Well, that was easy

As it turned out, you didn’t need to read any further than my first scenario from yesterday on the British election result. The Conservatives won about 55 seats ahead of expectations, to finish with 331, a lead of 99 over Labour and a majority of 12 against all comers.

It’s a result I described as “most unlikely”, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. It was a shocking night for the pollsters. (Here’s Ben Lauderdale at FiveThirtyEight trying to explain what went wrong.) They were also wrong about the minor parties, but as I had said, that didn’t really matter for picking the overall result: the minors still had “about a hundred seats, give or take a few” (actually 87) between them.

In a sense, however, it’s the result we should have expected. Indeed, it’s pretty much the result that was expected five years ago; when David Cameron took office there was a consensus that, provided he didn’t screw up badly (and he hasn’t), the Tories would win a majority in their own right next time around. First term governments in established democracies are very hard to beat.

Further evidence, had anyone much (including myself) been minded to look at it, would have come from the last 18 months or so’s worth of election and poll results in the rest of Europe. They’ve shown quite consistently that the left’s recovery had peaked and that the movement, such as it was, was back towards the right.

And of course the electoral system did its thing. The Conservative majority comes off just 36.9% of the vote. But at least it’s a narrow majority; Tony Blair won a much larger one in 2005 with just 35.2%. When you come to the minor parties, the distortion is of another order of magnitude. Here are the top four (the only ones scoring above 1%):

Party Votes % Seats Seats %
UK Independence 12.6% 1 0.15%
Liberal Democrats 7.9% 8 1.2%
Scottish National 4.7% 56 8.6%
Green 3.8% 1 0.15%

Looking just at Scotland, the SNP won 94.9% of the seats with just on 50% of the vote. Good luck trying to convince anyone that that meets any conceivable test of fairness.

I’ll have some thoughts next week on what it all means, especially for the future of the Conservative Party and for Britain’s place in Europe. But there’s one more point to make about the electoral system. Here’s James Graham in Thursday’s Evening Standard, sounding quite a common theme:

It is a system designed with one purpose – to produce strong, single majority governments that can rule and pass legislation. And yet come tomorrow it will have singularly failed to achieve that objective on two occasions in a row.

Of course he was wrong in the second sentence, but no criticism there; like the rest of us, he just believed the opinion polls. More interestingly, the first sentence is wrong as well.

While that’s the (poor) justification now commonly offered for it, the origins of the British electoral system – which, with some modification, we use in Australia as well – are completely different. The explanation for single-member districts is simply parliament’s original function as an assembly of representatives from different parts of the country, at a time when parties were unheard of and even the idea of voting in parliament was secondary. The House of Commons was supposed to behave as a corporate entity, not a collection of groups with different views.

It’s true that most constituencies initially had two members, not one, but since voters could exercise two votes that didn’t really change the arithmetic. It’s also true that for a short period in the nineteenth century there were a few three-member constituencies – still with each voter only having two votes, therefore providing some proportionality – but I’m not aware of anyone raising the need for clear majorities as an argument for their abolition.

Like many things we say about electoral systems, that supposed need is an ex post rationalisation. And regardless of their origins, the reality is that electoral systems survive because, and so long as, they serve the interests of those in power.

Which is why Britain’s is most unlikely to be changing any time soon.


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