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Voting system gives Tories a result most UK voters didn’t want

Ed Miliband’s Labour Party gained a swing twice as big as the Conservatives did but lost seats, leading him to resign. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

On Thursday, May 7 2015, the Conservative Party won the national election in the United Kingdom – despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of ballots were cast for other candidates. With only 36.9% of the vote - some 3% more than opinion polls predicted - the Conservative Party won a 50.9% absolute majority of seats, 331 out of 650, in the House of Commons.

The 61.1% of voters who supported other candidates will thus be represented by a minority in the Commons. There have been public protests at an outcome that some feel was not a democratic expression of voters’ will.

Labor made bigger vote gains, but lost seats

Here are a few facts about the election results that may surprise readers:

  • The Conservative Party increased its vote by 0.8%, but increased its number of seats by 28 seats.

  • The Labour Party increased its vote by a greater percentage than the Conservatives did, 1.5%, but its number of seats decreased by 24.

  • Most voters cast their votes for defeated candidates, so most are “represented” by an MP they did not support.

  • Some parties are over-represented in the House of Commons relative to their support among voters. So the governing Conservatives, with 36.9% support, have 50.9% of the seats, and the Scottish Nationalists, with 4.7% support, have 8.6% of the seats.

  • Other parties are grossly under-represented, most notably the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) with just one seat, yet 12.6% support.

  • The percentage swing to UKIP was the biggest for any party in the UK for at least a generation, but the 3,881,129 people who voted for them – the third-biggest vote after the Conservative and Labour parties – are almost all unrepresented in the House of Commons now.

  • Both the Labour and UKIP leaders resigned following their parties’ disappointing number of seats won, even though the votes for their parties significantly increased.

‘First past the post’ distorts multi-party contests

Why is this so? The problem with UK elections, highlighted previously in The Conversation, is that single-member electoral districts, combined with the lack of preferential voting, means that election results usually strongly distort the voters’ wishes.

Here’s how it happens.

Consider the county of Cornwall. With six electoral constituencies, the overall vote was as follows:

43.1% Conservative

22.4% Liberal Democrat

13.8% UKIP

12.3% Labour

5.8% Green

2.5% Others

Although 57% of voters in Cornwall voted for parties other than the Conservatives, the Conservatives won every seat. This is because, under the first-past-the-post system, each winner needs to be just a nose in front of each of the other candidates, even if most of the voters didn’t vote for him or her. In fact, only one Conservative candidate exceeded 50% support in Cornwall.

The full details of what happened are given in the table below:

Breakdown of voting in six seats of Cornwall

Author provided

The only voters whose ballots count for the election of an MP are those who support the candidate who gets the biggest share. This biggest share is usually well under 50%, because there are five or sometimes six parties getting significant support in the UK. There is no preference voting, so if - for example - you vote for a Greens candidate, as 3.8% of voters across the UK did, your vote is effectively discarded (in all but one seat) because at least one other candidate gets more votes.

The Conservatives were able to win a clear majority of seats because their candidates got ahead of others in more than half of the 650 seats, even though they received several million votes short of a majority of votes. Across the south-east and west of England the same picture we see in Cornwall was repeated in many places – with overall votes of less than 50% the Conservatives won all, or almost all, the seats.

But in the rest of the UK the story is different. In the north-east of England, for example, around Durham and Newcastle, out of 28 seats, Labour won 25 and the Conservatives only 3. But, again, Labour’s vote was well under a majority, being just 45.1% of the vote.

What happened in Scotland? Well, the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) are celebrating a huge win, but actually a majority of voters, albeit a very slim majority, voted for other candidates. Final figures show that the Scottish Nationalists won 49.97% of the vote, but 94.9% of the 59 seats in Scotland (56 seats).

Some have said this result in Scotland presages a vote for independence in any future referendum, but the SNP did not win a majority of votes in Scotland last week, nor a majority in the 2014 referendum. A win in any further referendum doesn’t seem likely soon.

So this is why many people in the UK are upset by the election result. Most voters didn’t vote for the outcome they got, and most voters are not represented in the House of Commons - which is the only elected House - by the candidate they voted for.

Is this distortion really the best that democracy can offer? I would say a definite no.

You can read The Conversation’s comprehensive coverage of the UK general election here.

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