Well Hung

Thursday May 7th kicks off the European election season, with the match between ‘David Cameron’ and ‘Red Ed’, the UK contenders. It’s very hard to predict which party will form a government when the votes are in, but it’s easy enough to forecast that Britain is once again headed for a coalition.

The British electoral system is different from many others, because it is based on a principle called First Past The Post (FPTP), rather than proportional representation. There are six hundred-fifty constituencies in the United Kingdom, each of which returns one seat.

Of course these electoral circles differ in size, and one consequence is that FPTP favors large parties and penalizes most others.  The graph below is part of an excellent article in the Economist, and the swathes of blue and red show how the Labour and Conservative parties have alternated since World War II.

The colors show the stunning rise of Labour after the war, and the battles of the 1970s, culminating in the so-called Thatcher era, followed by Tony Blair.

By the time Blair came to power, you couldn’t tell from a candidate’s accent whether he or she was blue or red. How much simpler it was in the seventies, when broad Yorkshire vowels typecast a politician into the red corner.

Given the bias toward big parties, we definitely need to rethink the way we see UK abstention. Traditionally, a good many people don’t bother to vote—in 2011, thirty-seven percent of the electorate stayed home. In practice, the Tories got 23% of the registered vote, and Labour got 19%, so the two major parties scored 42% on aggregate (67% of votes cast).

The British electoral duopoly over the last one hundred-fifty years.

The British electoral duopoly over the last one hundred-fifty years.

But due to the FPTP system, Cameron got forty-seven percent of the MPs and Brown got forty percent, or 87% on aggregate. UK rules are bizarrely inconsistent—the Scottish and Welsh legislatures use proportional representation.

One of the most widely used methods for attributing elected representatives proportionally was invented in 1878 by a Belgian, Victor d’Hondt. The d’Hondt method divides the total vote for each party successively by 1, 2, 3, 4, etc, and the ranked results are used to calculate representation.

Party A B C D
Votes 60 25 10 5
Series 1 60 25 10 5
Series 2 30 13 5 3
Series 3 20 8 3 2
Series 4 15 6 3 1
Series 5 12 5 2 1
Representation 5 4 1 0

For instance if ten seats are contested by four parties in a universe of one hundred votes, the results above would yield five seats for party A, four seats for B, and one for C.

If you do this analysis for the 2011 election, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) would have received twenty seats—using FPTP they got zero.  But since the UK uses proportional representation for the European Parliament, UKIP got seats in Strasburg, as did the French National Front.

A full analysis for the 2011 UK General Election shows a dismal picture for small parties: the Liberals got 63% less than they would under a proportional system, the Scottish National Party (SNP)  45% less, and the Greens 83% less.

Given this situation, it’s a wonder the smaller party electorates bother at all. In fact, in constituencies with ‘safe seats’, the voter turnout is also poor—in a recent by-election only 18% of the electoral roll showed up.

The result of this system is twofold: on the one hand it has largely avoided a ‘hung parliament’, on the other it disenfranchises a large part of the population—in 2011, the votes of two million six hundred thousand people, or 9% of voters, returned twenty MPs to parliament, a paltry 3% of the house.

As different interests gain ground in Britain, the effectiveness of the FPTP system is likely to erode. In Scotland, which returns almost ten percent of the house, Labour was presented with a major dilemma: north of Hadrian’s Wall, The Scottish National Party (SNP) traditionally lost against Labour, but in a brilliant chess move the SNP forced Labour’s hand in the Scottish referendum.

In September 2014, Labour had to make the devil’s choice: in order to avoid alienating its English electorate, it campaigned against Scottish independence alongside David Cameron.

Now the chickens have come home to roost, and the Scots are giving the British left a kick up the Khyber. I thought I’d introduce a spot of cockney rhyming slang at this point—Khyber Pass -> Ass.

As a result all the Scottish seats traditionally won by Labour belong to Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, and a Labour victory heralds a Labour-SNP coalition.

It does not however herald an EU referendum, which Cameron has pledged, partly to keep UKIP and the Tory back-benchers at bay.

Thursday May 7th 2015 promises to be adventurous, since the polls so far show both of the major parties in a dead heat. If the Conservatives form a government, it will be a coalition with the Liberals, but Nick Clegg’s party will receive such a small percentage of the vote there may be no point in joining forces.

Much of mainstream Britain, particularly among the English working classes and in rural areas, is very vocal about immigration. Despite the fact that the UK is one of the only EU countries which didn’t sign the Shengen agreement for free circulation of Europeans, many Poles, Romanians, and Bulgarians have found their way into the country.

The grass-roots perception is that these immigrants are helping to destroy Britain’s welfare system, and particularly the National Health Service. In actual fact, they generally do low-grade jobs for pay the Brits refuse. UK industry tends to keep a little quiet on this one, since it knows that a lot of what makes Britain run is cheap foreign labor.

Britain therefore seems headed for the rocks at speed: either a left-wing government enslaved to a party that wants to split the UK, or a right-wing one that will introduce substantial economic uncertainty until the outcome of the EU referendum is known.

Following from Grexit, which teeters on the brink, the business channels now speak frequently of a Brexit.

All this without an iota of charisma from the politicians, a profession that has become a veritable ship of fools.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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