Fair Votes?

The weekend’s action around the blogs contained a lot of chatter about the fairness or otherwise of our electoral system – so far, nothing unusual. What was unusual (perhaps Iain Dale talking about whether size matters should go in here) is that the complaints were coming primarily from Conservative blogs rather than Lib Dems, or a particular branch of Labour.

Instinctively, it’s easy to see why they are upset – the Conservatives get fewer seats in Parliament for a given share of the vote (around the 40% mark) than do the Labour Party. Ironically, despite being prime campaigners against the ‘unfairness’ of the system, if they somehow reached 40% of the vote the Lib Dems would do better than either under First Past the Post.

Anyway, the core case being made by the Conservatives was set out with the most clarity and detail by Paul Goodman, writing for ConservativeHome. Of course, in any system which is not directly proportional (most systems, then), it will be the case that one party may gain an advantage. However, the root cause appears to have been missed in the article, and by most commenters.

It is not solely, or even mainly, the drawing of the boundaries which leads to the advantage for Labour, it is turnout. Simply put, despite all the dealignment of recent decades, Labour voters are still far more likely than Conservative voters to be working class, and vice versa. Working class people are far more likely to stay at home on election day. Minor parties are also, generally, stronger in more Labour areas, meaning the vote share required to win is lower.

Given turnout and electorate numbers, then, it is fairly easy to work out how many people stayed at home in each constituency. While it is not entirely fair to ascribe assumed votes to people who chose not to vote, it does seem intuitively likely that they would vote in an approximately similar way to their friends, family, and neighbours. The largest constituency by a long way is the Isle of Wight, because they historically prefer to be united than to have more representation, and there 42,201 people stayed at home on election day. In Vauxhall, 30,000 fewer voters have the opportunity to be non-voters, yet slightly more actually managed it!

Thus, to pick two big seats with almost exactly the same electorate,  marginal Northampton South (89,722 eligible voters) produced a Conservative MP on a turnout of 60.7%. Next door, leafier Daventry (88,758 eligible voters) produced a Conservative MP on a turnout of 68.1%. That is to say, although 1000 fewer people were eligible to vote in Daventry, 6000 more actually chose to do so. Similarly, of the 69,764 voters eligible to back Oliver Letwin in his Dorset marginal, 24,763 chose to do so. This is in stark contrast to, say, Manchester Central, where a very similar 69,656 voters were eligible to return Tony Lloyd for a third term as the local Labour MP, but only 16,993 did so – and yet this was a landslide victory. If Manchester Central and Dorset West were the only constituencies in the country then the national share of the vote would have been 37% for the Lib Dems, 30% for the Conservatives, and 27% for Labour, but Parliament would have had 1 Labour MP, 1 Conservative, and no Lib Dems.

It’s not clear what can be done about this – making constituencies with low turnout larger seems intuitively unfair, judging people in advance for decisions they have not yet taken. Weighting MPs’ votes in Parliament to the number of votes they actually received would solve this ex post facto, but create tiers of MP and sounds a bit unwieldy. National-level PR has its own set of disadvantages, and while it has many supporters I doubt that it is what the Conservatives currently getting exercised about this problem are proposing as a solution. 

To illustrate that this isn’t some specific gerrymander, exactly the same thing happens in local council elections. In a number of elections over the last decade – particularly in large mixed urban/rural areas such as shire counties, Labour have retained control of a council in an election at which the Conservatives had a higher proportion of the authoritywide vote.

One solution in the case of a local authority, of course, is the direct election of a powerful leader – this appeals to both major parties, the Conservatives since they believe differential turnout helps them a great deal, and Labour because they have become used to sweeping up the majority of Liberal Democrat second preferences in an Alternative Vote electoral system. So far the experiment has been limited to cities, but it seems to me that something either works, or it doesn’t, and a directly elected leader model could be transposed to rural and county authorities.

To coin a phrase, getting mad is easy. Getting even is much more complicated.

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2 responses to “Fair Votes?

  1. “Minor parties are also, generally, stronger in more Labour areas, meaning the vote share required to win is lower.”

    An error in an otherwise good article. Minor parties are generally stronger in Tory areas, actually reducing the Tory share required to win there. The downside is that minor parties also tend to win seats that would otherwise be Tory, cancelling the benefit of the first factor.

    • thelocalgovernmentofficer

      I’m willing to defer to your expertise on that one. I think I meant “minor parties other than the Lib Dems” and would want to check again whether the higher Green, BNP, Respect, etc support in Labour seats outweighs the growing UKIP trend in Conservative seats.

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