In case you’ve been living under a rock for a while, the UK recently had a snap general election, called by prime minister Theresa May to increase her majority. But, in a shocking turn of events, she managed to turn a 20-point poll lead into a loss of 13 seats — and, with them, her majority. The left’s Schadenfreude didn’t last long, however, as the Conservatives are now clinging onto power by making a deal with Northern Ireland’s DUP — a party which, until 9 June, nobody had ever heard of. As the country lurches to the right, I demonstrate that this is not the “will of the people”.
Here’s how things stand after Thursday’s election.
The Conservatives are up there at the top, just short of an overall majority with 49% of the seats. Let’s look at how that stacks up.
The DUP is that tiny salmon-coloured bar in the middle. If the Conservative bar wore it as a stylish hat, it would be just the right size to let them ride the rollercoaster—that is, reach the magic 326 MPs needed for a majority.1
There are several ways of grouping parties, but let’s start by grouping them in terms of how liberal or conservative they are. Obviously, the Conservatives, and their new Irish friends, are conservative. Meanwhile, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens are more liberal. If we group the parties this way, here’s what we see.
The small-c conservatives limp to 328, with the liberals—the “progressive alliance”—coming up close behind with 320 seats. It’s a tight race, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how close the runners-up get; it’s the winners who get to form a government, and barring backbench rebellions there’s nothing the opposition can do to stand in the way of their legislative agenda. They’re toothless.
As it turns out, all the liberal parties are pro-EU (mostly very strongly, although Labour’s stance is a bit weaker), while the conservative parties favour Brexit.
So it is that the UK is to be governed (at least until the minority government collapses spectacularly) by a conservative, Eurosceptic government. They won the election, so all is fair—this is the “will of the people”. Right?
Let’s look at vote share instead, and consider what the House of Commons would look like under proportional representation. There are a few new parties joining the fray here: UKIP and the Ulster Unionists join the Eurosceptic conservatives, while the SDLP joins the liberal, Europhile left. This is what our new, fairer parliament looks like:
That’s a much closer race. The Conservatives (with a big C) are well short of a majority, with around 276 seats to Labour’s 260. The DUP, with only 6 seats under this system, aren’t sufficient to help them break through that 50% barrier. But maybe UKIP and the UUP can help them out. Let’s stack the parties again and see.
With around 349 seats, the liberals have a clear majority this time. While building consensus among seven different parties might not be easy, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the SNP are really all that would be needed to pass legislation, with 328 seats between them. The conservative alliance, trailing on a combined total of around 296 seats, doesn’t come close. This isn’t just disproportionate representation; the electoral system gave the people the exact opposite of the liberal, pro-European government they wanted.
It is abundantly clear that the majority of people in the UK voted for a liberal, pro-European government, but that our broken electoral system instead gave them the exact opposite. This is not the will of the people.
The problem with first-past-the-post isn’t just that it’s unrepresentative—it actually favours some parties over others, as this table shows:2
The Conservatives do very well out of the current first-past-the-post system, gaining a whopping 42 more seats than they really ought to have. Labour was represented surprisingly well, while The Man screwed the Lib Dems royally—instead of getting around 48 seats, first-past-the-post left them with just 12.
Regional parties like the SNP, the DUP, Sinn Féin, and Plaid Cymru tend to come out of first-past-the-post over-represented, while niche parties like UKIP and the Greens—who tend to do well, but not well enough, in a large number of constituencies rather than having a concentrated voter base—do exceptionally poorly.
Let’s look at how many votes each party won per seat it ended up with.
There’s a clear difference in the number of votes each party received per seat—in essence, the electoral system made the election far easier for some parties than for others. The scale of this disparity is more apparent when represented graphically, as below:
The SNP’s election was, comparatively, a walk in the park. For just 240 thousand votes, they ended up with 35 seats—a going rate of just 28 thousand votes per seat. Meanwhile, the Greens got just one seat with 525 thousand votes—nearly 19 times as many votes per seat as the SNP—and poor UKIP received almost 600 thousand votes and left without even a single parliamentary seat to show for it.
Our electoral system is broken. Some parties can gain significant parliamentary representation with a relatively small proportion of the vote, while others can struggle to get even a single MP despite widespread support. This has led to a government in blatant opposition to the will of the people, and first-past-the-post becomes less tenable with every election that passes. It is time for the system to go.
Updated 14 June 2017: Added table of votes per seat
- In reality, the number required is usually a bit less, since Sinn Féin’s 7 MPs don’t take their seats.
- It’s difficult to translate the vote share figures into seats for several reasons: There are multiple methods of applying PR, there’s no obvious way to handle the “Independent” and “Other” categories, and people would probably vote differently under PR. Here, I’ve simply multiplied the vote share by 650 for each party.