European elections and the collapse of the two party system

Less than two years ago, many were heralding “the return of two party politics” on the back of a general election that saw Labour and the Conservatives share 82% of the vote.

To be fair, experts pointed out at the time that it was all an illusion created by our First Past the Post voting system. Some politicians may pretend tactical voting doesn’t exist when it suits them, but voters don’t have that luxury. 20-30% of those polled said they planned to vote tactically in 2017 - undoubtedly a major factor in the big two’s vote share.

But for anyone with lingering doubts, recent events have put paid to the notion that a two party system can any longer represent our diverse, modern electorate. The European election results and a series of ever more astonishing opinion polls are providing growing evidence that voters no longer welcome the protected duopoly of British politics. And projections of how First Past the Post might translate these votes into seats is revealing the true nature of our democratic system: irrational, contemptuous, even dangerous.

European Elections

Since 1998, the UK’s European elections have taken place under a primitive and relatively charmless form of Proportional Representation. The exception is Northern Ireland, which uses the Single Transferable Vote for electing its MEPs. In Great Britain, seats match votes, but not very closely. Voters can only vote for ‘closed’ party lists - not for named candidates.

Despite its limitations, this system is a major improvement on First Past the Post, which was used until 1994. In the last European election held under FPTP, one party won three quarters of MEPs with just 44% of the votes. Great news if you’re a member of that party and, for some reason, believe you deserve more seats than you’re entitled to. Bad news for everyone else.

In this year’s euros, seats matched votes fairly well. Some parties missed out on winning any MEPs because of the small number of MEPs per region, and other parties were slightly overrepresented as a result, but on the whole parties won a similar proportion of MEPs as votes.

Compare this to what happens when you recount the votes using First Past the Post, as MVM’s Owen Winter did. Instead of getting a set of MEPs who broadly reflect the electorate, a party that was backed by one in three voters ends up with almost three quarters of the seats.

We cannot, of course, know whether people would have voted this way in a First Past the Post election, but if they had this is what the result would have been.

General election?

Analysis by Professor Chris Hanretty has applied the European election voting patterns to UK Parliamentary constituencies - establishing what these votes would have meant in a First Past the Post general election.

Again, one party is projected to win a large majority on the basis of one in three votes cast, with the representation of other voters severely curtailed. The only unusual thing about this compared to historical UK elections is that it was neither Labour nor the Conservatives who hit the jackpot.

sharing if euros were ge.png

Such a shift of power would be the biggest change in British politics since the rise of the Labour Party in the early 20th Century. The winners of our winner-takes-all voting system would become the losers - and the hunters the hunted.

Westminster constituencies if the european elections had been a general election. Source:  Chris Hanretty

Westminster constituencies if the european elections had been a general election. Source: Chris Hanretty

We cannot predict the outcome of a future general election. But we can be certain that if the results ended up like this, we would see Labour and Conservative support for First Past the Post evaporate in an instant. This is perhaps the most damning indictment of the support that persists to this day: if the tables were turned overnight, so too would party policies.

Poll collapse

These projections are all on the basis that voting patterns would hold firm in a First Past the Post election. Would voters really choose to back diverse parties even when faced with the stark realities of our voting system? Recent opinion polls of Westminster voting intention - both before and after the European election - suggest that they genuinely might.

Back in April, we were startled to see an opinion poll that put both Labour and Conservatives on less than 30% of the vote - an almost historic low. But what has happened since then is truly remarkable.

A YouGov poll released this week showed the two parties being pushed into third and fourth place, behind the Liberal Democrats the Brexit Party.

Seat projections of these results do not hand one party a massive majority. Instead, they essentially kill off the last remnants of a link between how the people vote and how they are represented.

YouGov  opinion polling results via  Electoral Calculus  seat projection

YouGov opinion polling results via Electoral Calculus seat projection

The Liberal Democrats get the most votes, but are pushed into third place in terms of seats. Labour win by far the most seats, despite coming joint third. The Conservatives, who got exactly the same number of votes as Labour get about half as many seats. The Greens get double the number of votes the SNP get, but the SNP get fifty-five times as many seats. Plaid Cymru get four times as many seats as the Greens, despite getting only 10% of the Greens’ vote share.

This is not democracy. Democracy isn’t just the right to vote: they have that right in many of the world’s most undemocratic authoritarian regimes. Democracy requires many things, but one of them is to have a vote that matters - that in some way translates your choice into political representation and power. Our system can no longer ensure this.