Events Dear Boy

By | August 19, 2017
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This week saw the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  On 16th August 1819 at St Peter’s Field Manchester, cavalry charged a crown of 60-80000 people.  They had gathered to protest about a lack of parliamentary reform at the time.  Of course we have come light years from that point.  Unlike 1819 when the electorate was strictly male and only those who own land with a freehold rental value of 40 shillings a year or more, the vast majority of people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote.  Unlike 1819 where there was a predominance of ‘rotten boroughs’ where a very small electorate (sometimes just 1  person) controlled parliamentary seats, we have 650 seats whose boundaries are reviewed regularly.

Of course the similarities of the time could be argued to be the difference in proportion of votes cast for different parties and the number of seats won in parliament.  I would argue there is an inherent unfairness in our first past the post electoral system which, over the last 40 years or so, has become more and more out of date and in need of change.

This is the first of three posts looking at different aspects of our current voting system.

In this first post I want to look at how the system we use has become more unfair over time and has become a bigger and bigger barrier to smaller parties and has built in securities for the two larger parties.

Consider the table below:

This table shows, for each election from 1945, the proportion of the vote gained by Conservative and Labour parties and the ‘other’ parties (predominantly Liberals/Alliance/Liberal Democrats). It also shows the proportion of the seats in parliament this share of the vote won them.

For me the key piece of information is the final column.  The % discrepancy gives the proportion of seats which would have to change hands to turn the actual result in terms of seats into the actual result in terms of share of vote.  So for example in 1945, to reflect the share of the vote, 13.7% of seats would need to change hands – these would be predominantly Labour seats as they have the biggest positive difference between seats and votes.

You can see that in 1950, 51 and 55 the system worked well as there was a relatively small discrepancy.  However this builds to mid to late teens in the 70s and, 1992 apart, around 20% – this would be about 130 seats which would have to change hands – in most cases Conservative and Labour losses to Liberals, the Lib/SDP alliance and the Liberal Democrats.

2017 has been the real recent outlier – all of a sudden the discrepancy becoming more like that in the 1950s and arguable it was the ‘fairest’ in terms of votes to seats since 1955.  Of course the reason for this is the collapse of the UKIP vote and the lack of improvement in the awful performance of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 after their 5 years in coalition.  2017 was more like an election pre 1974 when both major parties would get around 40% of the vote each.

Of course one of Harold MacMillan’s most famous quips, when asked what was most likely to blow governments off course he said “Events dear boy, events”.  Consider the 1983 election as a case in point.  This is the year with the largest discrepancy (23.3%) of any post war election.  It is considered the high water-mark of the 3rd party – when the SDP/Liberal Alliance came closest to breaking the two party duopoly. Consider if General Galtieri hadn’t decided to invade the Falklands the previous year – at a time when Mrs Thatcher was at her most unpopular and the Alliance were winning by-election after by-election and topping the polls.  Without Galtieri’s efforts to turn Thatcher into a Boadicea figure, almost certainly there would have been a tipping point in 1983 (or more likely 1984 as she would almost certainly have strung it out for the full 5 years) and we probably would have had an electoral system which more fairly represented the way we vote as a nation.  As Mr MacMillan said… events dear boy.

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