How to count the votes

If you live in the United Kingdom, and you ate just getting interested in the general election campaign – maybe you’re infected by Cleggmania, or you think it’s time for an old Etonian to run things, or as far as you’re concerned a dose of Presbyterianism is just the thing – then don’t get too excited about your vote. Unless you live in one of the small number of constituencies considered to be ‘marginal’, your vote doesn’t really count and won’t make the slightest bit of difference. This is one of the vagaries of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.

A good way of illustrating the unusual democracy that is the British voting system is to look at this BBC website where you can play with possible voting results and see how they would translate into seats in the House of Commons. Start with something really really simple: assume that the three main parties get exactly 30 per cent each, with the remaining 10 per cent going to the various Ulster parties and the Scots and Welsh Nationalists. This isn’t an unlikely scenario, as we know from recent polls after the TV debates. So what would you get – roughly equal numbers of seats for the three parties? Whoa there, absolutely not. In this scenario Labour would very nearly get an overall majority with 314 seats. The Conservatives would manage only 207, while the resurgent Lib Dems would, well, definitely not resurge, and would come away with exactly 100 seats.

Now let’s play with something more exciting. Let’s assume the Cleggmania lifts off the roof and the Lib Dems achieve a triumphant 35 per cent, and then let’s say that the Conservatives get 28 per cent and Labour 27. Now what happens? Well, yes, that would give the Lib Dems a more respectable number of seats. The biggest number? Nah! Maybe at least the second most seats? Not at all! They would get 176 seats. And guess what, lowest placed Labour (in terms of votes) would get the largest number of seats – 259 to be precise – while the Tories would have to make do with 186. So who would have the fewest? Why, the Lib Dems, the party with the highest vote, of course! That’s the topsy turvy world of ‘first-past-the-post’. Mind you, if the Lib Dems managed to get an overall majority – presumably by scoring 186 per cent of the vote or so – then by the next election it would all have turned upside down, and any challenger would now need to get the dead to vote 3 times to be in with a chance.

I am always amazed to find British people who will defend this, usually with some reference to stable government. It does not seem to occur to anyone with that view that stable government that is not supported by the popular will as expressed at the ballot box is not particularly democratic. And if you think that our own Irish politicians are above that kind of thing, remember that attempts were made in the past to introduce ‘first-past-the-post’ here, and it only failed because the people would not support it in a referendum.

British elections are fascinating, and I guess there’s just a little bit of me that would miss all the stuff with swingometers and the like. But in the end citizens don’t vote in order to be entertained on election night, they vote in order to settle the distribution of political power in parliament. It’s time for Britain to make political entertainment subservient to the democratic will of the people. Sooner or later, it will have to be done.

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8 Comments on “How to count the votes”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I will preface this comment by saying I can by place of birth vote in the UK. Something I did when I lived there. However given I lived in the RBK&C and voted Labour -And was not a Champagne Socialist BTW.- I understand better that most that acid burn of the first past the post. But I’ve little sympathy for the Liberals for if they had any moxy at all, enough of them would move and give a majority all around the large cities.
    Oh, I was in London while Shirley Porter was leader of the Conservatives in Westminster and giving masterclasses.

  2. john Says:

    🙂 Nice one Vincent.

    But you can have it representative and still keep it first past the post by simply redrawing the constituency boundaries.

    So long as no-one moves.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    While the British system is not ideal, I am not sure that ours is better. There are probably better PR systems and a list system would also allow some good people to get elected that would never make it through otherwise.
    In Ireland, we’re looking at coalition government being the norm, possibly with independents or small parties holding the balance of power. As a result, we get even more pork-barrel politics than usual.
    So it if was a simple choice between our or their system I think I’d settle for theirs. Could it possibly deliver a worse outcome?


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