Saturday, 27 March 2010

Could these be the headlines on May 7th?

At Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall points out how the tightening polls could throw see the electoral system throw up some ' crazy results.

My Fabian Review essay on the electoral system back in Autumn 2007 imagined what the papers might say if a party with fewer votes won an overall majority (tactfully pitching the timetable forward four years, and introducing weekend voting too!).

Do the closing polls mean that this type of scenario is more likely?

Here's the extract:

It is one minute past ten pm on Sunday 4 May 2013. After a hard-fought campaign, the most expensive pie chart in BBC history spins towards the viewers. Has the New Tory call for 'change' finally worked? Their fetching new sky blue segment at 39 per cent edges the Prime Minister's deeper red back to 37 per cent, and the Lib Dems are squeezed to 21 per cent. Seven nail-biting hours later, Labour is back for a fifth term with a slim working majority of 14. Not because the exit polls got it wrong – they turned out to be uncannily accurate - but because the electoral system did.

Result: meltdown.

"Democracy crisis as losing party wins" reports the Times.

"Labour's Strange Victory – half a million votes behind", says The Guardian.

"Disunited Kingdom: Tory England denied" complains the Telegraph.

"Stolen: The Great Election Shambles", shouts the Mail.

"No Mandate to Govern", declares The Independent.

One question dominates angry radio phone-ins: why weren't we told this could happen?

The secret flaw of first-past-the-post is that it is a very poor majoritarian system if we ever have close elections. It needs a lot of luck to do what it says on the tin - award most seats to the party with most votes - at a national level.

The flaw is hidden because we mostly don't have close elections: 2005 was not much of a contest but it was the first election for thirty years where the two parties finished within 5% of each other. On the six post-war elections where the main parties have been separated by less than 5% of each other, FPTP has picked the "wrong" winner twice.

What we don't know is whether the reaction would be much less sanguine in an era of political disengagement and distrust. As I wrote of my hypothetical scenario:

As commentators observed over the next few days, there were historical precedents. Attlee had won Labour's highest-ever share of the poll in 1951 on 48.8 per cent, yet Churchill, trailing on 48 per cent, won a majority and the Tories governed the age of affluence. (Harold Wilson turned the tables in the first 1974 election, winning most seats when a quarter of a million votes behind).

But few were convinced by the history lesson. The 1951 election had taken place in a different political universe from our own. With no national TV or radio reporting, the local constituency contests were the focus of the campaign. Polling was in its infancy and totting up the final national vote was almost an afterthought.

More importantly, the electoral system had deep and almost unquestioned legitimacy. The institutions had come through the war. The two main parties had 97 per cent of the vote on an 85 per cent turnout. Both strongly supported the system, treating unfair results like bad umpiring decisions, likely to even out over time.

That broad legitimacy lasted almost three decades ... It no longer works. At the next election, a six point lead could give Gordon Brown a majority of 100, while David Cameron could need to finish nine points ahead just to escape hung parliament territory. Labour could expect to be 90 seats ahead of level on votes, and still be the largest party in the Commons even if they were up to five points behind.

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