Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When a Majority Isn't Enough

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When a Majority Isn't Enough

Article excerpt

In Britain, not all votes are created equal. The SDP/Liberal Alliance polled 25.4 per cent at the 1983 general election, just 2.2 per cent behind Labour, but received 186 fewer seats. In 2005, Labour won a comfortable majority of 66 with a lead of 3 points over the Conservatives. Five years later, the Tories fell roughly 20 seats short, despite a 7-point lead.

The culprit is the first-past-the-post system, which distributes seats according to individual constituency support rather than overall vote share. Those parties whose support is geographically concentrated benefit, while those with a more even spread suffer.

In the case of the UK, the system is Labour's ally. While the Tories pile up wasted votes in high-turnout areas, Ed Miliband's party efficiently pockets city constituencies where fewer participate. Such is the opposition's usual advantage that, in the lead-up to the 2015 general election, MPs on all sides are surprised to be contemplating an outcome not seen in 40 years: one party winning the most votes and the other the most seats.

On the afternoon of 12 May, a frisson of excitement ran through Conservative quarters in Westminster after a survey by the Tory peer and respected pollster Michael Ashcroft put his party in the lead for the first time since March 2012. Yet on a uniform swing, the figures (Conservative 34 per cent, Labour 32 per cent) would leave Labour with 14 more seats than the Tories (307 to 293). David Cameron requires a lead of at least 4 points before his party moves ahead. …

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