Who will win the next election? Nobody knows – but it depends on what you mean by the word ‘win.’ Can anyone win an overall majority of votes? Nope. No chance, for sure. Can anyone win an overall majority of seats? Maybe, but that’s not something that you’d want to bet on at the moment. The people at Electoral Calculus are predicting a Labour majority of 42, as well as suggesting there’s a 63% chance of a Labour majority. Do you believe them? You probably don’t.
Digging deeper into the forecasts of Electoral Calculus, we discover something even more interesting. In the 2010 election, Labour and the Conservatives combined secured 66.63% of the national vote – two-thirds, or as near as makes no difference. The picture, they say, will be broadly the same this time around. The two biggest parties will take two out of every three votes. Thanks to our electoral system, that 66% vote share adds up to 90% of the seats. Mathematics has a way of highlighting certain things, doesn’t it?
This has long been the case. The last time a party won a majority of the national vote in a UK general election was in 1931, when Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives took 55% of the votes. (If you want a visual representation of how long ago that really was, look at the pictures of the candidates on that election’s Wikipedia page.)
For a long time, not many people seemed too bothered about the yawning gap between votes and seats in British elections. It was a cause that only really affected the Liberal Democrats, as most of the seats that went red or blue should technically have been yellow. Lots of their voters were protest voters, so they didn’t make much of a fuss when their party went under-represented in the House of Commons. The two big parties were able to suppress any calls for voter reform as a side issue for those weird Lib Dems. When there’s two of you and one of them, it’s easy to get the better of the argument.
That should have all changed in 2010, when a hung parliament gave the Lib Dems more relevance than they’d had for many decades. The failure of the alternative vote (AV) referendum meant the chance to reform the voting system went begging. After all, AV was a ‘miserable little compromise,’ so why take it? It wasn’t a system that would really change the electoral landscape. Lots of commentators say that the rejection of AV showed that voters weren’t too interested in electoral reform. Is that the case? Or, if they were offered a system that clearly and unambiguously gave parties the amount of seats that their vote share represented, would they instead jump at the chance to embrace that fairer system?
I’m referring here, obviously, to proportional representation (PR), the system that gives parties the same percentage of seats as they received in votes. The big parties have never wanted PR because it would destroy their in-built electoral advantage. Labour and the Tories want to keep more than half the seats, not 30-40%. They say that PR would bring about an electoral system of uncertainty and chaos. Now, the coalition isn’t exactly popular, but nobody can suggest that it’s failed as a system of government. The world didn’t collapse when Lib Dems and Tories started sharing power. The sky didn’t fall. We all continued on as normal.
The introduction of PR may mean permanent coalition. Would that be such a bad thing? One of the great complaints laid at the door of Westminster is that it’s too exclusive, too closed-off, and that it relies on the same old voices and the same old ideas. PR would bring new parties and new people into Parliament. It would open up the way that the UK conducts politics. It would show the world that the UK respects democracy, and that it values the choices that the British electorate makes. Allocating seats proportionally by nation would also help to bring parties from all four corners of the UK into the political atmosphere. We’d end up with a more accurate representation of how different communities within the UK really want the country to be run.
At the moment, Labour and the Tories both behave as if we’re still in the early half of the twentieth century, when they commanded 90+% of the vote between them. They patronise their critics on the left and the right. They reject anything that doesn’t correspond with their centrist world view. Speaking as a Labour member, I’d love for the party to engage with the more left-wing opinions expressed by the Greens, or by the sections of the Lib Dems that haven’t been stained by the Tory coalition. I’m sure that there are many Tory sympathisers who’d want their party to open their ears to UKIP (regardless of the wisdom of that idea).
The big two parties can’t reject PR, and they can’t reject the validity of the parties that challenge their dominance. It was easy to pretend that the two-party system still existed when the only pretenders to the throne were the Liberal Democrats. Today, Labour and the Conservatives find themselves fighting a war on multiple fronts. UKIP, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru – they all want to eat away at vote share and stake a claim to power and influence. Resistance is futile. The days of monstrous majorities are over. The party that will hold the biggest sway over Britain’s future will be the one that builds alliances and bonds with smaller parties. It’s not as simple as just agreeing with Nick – there needs to be a realisation that the old politics is dead, and won’t be returning. If the big parties engage with others, they might start off on a path towards a broader and more adult way of doing politics. If they stick with their arrogant, 1930s visions of one-party hegemony, they’ll pay the price at the ballot box.