Saturday, 15 May 2010

Where is my vote?!

Well, it's been quite a week. Gordon Brown and Labour out of power, the Con Dem coalition coalescing and making soothing noises in all our ears and a new Secretary of State Against Scotland who even Lib Dems have never heard of. As electoral reform seems to be on the agenda it seems timely to take a closer look at the election results. And besides, I've been too busy at work to capitalise on that "Con Dem Nation" headline I was going to use (and no doubt many others already have).

Under first-past-the-post (FPTP) the votes for losing candidates achieve zero representation in parliament. So, just how many votes do our elected MPs muster between them? How enfranchised are we? And does this vary much across the UK?

Area"Wasted" votes"Winning" votes% "Wasted" Votes% "Winning" Votes
Wales 841,9821,466,991 36.47% 63.53%
Northern Ireland 366,730673,871 35.24% 64.76%
Scotland 1,289,1782,465,720 34.33% 65.67%

So, rather interestingly our fabulous FPTP form of democracy threw away over 1 in 3 of the votes of the British demos this time round! For the whole UK we see that 65.54% of the votes cast were for the winning candidates. In other words we could say that parliament as a whole has a mandate of 65.54% of those who voted. The remaining 34.46% of the electorate are effectively disenfranchised, their votes counting for precisely nothing when it comes to representation in parliament.

Variations within the nations of the UK are not pronounced, although I note that Scotland appears to have the highest proportion of "winning" votes, marginally ahead of England - probably no great surprise given the vast majorities for Labour in much of the central belt, and ditto for England, with the safe Tory shires of the south and traditional Labour heartlands of the north. Things seem to be a little more competitive in Northern Ireland and Wales.

And that is another way of looking at these numbers, as a measure of hegemony. If all voters in a constituency voted for the winner then that MP could be said to have a 100% mandate (although this might not be a sign of a healthy democracy!), if only half voted for the winner then the mandate would be only 50%, etc. The table above shows then that Scotland has the highest degree of hegemony, i.e. seats in Scotland are generally safer and majorities tend to be larger. Interestingly Wales shows the lowest hegemony, albeit only marginally lower. Perhaps this reflects the improved performance of the Tories in Wales, serving to equalise the share of the vote between the 4 main parties there.

This hegemony can also be seen in the following table. It shows the cumulative % share of the vote by party in all of the seats that they won (i.e. total votes for party X in all of the seats that they won divided by total votes in those seats).

AreaConLDLabLab Co-opSNPPC
UK48.41%46.03%46.17%48.65%39.98% 38.44%
England 48.59%47.10% 45.70% 46.96%- -
Wales 41.50% 45.95% 42.96% 43.43% - 38.44%
Scotland 38.04% 41.06% 50.10% 58.16% 39.98% -

Under FPTP one might reasonably expect to win a seat with around 40% of the vote (an opposing candidate would then have to poll around 2/3 of the remaining votes to win, difficult in a multi-party election). So Tory seats in England appear to be pretty safe, less so in Wales and Scotland (albeit with a sample of only one!). Lib Dem seats are safe in England and Wales, with a lower share of the vote securing their seats in Scotland.

Labour (here divided into Labour and 16 Labour Co-operative MPs) seats also appear generally solid in England and Wales, but in Scotland the average vote share in Labour seats is over 50%! Contrast this with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, winning their seats with around 38-40% vote share.

To reinforce this point, take a look at the average majorities that each party enjoys in their seats.

Area Con LDLabLab Co-opSNP PCAll parties
UK 9,4655,5807,8458,916 3,497 3,768 8,362
England 9,624 5,354 7,408 7,061 - - 8,466
Wales 4,244 5,549 5,843 8,463 - 3,768 5,477
Scotland 4,194 6,469 11,175 16,017 3,497 - 9,645

Again the main lessons can be drawn from the outliers: the Tory majorities in Wales and Scotland are less than half those in England. The Lib Dems are somewhat safer in their Scottish strongholds than elsewhere in the UK (I wonder if the coalition will affect that situation...). Labour's grip in Wales seems to be weaker than elsewhere in the UK (only 2 Lab Co-op MPs in Wales, so their higher majorities won't lift the average much), in stark contrast to their utter dominance in their Scottish seats. The SNP and PC have rather weaker holds on their constituencies than the other parties, perhaps due to the squeeze they tend to suffer at Westminster elections.

If you've stuck with this slightly unusual analysis this far you'll no doubt be wondering what the point of it all is! (I'll confess you're not alone there!) Well, firstly it's not the kind of analysis I've seen done elsewhere, so it at least has novelty value.

Secondly, I've deliberately focussed my efforts on the idea of "wasted" votes in FPTP. As shown above, 1 in 3 votes counts for nothing! A whole third of the voting electorate disenfranchised! On that basis alone electoral reform is a must. Every vote should count.

Thirdly, and slightly contradicting the previous point(!), whilst Scotland has fewer "wasted" votes, it is worrying for one party to be quite so firmly entrenched as Labour is in their Scottish fiefs. Our democracy is only healthy when parties are ousted for poor performance, and this will only happen when tribal loyalties are broken down and attractive alternatives are put before the voters. That is the challenge for the Lib Dems, Tories and SNP in Scotland.

Finally, look again at the share of the vote that Labour in Scotland have where they win - just over 50%. No wonder they proposed AV as their favoured voting reform - more than 50% in round one means no counting of second preferences! We'd still end up with over 40% of the voters in Labour seats being disenfranchised. If the UK needs PR for Westminster elections, that is doubly true for Scotland.

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