Clegg the Kingmaker

Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron
Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron

Results from yesterday’s election in the United Kingdom are in, and they produced some surprising results. The Liberal Democrats, which had been riding high in the polls, performed worse than forecasted, losing five seats. As most analysts had been projecting, the Conservatives, who have been out of power for thirteen years, won a plurality of the votes. But they fell short of winning a majority of seats in the parliament—a situation referred to as a hung parliament. As a result, the Conservatives will likely be forced to enter an agreement with one or more of the smaller parties—most likely the Liberal Democrats—to gain control of parliament and the right to name the next Prime Minister.

The elections raise a few important points for students of comparative politics. First, they illustrate the challenges of Britain’s (and by extension, the U.S.) first-past-the-post system [glossary]. This system, in which the winner of each electoral district or riding is the candidate that secures the most votes, produces stable, majority governments when there are two dominant parties, as in the United States. But when a third party enters the mix, unusual results can develop. Take the results from yesterday’s election, for example.

The BBC is reporting the following results:

Party

Seats Won

Votes Received

Conservatives

305

10,681,417

Labour

258

8,601,441

Liberal Democrats

57

6,805,665

Democratic Unionist

8

168,216

Scottish National Party

6

491,386

Sinn Fein

5

171,942

Plaid Cymru

3

165,394

Social Democratic & Labour

3

110,970

All Others

3

2,406,787

Totals

 

29,653,638

So what does this tell us about the British electoral system? Several things. First, think about how votes convert into seats. If we look at the average number of votes each party receives to win an individual seat, we get the following:

Party

Votes per Seat Won

Conservatives

35,021

Labour

33,338

Liberal Democrats

117,339

Democratic Unionists

21,027

Scottish National Party

81,897

Sinn Fein

34,388

Plaid Cymru

55,131

Social Democratic & Labour

36,990

All Others

802,262

Consider the data. The Conservatives won 305 seats on 10,681,417 votes. They thus won a seat in Westminster for every 30,021 votes. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, won just 57 seats on 6,805,665 votes, or one seat for every 117,339 votes. This means that the Conservatives were more than three times as efficient as the Liberal Democrats at converting votes into seats in Westminster.

How does this happen? Winning a district in a first-past-the-post system requires only that you get more votes than any other candidate, not that you receive a majority of the votes cast. If a party receives 30 percent of all the votes cast across the country but does not get more votes than other party’s candidates in any district, it would receive no seats. It’s even possible that a party that receives fewer votes could receive more seats in parliament. Again, the U.K.’s election provides an interesting example. Smaller parties that are concentrated in a relatively small area tend to be over-represented in parliament. For example, the Democratic Unionist Party (a party based in Northern Ireland) won 6 seats on just 168,216 votes. The U.K. Independence Party, by contrast, received more than five times the number of votes but failed to win a single seat in parliament. Voters supporting the U.K. Independence Party tended to be geographically dispersed, this diluting their support across a larger number of ridings (electoral districts). A similar phenomenon regularly occurs in Canada, where the regionally-based Bloc Quebecois tends to over perform, while the nationally-dispersed Liberal Democrats tend to underperform in national elections.

In a proportional representation system [glossary], like that used in most parliamentary democracies around the world, votes are translated directly into seats. A party that receives 40 percent of the votes would be entitled to 40 percent of the seats in parliament. Not surprisingly, proportional representation tends to expand the participation of small parties in parliament, often fracturing the political spectrum into a larger number of smaller parties. This can lead to instability, as the recent history of Belgium and Italy attests.

So how would the British parliament look under a PR-based system? Let’s think about the number of seats each party received and compare that to the percentage of the popular vote each party won, using that figure as an appropriate number of seats that party might win in a hypothetical proportional representation (PR) system. Here’s what we get:

Party

Seats Won under FPTP

% of Seats Held under FPTP

% of Seats Held under Hypothetical PR System

Difference

Conservatives

306

47

36

-11

Labour

258

40

29

-11

Liberal Democrats

57

9

23

+14

Democratic Unionists

8

1

0

-1

Scottish National Party

6

1

2

+1

Sinn Fein

5

0.7

0.6

Plaid Cymru

3

0.5

0.6

Social Democratic & Labour

3

0.5

0.4

Green

1

0.002

1

+1

Alliance Party

1

0.002

0.1

UK Independence Party

0

0

3

+3

British National Party

0

0

2

+2

The big winners are the Liberal Democrats, who would net an increase of eleven seats in the parliament. The other winners are the UK Independence Party, the British National Party, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens, all of which net an increase in representation. The big losers? The Conservatives and the Labour Party, each of which would lose eleven seats.

Given these hypothetical results, it’s not surprising that the Liberal Democrats have been pushing hard for electoral reform. It’s also not surprising that the Conservatives and the Labour Party have both historically opposed electoral reform. The interesting question now is whether or not Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, can translate his position as potential kingmaker in any governing coalition into real electoral reform that might solidify the position of the Liberal Democratic in the British political landscape. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has already alluded to the possibility, promising to make a “big open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for their support. Labour leader Gordon Brown made a similar offer, stressing the “substantial common ground” that exists between Labour and the Lib Dems and promising real electoral reform.

There are, of course, other possibilities. The Liberal Democrats may choose not to enter an agreement with either party but agree not to oppose the Queen’s Speech or budget—a vote against either of the two could constitute a confidence motion in the government, triggering new elections.

Whatever happens, the next few days will certainly be interesting to watch.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s