openDemocracyUK

Voters per MP: why First Past The Post failed

You can elect a Tory MP with 34,244 votes. To elect a UKIP MP requires 3,881,129 votes. Why are the press silent on this outrageous democratic fraud?

Liam D. Anderson
21 May 2015

% of vote, UK election results 2015

The surprising result of the election illustrates the distorting effect of First Past The Post (FPTP) voting. The Tories have a 99-seat lead – 15% of the parliament’s seats – on the opposition Labour, with 6.5% more of the vote share. The Lib Dems have lost many seats, falling to 7.9% of the vote share but with only 1.2% of the seats. The Greens have over 1.1 million voters with 1 seat. UKIP had nearly 4m votes, for 1 seat.

This can give the impression that some votes are ‘lost’. It also implies that some parties’ MPs represent more people than others – does Caroline Lucas speak for 1,157,613 people, while any one Tory or Labour MP represents, on average, 34,245 or 40,290 people respectively?

This table looks at the ‘value’ of individual votes for different parties and how representative the MPs of different parties are compared to actual nationwide support. It also suggests the seats each party would receive if the seats were allocated according to proportional representation (PR); the resulting parliament power-balance could be very different.

* Figures taken from the BBC

* Hypothetical PR seats are rounded so may not exactly equal 650, and calculated simply as a percentage

* In 2014, there were 37,831,600 electors in England, 1,232,400 in Northern Ireland, and 2,225,700 in Wales (Office for National Statistics)

 

Observations

There is now a 99 seat (15% of 650 in parliament) difference between Tories and Labour, for 6.5% more of the vote share; Labour’s MPs have 6,000 more votes each, nationally, than the Tory MPs. Labour’s overall vote share actually increased slightly from 2010 while losing seats. Incidentally, with the hypothetical PR-seats, the Tories, even with either Liberal Democrats or UKIP, would not quite have a majority (291 or 322); any such coalition with UKIP would also likely meet strong opposition from essentially all other parties.

Turnout was at 66.1%, which puts the Tories’ 36.9% vote share at 24.4% of the potential electorate (including those eligible to vote but who did not), and Labour’s 30.4% vote share at 20.1% of potential voters. That is, the rate of abstention significantly reduces the percentage of the population represented in parliament, which is particularly significant given that the Tories are now in a majority government, in terms of seats.

SNP have the lowest voters per MP except for DUP, although, by contrast, if looking at the Scottish electorate rather than the entire country, they have by far the highest percentage support among their electorate (50%). In PR, their rise in Scotland would have been still dramatic, but less absolute.

The Liberal Democrats have a million more voters than the SNP, but 48 fewer seats. A Lib Dem MP represents about 9 times as many votes as a Tory MP.

The three nationwide parties – Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens – which are smallest now, in terms of seats, have many times more voters for each of their small numbers of MPs than the larger parties. The Tories have 50.9% of the seats for 36.9% vote share and Labour has 35.7% of the seats for 30.4% vote share, representing 86% of seats for 67.3% vote share together. This could be argued, in literal terms, to be an 18.7% discrepancy.

Compared to the hypothetical PR figures, only the smaller Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, UUP, and SDLP currently have seats close to reflecting the overall vote composition, with the others being over or under represented in parliament.

Notably in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has twice as many voters per MP than DUP, and the UUP 2.5 times as many. Sinn Fein has half as many MPs (4) as DUP (8) for almost the same number of votes.

FPTP and voters per MP

With FPTP, different parties have to achieve significantly different numbers of individual supporters/ voters to gain 1 MP. The ‘voters per MP’ figures put the parties in this order, largest to smallest: UKIP, Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, UUP, Sinn Fein, Labour, Tories, SDLP, SNP, DUP. The parliamentary presence of different parties is representative to different levels, or differently phrased, the MPs of different parties effectively represent different numbers of voters, challenging the logic of each vote counting equally.

FPTP presents problems in distorting the impact of voting for particular parties, depending on where constituency boundaries are drawn. This effect is surely a factor in the apathy or disillusionment among many non-voters, where they see little point in voting where the end result appears to be a foregone conclusion in safe seats; it also encourages tactical voting rather than voting for a preferred party, which disadvantages parties which have dispersed support. FPTP, with a bias against parties which are smaller and have dispersed support and the ‘winner-takes-the seat’ effect, thereby stifles challenges to entrenched narratives within parliament, for example MPs of the 3 major parties in the last parliament mostly only disagreed on points of the austerity-narrative, rather than seriously challenging its logic; this is a structural hindrance to open, critical debate.

While there are differences in constituency sizes, which affect the figures for how many votes would be needed per vote, they aim to represent around 70,000 voters. The Conservatives have argued before that they depend on constituencies which have slightly larger numbers of people, and yet they needed on average fewer voters per MP than Labour in this election. The large discrepancies between vote share and seats for some parties cannot also be significantly explained by this factor, and it would presumably only have a relatively small impact on the two large parties overall, given how many constituencies they win.

PR

The hypothetical PR figures are difficult, and definitely only approximate, in that there would likely be different voting patterns in a different voting system. In particular, people would be less likely to tactically vote, particularly at a constituency level, which could significantly change votes for larger parties or those parties seen by many as simply a protest, for example many who may have voted Labour or Lib Dem to try to avoid a Conservative result may have preferred to vote Green, or who voted Tory to avoid UKIP. It also does not account for the differences for regional parties or any further devolution. Furthermore, it cannot take into account the effect of votes in favour of particular candidates, rather than parties. Lastly, there are also different possible PR systems. However, they were calculated simply to illustrate how significantly different parliament could look under PR, or even some other less majoritarian system.

These figures also imply which parties would win or lose from introducing proportional representation, for example the Liberal Democrats have around 9 times as many votes-per-MP-in-parliament than their old coalition partners the Tories.

PR could equalize the ‘value’ of individual votes, and could well reduce the feeling of apathy in ‘safe seats’, and reduce tactical voting where people vote for what they see as the lesser of two evils rather than what they believe in; this could increase voter turnout. There is a much more direct relation between one person’s vote and the resulting power balance in parliament.

Given that PR would translate more directly into seats for smaller parties, it would also, in theory, hold them more directly to account for their claims and proposals, over time at least. For many, the idea of 82 UKIP MPs  is terrifying, but on the other hand, many may suspect that they could not field that many credible candidates, and also that many who vote for them as a protest vote may then be less inclined to, for fear that ‘it would actually happen’. It is thus possible, although sadly not guaranteed, that populist, negative, poorly constructed policies would be relatively quickly discredited, and that voters would vote for them less readily. The Greens in particular could benefit sharply from voters who agree with policies but, under FPTP, vote otherwise as they do not expect that they will be able to win the seat.

FPTP now looks slightly disconnected from the reality of voters on the ground. How much is your vote represented in parliament?


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