UK election 2019

The UK general election is almost here. At this point, it seems quite unlikely that the result will be anything other than a good old fashioned FPTP manufactured majority. Boris Johnson and his Conservatives will win a majority of seats, barring a surprise, despite under 45% of the votes, and will be able to pass their Brexit deal.

If one looks at the polling aggregate graph by the Economist, one might be tempted to conclude it was also a good old fashioned “Duvergerian” pattern at work. As recently as early October, before the election was legislated, the Conservatives were leading on about 33% of the votes, and three other parties ranged from 12% to 25%. Go back further, to June, and all for were in the 18–25% range (with Labour then on top, and the Brexit Party ahead of the Conservatives). Since the latter part of October, and especially since the campaign formally got underway, Conservatives and Labour have both taken off, at the expense of the LibDem and Brexit parties. Notably, the gap between the top two has been quite steady, at 8-10 percentage points. Unlike 2017, there is no evidence at all that Labour is closing the gap. Labour simply are hoovering up the non-Tory (and Remain or second-referendum) votes at the same time as Leave voters have realized there’s no point in voting for a single-issue Brexit Party when the Tories have a pretty “hard” Brexit deal already to go, if only they win a majority of seats.

So, on the one hand, a far more “normal” election for a FPTP-parliamentary system than seemed possible during the long parliamentary deadlock of the past year or more. Just like Duverger’s “law” predicts, right? Desertion of the third and fourth parties for the top two.

Only sort of. Let’s take the current polling estimates for the parties (and not forgetting to include the current 5% “other”, which I will treat as one party, given most of it is one party–the Scottish National Party). It results in an effective number of vote-earning parties of 3.05. That’s a little high for a supposedly classic two-party system! It is, however, lower than seen at any election from 1997 through 2015. In 2017, however, it was 2.89, which was the lowest since 1979. The top two would be combining for 78% of the votes, which is a little higher than most elections from 1974 (February, in a two-election year) through 2001. Even in 2017, hailed by many at the time as the return to two-party politics–albeit dubiously–had a combined top-two of just 82.4%. (It looks like a high figure only compared to 2005-2015, when it ranged from 65.1% to 67.6%.)

Of course, it is the seats that really matter. Seat projections based on election polls under FPTP are never easy. There are various ones out there, but I will go with YouGov‘s.* It has the Conservatives with a projected 359 seats, which is 55.2%, with Labour on 211 (32.5%). Taking all the parties (and here breaking the “Northern Ireland” bloc down a bit, as we know it will consist of more than one such party), we get an effective number of seat-winning parties around 2.4. That is even lower than 2015, driven mainly by the presence of an expected single-party majority.

[*Note: just after I posted this, YouGov posted an update of their projections. I am not going to revise the numbers here. The differences are small, though potentially politically significant. See my first comment below this post.]

The problem with the standard Duvergerian claims about FPTP is that they ignore assembly size: In a larger assembly, we should expect more parties, other things (like district magnitude and formula) equal. While we could argue over how much the expected results of the 2019 election correspond to the so-called law, I’d rather not. What is of interest to me is that the UK case continues its long-term defiance of the Seat Product Model (SPM), and that’s something that I can’t take lying down.

While the conventional wisdom would see 2017 and 2019 as some sort of return to normalcy, it’s actually a challenging case for me. From the SPM (which explains over 60% of the variation in party-system outcomes worldwide, including FPTP systems), we should expect:

Effective number of seat-winning parties: 2.95.

Seat share of the largest party: 0.445.

Effective number of vote-earning parties: 3.33.

The seat outcomes actually never have come very close to the expectations. As for votes, the 1987 election got it right, but was a terrible performer in terms of seats (effective N=2.17!). Taking all the indicators together, the 2010 election is about the closest to what should be “normal” for a FPTP system with such a large assembly: effective N on votes 3.72, seats 2.57, and largest seat share of 0.47. So why was that not finally the start of the kind of party system the country “should” have? I guess we need to blame Nick Clegg. Or David Cameron. (I’d rather blame the latter; he was the one, after all, who thought a Brexit referendum was a good enough idea to go ahead with it.) More to the point, voters’ reaction to Clegg and the LibDems entering a coalition and–gasp–making policy compromises. After which, voters reverted to supporting the big two in greater shares than they are supposed to. In other words, contingency and path dependency overcome the SPM in this case. I hate to admit it, but it’s the best I’ve got!

Speaking of the LibDems, they should have had an opportunity here. Labour has the most unpopular opposition leader in decades. (Deservedly so, but I digress.) And the best hope for stopping Brexit would be tactical voting to increase their chances to win seats where Labour is not best positioned to defeat a Tory. Yet, despite lots of constituency-level tactical voting advice being offered in this campaign, there’s little evidence the message is getting though.

There is tactical voting happening, but as Rob Johns points out in a short video, it is happening based on the national outcome and not on district level. Under the Duvergerian conventional wisdom, voters are alleged to think of their constituency, and vote tactically (strategically) to effect the local outcome. Yet in real life, only a relatively small minority of voters behave that way. That voters use a strategy based on who is best placed to defeat a party they do not like on the national level, instead of at the constituency level, is a point made forcefully by Richard Johnston in his book, The Canadian Party System. It is also the underlying logic of the SPM itself.

So from the standpoint of the SPM, what is surprising is not that there isn’t more tactical voting at the constituency level. It is that there does not remain (so to speak) a strong enough third party, such as the Liberal Democrats, to appear viable nationally so that voters would be willing to vote for its district candidates. Quite apart from the legacy of the coalition that I referred to above, the case for the LibDems as a viable counterweight probably was not helped by a tactical decision it made in this campaign. Its leader, Jo Swinson, declared that a LibDem government would revoke the Article 50 notification and cancel Brexit. Put aside the ridiculous idea that there would have been a LibDem government. If one had resulted from this election, it would have been on far less than 50% of the votes. So you have a government resting on a minority promising to go back on the majority voice of the 2016 referendum without even bothering with a second referendum. That seemed at the time like a dumb position for the party to take. Only recently has Swinson offered the message of what the LibDems could accomplish in a no-majority parliament. But it’s too late. There almost certainly won’t be such a parliament.

The UK really needs a national third party (and fourth…). Contrary to the Duvergerian conventional wisdom, the electoral system actually could sustain it; we would expect the party system to look more like Canada’s (which conforms to the SPM very well, both over time and, in terms of seats, in 2019). Given the larger assembly, the British party system should be even less two-party dominated than Canada’s actually is. It is by now rather apparent that the LibDems are not the third party the system needs to realize its full potential. Will one emerge? Alas, not soon enough to stop a hard Brexit from being implemented by a manufactured majority (for a leader who is pretty unpopular himself) while Labour gobbles up most of the opposition, but falls well short.

25 thoughts on “UK election 2019

  1. Pingback: The Brexit Party | Fruits and Votes

  2. Of course, almost immediately on posting the above, there is an updated YouGov projection. It says 339 seats (52.2%), down from the 359 (55.2%) referenced above.

    The model’s “range of predictions for Tory seats lies between 311 and 367”; in other words, a no-majority parliament is within its margin of error.

    • Re-reading this months later (because, why not?), I am struck by how much closer the YouGov estimate I reference in the post was than the one they updated with as soon as I posted it!

      (Actual result for the top two was Conservative 365, Labour 202.)

  3. Pingback: UK 2019 note | Fruits and Votes

  4. Well, if the exit poll is roughly correct, the late reports of the race tightening were VERY wrong. The exit poll estimate for the Conservative Party is one seat greater than the top end of the YouGov’s updated confidence interval, and would be 56.6% of total seats.

    • As it turned out, the exit poll wasn’t that far off, although it underestimated Labour’s final seat total by a dozen mandates, and overestimated SNP’s performance by seven. Even so, Labour ended up with a lower seat count than in 1983 – in fact, its lowest since 1935- although its share of the vote was actually higher than in 2010 or 2015, not to mention 1983.

      That said, results for the U.K.’s four constituent countries show a more complex picture. In England, the overall result for the two major parties was remarkably similar to that of the 1992 general election, and to a lesser degree 2015 (even though those similarities mask a significant internal realignment, in which Labour lost vast swathes of northern England to the Conservatives, while at the same time it prevailed in London). On the other hand, in Wales the outcome was strongly reminiscent of 1983, with Labour retaining a reduced majority of seats on a narrow popular vote lead, the latter actually smaller percentage-wise than in 1983. Meanwhile, in Scotland the outcome was very similar to 2015, with SNP scoring a sweeping victory, except that both Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats weren’t reduced to a single seat each, although Labour was once more. Incidentally, Scotland was once more the only part of the U.K. where the Liberal Democrats fared relatively well seat-wise: other than for party leader Jo Swinson’s stunning loss of Dunbartonshire East by a mere 149 votes, the party won 6.8% of Scotland’s seats – 4 of 59 – with 9.5% of the vote.

      In Northern Ireland the election delivered a historic outcome: for the first time since partition almost a century ago, the province elected more nationalist/republican MPs (7 SF and 2 SDLP) than unionists (8 DUP), with the liberal, non-sectarian Alliance Party winning the North Down seat previously held by independent Sylvia Hermon. While taking into account the seat outcome was significantly shaped by a number of stand-down decisions, one cannot help but wonder if it’s a sign of things to come, specifically the emergence of a Catholic majority (or at least plurality) in the province by the next decade, which in turn might pave the way for the eventual reunification of Ireland.

      Finally, on top of its poor showing and the upcoming struggle for the party’s leadership, Labour may have another matter to be concerned about: now that the Conservatives have regained their absolute majority, it’s quite likely they’ll push for implementation of the “reduce-and-equalise” boundary review that’s been held in abeyance for the better part of the decade – which would put Labour at a further disadvantage. Although FPTP clearly worked to the benefit of the Conservatives, who have won 56% of the House of Commons seats with 43.6% of the vote, it should be remembered that back in 2005 Labour captured 55% of the seats with a much lower 35.2% share of the vote.

  5. MAR above gave a good summary of the results. Looking at the results seat by seat, it was pretty obvious that it was a Brexit dominated election, as the defeated and outgoing Labour leader noted. Electorally, the hard remain position of the LibDems and the soft remain position of Labour were mistakes, as the results mirrored the solid leave majority in the referendum was mirrored in the results. It should be noted that the Tories took an unambiguous pro-leave position after serious internal conflict and at the last possible minute, and may still not deliver their key campaign promise! The good news for Labour is that one way or another this dynamic should not be a factor in future elections.

    In England outside of London the Tories and leave won big, with a lot of prominent pro-EU politicians seeing their political careers ending tonight, London and Scotland voted pretty solidly for pro-remain parties and in Northern Ireland there was a remarkably bad result for the unionists and a decent result for the relatively non-sectarian Catholic and Protestant parties (SDLP and Alliance).

    The Tories did better than anyone predicted but it wasn’t a landslide, Labour’s vote share was around the norm for their late 20th century/ early 21st century results except for 1997, 2001, and 2017.

  6. So is there evidence of Russian intervention or extreme negative campaigning and how it would upset what would tend to emerge “naturally” based on the SPM? I also hear that some mail in votes weren’t counted.

  7. I wonder how many UK MPs are rethinking their opposition to the alternate vote proposal in the 2011 referendum, particularly given the SNP’s winning 81 per cent of the seats in Scotland with only 45 per cent of the vote there, as against 53 per cent for the parties I think are opposed to Scottish independence.

  8. Or maybe the vote in Scotland meant that 55.5% wanted to Remain, 25.6% wanted to Leave and 18.8% didn’t know whether their leader was coming or going?

    • That, too, is a possibility, Dave. What was a Brexit-supporting supporter of Scottish independence to do? But those who didn’t know if their leader was coming or going will find their leader is now going, if not as quickly as his MPs wish.

    • That letter makes my head hurt. I will concede I am not a fan of compulsory preferencing. Voters should be able to bow out at any stage of the vote. Now that I have said something nice…

      How in the world the does 56% of the seats from 43% of the vote “accurately reflect…voter intentions?”

      I do though have to admire a man who’s view of preferential voting is a talking point that was rejected by U.S. courts, of all places, as disingenuous and wrong

      • First-past-the-post supporters in Australia’s letters pages typically gain whatever mileage they enjoy from harping on the silliness of full mandatory preferencing, with its attendant problems (such as more votes being binned for informality and candidates with low primary support being elected due to preference deals that voters may not be fully aware of).
        Having noted correctly that the bathwater is dirty, they then want to throw out the baby…

      • … Ie, our local Posters have very little traction against (fully or moderately-) optional-preferential STV or AV, since it avoids both those defects.

      • “Robert Boffey, MacLeod” at https://www.theage.com.au/national/climate-change-scott-morrison-has-taken-an-important-step-forward-20191214-h1kepw.html is very typical of the “letter to an Australian newspaper supperting FPTP” genre – his letter ticks the usual boxes of (1) grade-two-level factual errors (there is no mathematical universe in which Boris Johnson’s 365 seats out of 650, or 56.1% of the Commons, “accurately reflects his party’s vote” ) and (2) mixing up preferential voting with some other separate aspect of the electoral system. Here, it’s compulsory attendance – in the UK AV referendum it was the 13-day grace period for postal ballots – everything goes into the pot.

      • There is, unfortunately, a “mathematical universe universe in which Boris Johnson’s 365 seats out of 650…reflects his party’s vote.” It is just not the one any of us actually exist in. If one goes to the polls to vote for PM, rather than a local member, one’s “vote” or Johnson, or Johnson’s local “pledged elector” as it were is reflected in the UK total. Boris Johnson has a comfortable majority and should be able to govern until he chooses to go the polls or does something rather stupid. On the other hand the people whose votes “unfairly” led towards Labor or the minor parties instead of the bin where they “belong,” means Scott Morrison is only one or two defections or by-elections away from having an issue.

        If the election for the lower house of a parliament is viewed as a first past the post election for Prime Minister, the math in England checks out and the math does not in Australia. As it has for thousands of years since Simon de Monfort became by leading his Barons’ Party to a 144 seat majority in the 1265 election,

    • Good point, Mark. FPTP supporters use “majority” in two quite different senses. Applied to popular votes, it means “plurality winner’s margin over second-highest”. So a result of 20,000 to 15,000 and 10,000 is a “majority” of 5,000 votes
      Applied to parliamentary seats, however, it means “absolute majority” (or at least “working majority”, ie more than half of those MPs who don’t consistently boycott). Posties would object vehemently if you were to claim “Benny Gantz’s party has a one-seta majority in the Knesset”.
      I haven’t heard any philosophical rationale articulated for this, although I suppose someone minded that way could come up with a justification along the lines of “A plurality is vulnerable to reversal on a later vote, if it’s not the final ballot. So – the popular vote is the last word for the next <5 years, but a parliamentary vote could be reversed tomorrow if the second-, third- and lower-placed parties gang up on the largest faction” or something like that.

      • ie, that “majority” means something like “a plurality that cannot be reversed by voters keeping their same internal preference order but voting more tactically to express it”.
        When discussing votes in a parliament, which is in regular semi-permanent session, anything short of 326 MPs out of 650 could be reversed by the opposition voting (more-) tactically. (Needless to say, it may not be if the opposition factions insist on Canadian-style separate lunch tables).
        (Of course, even an absolute majority for one party can be reversed if there’s a split or defections, but that is rare. Much more likely that, say, Greens MPs will back Labour/ the Social Democrats to throw out or keep out the conservatives – supporting their second choice against their last – than that Tory MPs will defect and ally with Labour).
        Whereas when discussing popular votes in an election, it’s game over, red rover for the next 2, 3, 4 or 5 years even if the winning candidate has some Ulster- or PNG-level low degree of support (30% or whatever).
        Nicely summarised by Lynn and Jay in YES MINISTER: “The Prime Minister is much more worried by discontent among back-benchers than among nurses and teachers. Nurses and teachers can’t vote against him until the next election. Back-benchers can vote against him at 10 o’clock tonight.”

  9. Pingback: Canada and UK 2019: District level fragmentation | Fruits and Votes

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