Britain’s desperate need for electoral reform

The exit poll was pretty much spot on, at least as far as the Conservatives were concerned. Boris Johnson’s party won 365 of the 650 seats in Thursday’s election, an overall majority of 80 and a lead of 163 over Labour, which finished with 202.

As observers of British elections will be used to by now – and may even be heartily sick of having me point out – the result in terms of votes looks quite different. The Conservative victory comes off just 43.6% of the vote, 10.5% ahead of Labour. The Scottish Nationalists, who with 48 were third in seats, had only 3.9% of the vote; the Liberal Democrats had about three times as much but only won 11 seats.

You may have heard it said that this is Labour’s worst result since 1935, and in seats that’s quite true (1983 was the previous worst, with 209). But Labour’s share of the vote was 4.5% better than in 1983, and indeed better than either 2010 or 2015.

Labour’s problem is the strength of the Conservative vote, which has increased in each of six consecutive elections to now reach its highest point since 1979. With essentially no rivals on the right to split their vote – Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party managed only 2.0% – the Conservatives were able to hold onto their southern English heartland while making inroads into Labour territory in the north and in Wales.

The Conservative performance would look even better were it not for the fact that the electoral boundaries, which have not been redrawn since 2007, actually favor Labour; its seats tend to be in areas of declining population. No doubt the new parliament will address this in due course.

Contrast, however, with what a democratic electoral system (definitely not on Johnson’s agenda) would look like. Here’s what I got from a Sainte-Laguë calculation on the vote totals:

Conservatives  287
Labour  211
Lib Dems  76
SNP  25
Greens  17
Brexit  13
Democratic Unionists  5
Sinn Féin  4
Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalists)  3
Alliance (Northern Ireland Liberals)  3
SDLP (Northern Ireland Labour)  2
Ulster Unionists  2
Yorkshire Party  1
Speaker  1

A change in systems, of course, would change how people vote. In particular, the distribution of votes between Labour, Lib Dems and Greens is heavily influenced by tactical voting; without that, it’s possible that it would be quite different.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to see why tactical voting would change the balance between, broadly speaking, pro- and anti-Brexit parties. And the proportional calculation reveals something that the media don’t seem to want to mention: that the anti-Brexit parties, including Labour for the moment in that category, won a clear if narrow majority of the vote.

Previewing the election a week out, I said that opinion polling consistently showed those parties with an aggregate lead of about seven points over their pro-Brexit rivals. The gap tightened from that point, finishing at five and a half points – still decisive. But exactly as I said, Johnson “will claim a mandate to implement a policy that most voters are opposed to.” And the media will treat this as perfectly normal.

You could argue that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn had fudged his position on Brexit to such an extent that many pro-“leave” voters would have felt safe voting Labour. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t affect the basic point: Labour’s position, whatever exactly it was, was preferred by the anti-Brexit parties in preference to Johnson’s, and since they plus Labour had majority support, they should have had the opportunity to form a government.

Moreover, the fact that the five and a half point margin mirrors the gap in voting intention on a hypothetical second referendum suggests that “leave” voters who were comfortable enough with Corbyn’s vacillation to vote Labour were balanced by “remain” voters who for other reasons were sufficiently scared of Corbyn to vote Conservative.

Britain desperately needs electoral reform. But it won’t get it until there’s a party in government that’s badly disadvantaged by the existing system, and of course the whole point of that disadvantage is that such a party is unlikely to get into government.

It can’t be stressed often enough that this stuff is not rocket science. Other democracies, including almost all of the most successful ones, operate proportional representation with little difficulty and little controversy. They look at the British system with puzzled disbelief.

But it’s especially ironic given that the pro-Brexit lobby has constructed its whole case around the need to respect “democracy” – a term which, as last week makes clear, it interprets in a rather selective fashion..


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