The most distorted election result ever? 


Increasingly, I hear commentators and politicians expressing concern that the forthcoming general election result could be the most distorted ever, by which they mean there will be a massive mismatch between the number of votes cast for each party and the number of seats they win.

At its most extreme (and this is NOT a prediction), some polls show Reform coming second in terms of votes whilst winning a single seat, while the Lib Dems finish second in terms of seats having come fourth in the popular vote.

Meanwhile, campaigners for electoral reform might raise a wry smile at the prospect of the Conservative party reduced to a few dozen seats despite securing almost a fifth of the vote. 

But would this really be a distortion of what the British public actually thinks?

There are nearly a dozen tactical voting sites active in this election, helping voters to decide who is best placed to defeat the Conservatives in a particular seat.  The sites don’t help voters identify their first-choice party – merely how to beat the party they like least.  This is a direct facet of our voting system.  

What we see at this election is that the Liberal Democrats – the only mainstream proponents of Proportional Representation – have effectively learned how to make the current system work for them.  In 1983, their predecessors won just 23 seats despite gaining over a quarter of the vote, while Labour won 209 seats with just 2% more.  This year, the Lib Dems might well win a tenth of the seats (60) with a tenth of the vote.

The party has learned to concentrate its vote, while Reform and Conservative support remains evenly spread – lots of second places but few cigars…

Under a different electoral system voters would almost certainly vote differently and parties would campaign differently.

Take the Liberal Democrats again.    This year, they have a single national message “we are best placed to beat the Tories in this seat” coupled to a dozen locally crafted messages on sewage spills, local hospitals, and whether the Conservative candidate is “from round here”. 

Imagine now that, rather than just win in a particular small constituency, they had to maximise their vote share nationally.  

To do that the Liberal Democrats would need to ‘own’ a nationally significant issue.  Fortunately for them, they have one, but not one they have dared to mention.  In a proportional system, with over sixty percent of voters wanting to rejoin the EU and 13% of people naming ‘the EU’ as the most important issue in the election, talking about Brexit could be their most effective tool for maximising their vote share.

In contrast, Reform has run a perfect campaign for a proportional electoral system: 40% of the electorate name ‘immigration and asylum’ as their top concern and the party has done a good job in ‘owning’ the issue (with some help from the Conservatives). 

But, as with rejoining the EU, those who care strongly about immigration are broadly evenly spread across the country, so the issue doesn’t deliver seats.

We can’t just assume that with a different electoral system people would vote as they do now – indeed we know they won’t – that’s the whole point of tactical voting. 

Neither can we say that any particular outcome is ‘distorted’ because we can’t know voters’ true preferences.  

Reform may well have ‘maximised’ their votes at this election – but Labour and the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have sought to maximise their seats and that is ultimately the name of the game. 

Which of course begs the question whether we should be playing a different game and, if so, what shares of votes and seats might that game ultimately deliver?  

And would that be fairer, more effective and more stable?

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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