How much more can you say about just how bad a bad electoral system is?
Britain goes to the polls in three and a half weeks time, on 12 December. To get an idea of prospects, you could, for example, turn to Politico‘s opinion poll aggregates. They show, as they have for months, the anti-Brexit parties with a narrow lead: 50% in total (Labour +Lib Dems +Greens +nationalists) to 46% (Conservatives +Brexit +UKIP).
That’s consistent with the polling for a hypothetical second referendum on European Union membership, which shows “remain” with a very stable lead of 50% to 44%.
Or you could turn to the betting market, which shows the opposite. The odds-on favorite outcome is a majority Conservative government, priced at $1.53 or 15-8 on. The total of the odds for all of the pro-Brexit results amounts to a 69.7% chance, while the anti-Brexit options total 29.1%.*
But this is not a case of the punters disagreeing with the pollsters. The odds are simply pricing in the fact that the electoral system is not a neutral player in this. It favors – sometimes massively – larger parties over smaller, which means that in a case like this it favors the side whose vote is more concentrated with a single party.
And that means the Conservatives, who hold a lead over Labour of more than ten points: a number that has been steadily growing since July, when Boris Johnson won the party leadership. Not because Labour has been losing ground – after a period of stability, its vote has recently been rising as well – but because Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which had previously been cannibalising Tory votes, has been in steep decline.
Last week Farage recognised the inevitable and agreed not to run in any Conservative-held seats. On paper, that might not seem to be where the action is; Labour seats, where the Brexit Party is still running, are the ones more likely to see a damaging clash between the two. But the message of giving in to the Tories can’t be neatly quarantined. Most voters will take the hint across the board.
If the anti-Brexit parties are to win a majority, they will need to find some unity on their side as well. Some moves have been made; Liberal Democrats, Greens and nationalists have made some strategic withdrawals, and no doubt will run dead in some other seats. Officially, none of these pacts involve Labour, but at a local level there will be occasional agreements about where to direct resources.
But tactical voting doesn’t always have to be led from above. Voters are capable of working things out for themselves, and the fact that anti-Brexiters tend to be younger and better-educated raises the hope that they will make some of the decisions that the parties have been too pig-headed to make for themselves.
Whether or not it will be enough, no-one knows. Some marginal seat polling this morning from London illustrates the problem. In each of three seats, all marginal last time between Conservative and Labour, the Conservatives have a clear lead but much less than a majority of the vote; the Lib Dems are running second and Labour third.
When asked how they would vote if they thought their candidate had no chance, the vast majority of Labour voters would switch to the Lib Dems – enough to win them all three seats. But Lib Dem voters, although they would desert their own party if it was out of the running, would not all go to Labour: a substantial minority would vote Conservative rather than risk putting Jeremy Corbyn in office.
It’s this sort of tactical decision in three- and four-cornered races, more than the national levels of support, that will decide the election.
Although it’s only a very small part of the total picture, the case of Northern Ireland is particularly fascinating. The nationalist Sinn Féin and the centre-left SDLP have reached a deal covering four seats – one allocated to each, and two in which they will both throw their support to the centrist Alliance.
One of the latter two, North Down, is currently held by independent Sylvia Hermon, who has announced her retirement. But Sinn Féin had been willing to withdraw and support her, even though she is a unionist, in the interests of anti-Brexit solidarity.
Of course, Sinn Féin could do even more for the cause if it was willing to take its seats in the House of Commons to vote against Brexit, not just deny them to others. But there’s no hint of that. Even a suggestion earlier in the year that their MPs could temporarily resign their seats in favor of anti-Brexit independents was unceremoniously rejected.
* The reason those two don’t add to 100% is that you can get 66-1 against a Conservative-Labour coalition government, which is unclassifiable.