Reminder from UK 2019 result: Electoral systems matter

Keep this in mind about the UK result. The Conservatives won less than 44% of the vote. Polling has consistently shown that if there were another referendum on Brexit, a majority would vote for Remain. But the Conservatives won 56% of the seats, so Johnson is banging on about his great “mandate” to “get Brexit done”.

You see, electoral systems matter.

Even if you add in the Brexit Party votes (which got no seats), the combined votes cast for parties still advocating outright for leaving the EU do not reach a majority. In fact, it barely breaks 45%.

Meanwhile, the SNP has won 81% of the Scottish seats, with 45% of the votes cast in Scotland. And their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is going on and on about the mandate for Scotland to decide on independence. It’s a fishy claim.

Which party gained the most in votes, relative to the last general election? That would be the Liberal Democrats. But the party suffered a net loss of one seat (and its leader was defeated).

The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system makes a country seem more divided than it is, and often leads to policy outcomes a majority of voters actually oppose.

FPTP certainly is not very representative. But it can produce a decisive government, and Boris Johnson now looks like he could take his place among the significant Prime Ministers in the country’s recent history.

At least this result means my old lectures about British majoritarianism do not to be heavily caveated as they’ve been for the past several years.

9 thoughts on “Reminder from UK 2019 result: Electoral systems matter

  1. The Conservatives have their hands full with this ‘historic victory’. Brexit will still be a hard sell and now Scotland and Northern Ireland will push for referenda on their status, being ‘colonial subjects’ and pro-EU as they are. The hangover from the victory party will last for quite some time.

  2. Good post. All of this reform study, as well as the UK outcome, has me doing a lot of thinking about multi-dimensional policy spaces. Can we say that a majority of voters opposed the Brexit policy? If that were true, wouldn’t they have rallied behind some single anti-Brexit party? Or formed some sort of anti-Brexit pre-election coalition? While I didn’t pay very close attention to how the parties campaigned, it seems like there was a multitude of issues at play. That is, lots of things were salient, in addition to Brexit.

  3. In a comment I posted on this blog shortly after the U.K. general election of 2015, I wrote that

    “Incidentally, much has been said about the SNP’s landslide in Scotland – enormously amplified by the FPTP electoral system – but another equally impressive but far less noticed landslide took place further south: in England’s three southernmost regions (excluding London), the Tories won 181 of 197 seats (91.8% of the total) with 49% of the vote. Following the Lib Dems’ collapse, Labour is now once more the second largest party in that part of England, but far behind the Tories, with just a dozen seats and trailing by thirty percentage points. At any rate, the election outcome in Southeastern England underscores how politically polarized the UK has become under the existing electoral system.”

    And just over four years later, little has changed seat-wise in that part of the country. The Conservatives swept once more in southeastern England outside London, winning 174 of 197 seats (88.3% of the total) with 54.6% of the vote, while Labour won only 19 (9.6%) with a 23.1% share. In fact, once more the Tories owe their parliamentary majority to their landslide victory in the southeast: in the rest of Great Britain, they won 191 of 435 seats (43.9%) with 39.5% of the vote, while Labour secured 184 (42.3%) with 38%.

  4. To Jack’s comment (and I guess also sort of to Rob): What we have are polls asking voters how they would vote if there were a second referendum. Very clearly and consistently, they have shown Remain would be win. (Perhaps this explains why the governments of both May and Johnson have made a point of not agreeing to hold a second referendum. Just guessing here.)

    Elections are always multidimensional. A referendum, at least on such a question, is by definition one-dimensional. Thus it is not, to me, a paradox that an electorate with a Remain majority, when voting in a multiparty FPTP election, would not deliver a Remain parliamentary majority. The rules are different, and so is the outcome! (How about that?)

    To expect voters to rally behind whoever in their constituency was best placed to stop Brexit is to expect something that we actually have little evidence happens on the scale needed to substantially change aggregate seat outcomes: strategic (tactical) voting in districts, as opposed to based on national expectations. I addressed this in the pre-election post. It also expects voters to be willing to vote for Corbyn when he is personally odious to many voters and his party’s manifesto is really radical. It is not a stretch to imagine that for many LibDem voters, the preference ranking is LD>Cons>Lab, at least given the presence of Corbyn and his merry band of antisemites and Trotskyites. It is also not that hard to imagine that there are many Labour voters who would never switch their vote to LibDems, given the 2010 coalition participation and the lingering feeling that the leader, Jo Swinson, is a closet Tory.

    So, yes, election campaigns are multi-dimensional. And that matters.

    But we also can see plainly that the explicitly pro-Brexit parties obtained less than half the votes at the same time as polls show a majority for Remain in a (hypothetical) second Brexit referendum. Owing to the electoral system, that less-than-half will have a huge parliamentary majority.

    • In last Thursday’s election there were only 52 constituencies in which the margin of victory of the elected Conservative MP over second-place Labour (39) or Liberal Democrat (13) candidates was smaller than the total number of votes cast for Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green nominees. There were also five Scottish constituencies in which the Conservatives defeated second-placed SNP candidates by margins smaller than the combined Labour and Liberal Democrat vote totals. In sixteen of these constituencies, further tactical voting by fewer than an additional thousand voters would have resulted in the Conservatives being defeated by Labour (10), the Liberal Democrats (4) or SNP (2), but all that would have accomplished would have been reducing the Conservative majority in the House of Commons from 80 to a still substantial 48, with Labour having a marginally better seat outcome than in 1983. Meanwhile, in many of the remaining forty-one constituencies the candidate coming second would have needed significant tactical swings (in excess of two thousand votes) to catch up with the Conservative nominee.

      On the flip side, there were 38 constituencies in which the winning margin of the elected Labour MP was smaller than the combined vote for Conservative and Brexit Party candidates (with Conservatives arriving second in all but two such cases). In 18 of these constituencies, Labour won by fewer than 2,000 votes, with nine of the latter decided by fewer than a thousand.

      In other words, the election outcome under the FPTP system severely constrained the potential impact of further tactical voting.

      • If only the Alternative Vote referendum back in 2011 would have passed? I wonder if David Cameron called the Brexit referendum believing he would defeat it like he did with the Alternative Vote referendum.

  5. Pingback: Votes, seats, and exit polls: UK 2019 edition | Fruits and Votes

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

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