to produce majority government. But here we are.
I was curious to know just how common it was for both parties in a FPTP parliamentary system to have at least 40% of the vote, but there to be no parliamentary majority. In my dataset of FPTP elections, consisting of 210 observations, I find one case: Trinidad and Tobago 1995 (two top parties on 48.8% and 47.2%, tied in seats with 17/36). (I have not kept this updated in recent years, and perhaps I am failing to remember one that would be included if I had.)
If I drop my threshold a little lower, to the top two parties both being at at least 38% (but no seat majority), I get one more case: Canada 1957. Of course, the main reason why a leading party with 40% or even 38% of the votes so often gets a majority under FPTP is that it tends to have a more substantial lead over the runner-up, implying many districts are competitive.
Thus it is not only the top two absolute sizes that matter for getting a majority, but also their ratios. How common is it for the top two parties to have votes so similar? First of all, let’s define a ratio of the top two in votes; the mean of this ratio in the data sample is 1.67 (median 1.26). In this UK election, it was 1.06. Approximately 15% of the elections are this close. However, only around 3% of all the elections are both this close and result in no majority party, including UK 1974 (Feb.).
Thus the UK17 combination of two-party dominant, close, and no seat majority is pretty unusual!
Campaigns and leaders
Campaigns and leaders matter. That is not in itself surprising, but many political scientists (sometimes including me) consider them less important than “fundamentals”–whatever those might be. But May did not look like someone who could provide “strong and stable” government. And indeed, she may not get to provide any government at all, if she can’t survive a seemingly inevitable challenge to her position from within.
On the other hand, does Labour’s success relative to low expectations suggest leaders do matter? Did voters actually come to like Corbyn? I am aware of no evidence that such was the case. I suspect he was still a drag on the party, but will leave it to other analysts to try to sort this out. It seems to me that any reasonably competent Labour leader could have won this election, which in turn would never have happened, because May would not have called it had the main opposition had a reasonably competent leader.
The numbers compared Seat Product expectations
On the quantitative indictors, the effective number of vote-earning parties (NV) was, by my calculations from data at BBC, 2.88. The last time it was that low in the UK was 1987, when the leading party (Conservative) won a vote share about the same as this time (42.3%), but it won 57.8% of the seats.
The effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) was 2.47. This is not so unusual, by UK standards, as the figure was 2.53 in the 2015 election and 2.57 in 2010, the last time no party won a majority. In fact, the UK has tended to have a less fragmented parliamentary party system than expected from the Seat Product Model, which would be NS=2.94. The maximum observed since 1945 was the just-reported 2.57 in 2010.
For NV, the Seat Product Model says to expect 3.32, based solely on the large assembly size. Although the post-WWII mean is much lower than that, the electoral party system was finally behaving in the 1992-2015 period, with all those elections seeing NV>3, and the last three (2005, 2010, 2015) all being at 3.6 or higher. Then came 2017, and the party system stopped behaving properly!
It should be emphasized that the Seat Product Model does not expect a majority party; with this large an assembly, even FPTP “should have” a largest party size of 44.5%. At 48.9%, the Conservatives are only a little higher than where they should be. But, of course, actual UK experience usually returns a majority in parliament, and this election was certainly expected to do so–where those expectations are based on political factors and the opinion polls, not the humble Seat Product Model.
Governance and policy
As for government-formation, clearly it is a Tory minority government. Claims by a few pundits that Corbyn could somehow assemble parliamentary support are pure fantasy. And there almost certainly won’t be a coalition. The most likely formula is backing from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), of Northern Ireland. The DUP’s 10 seats plus the Conservatives’ 318 combine for just over half the seats.
What will it mean for policy, especially Brexit? I can’t claim to know! But the DUP does not want a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and that implies a “softer” Brexit. On the other hand, if the main motivation May had in calling the election was to boost her standing against restive members of her own caucus who want a harder Brexit, she failed. It will not be easy governance or policy-making for May or an intraparty successor.
Funny how elections don’t always turn out how we expect them to. Democracy! FPTP!
Appendix: Effective Number of Parties and the Seat Product Model
The effective number of parties is a size-weighted count, where each party’s share (of votes or seats) is weighted by itself through squaring. The squares are summed, and you take the reciprocal. See Michael Gallagher’s excellent website for details.
I am not going to explain here the logic behind the Seat Product Model. For that, see Taagepera (2007) or Li and Shugart (2016), or the forthcoming Shugart and Taagepera book, Votes from Seats (2017, due out in October). But the equations are as follows, where M is the mean magnitude (1, in the case of FPTP) and S is the assembly size (650 in recent UK elections).
Seat share of the largest party: s1=(MS)-1/8.
The important thing to understand about these equations is that they are not post-hoc regression fits. They are logical models, derived without reference to the data. When tested against the data from hundreds of democratic elections under various electoral systems, they are astonishingly accurate.
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