UK election 2017-any hope for electoral reform?

One of the most remarkable things about the UK election was the total number of votes cast for the top two parties, which increased from 67.3% in 2015 to 82.8% this year. It has been less noticed, however, that this has come with a substantial drop in the Gallagher (least squares) Index of disproportionality. From 15.02 in 2015, it has more than halved to 6.41, a figure actually larger than that in Ireland in 2011, Germany in 2013, or Poland in 2015.

UK_Gallagher_1966-2017

Source: Michael Gallagher

This is largely due to the absence of a large third party discriminated against by the single-seat plurality system. No established minor party outside Northern Ireland gained votes, with UKIP and the Greens both falling to below 2% and even the Liberal Democrats slipping back slightly in terms of votes despite picking up four seats. The (unusual, as Shugart points out) absence of an unearned majority for either party also contributed to the low score.

There also seems to be some evidence from past UK election results that two-party elections tend to be more proportional. Between the 1950 and 1970 elections, when support for the Liberals (the only substantial third party) never exceeded 11.2% (and was generally substantially below this), the Gallagher Index averaged only 6.41; since then, with the until-recent presence of the SDP-Liberal Alliance/Liberal Democrats, it has stayed high as can be seen above.

UK_margins_2015-17

The number of very marginal seats has also increased substantially at this election, as can be seen above. While other readers may disagree with me on this, I personally view a higher number of marginals as good for the status quo, given that it means more voters view their votes as having an impact upon the result. This is not necessarily a result that would appeal to the major parties, but it would seem to act to quell public concern over the current system.

The growth of the top two creates a problem for electoral reform advocates. Which party, exactly, benefits from implementing proportional representation? The Labour and Conservative parties obviously have no personal interest in PR. The Liberal Democrats, at present, are far too weak to extract such a concession (even with 57 seats in 2010, the best they could do was a referendum on AV) in a coalition, as are the Great British regionalist parties (which would probably be heavily expected to go with Labour anyway, weakening their leverage) and the Greens (much the same reason).

Labour’s manifesto makes no specific mention of proportional representation, while the Conservative manifesto goes further, calling for single-seat plurality to be adopted for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has gone on record in the past as being in favour of proportional representation, but I suspect now Labour are at 40% that proposal will be soon forgotten.

While the past two months has demonstrated conclusively that much can change in a short time in UK politics, it’s difficult to imagine that proportional representation could gain any traction in a political system dominated by the top two parties after failing to gain traction (at least for the House of Commons) in nearly thirty years of three-party politics.

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4 thoughts on “UK election 2017-any hope for electoral reform?

  1. I believe the British Electoral Reform Society is claiming that up to about 20% of people voted tactically, which implies that the disproportionality problem has merely been temporarily masked.

  2. Interestingly enough, while (as usual) FPTP severely punished the Liberal Democrats in England and Wales, in Scotland the party returned to the pattern of attaining PR-level results under the existing system, with four out 59 Scottish seats (6.78% of the total) on a practically identical 6.76% share of the vote.

    • The Lib Dem performance in Scotland was very much more a case of the SNP collapsing past them than any sort of substantial gain for them. In the three seats that they picked up, they only gained about 0.7-4.3% of the vote, but the SNP vote dropped by 10-17% (much of which went to the Conservatives). Indeed, in Gordon, a seat which was held by the Liberals/Liberal Democrats since its formation in 1983, the party lost 21 percentage points as the Conservative vote increased dramatically, partially leading to Alex Salmond’s defeat by the Conservatives. It would be interesting to see to what extent the result in Scotland was motivated for genuine support for the Conservatives, relative to tactical voting by the unionist parties against the SNP.

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