“SNP landslide” screamed the headlines the morning after the UK general election, held on 7 May 2015. Indeed, the Scottish National Party took 56 out of 59 Scottish seats. In the previous general election (2010) the SNP won just 6 seats.
The biggest loser was Labour. They had 41 of the 59 seats in the outgoing Parliament; it crashed to just one seat, retaining only Edinburgh South (red in the map). The Lib-Dems also crashed from 11 seats to one, holding only Orkney and Shetland (orange in the map). The Conservatives neither gained nor lost, keeping their one seat from 2010: Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (blue).
Do note however, the election was not for the Scottish legislature, but for the UK Parliament, which has a total of 650 seats. Still, the SNP’s result was enough to make it the third largest party in Parliament.
But if the 59 Scottish seats were a legislature by itself, the SNP with 56 would form a PAP-like super majority. I was interested to know what percentage vote-share led to this.
As you can see from the table at left, it was exactly 50 percent. It is the nature of first-past-the-post electoral systems to produce lopsided wins from the barest majority of vote-shares.
In Singapore’s 2011 general election, the People’s Action Party obtained 60.1% of valid votes cast. This gave it 81 out of 87 seats (not including Non-constituency or nominated members of parliament). I don’t think any sane person here is expecting the PAP’s vote share to drop to 50% in the coming election (there is a reasonable chance that they might even increase it by a shade), so by this example from Scotland, another “landslide” for the PAP is almost as certain as the sun rising from the East.
A key factor however is whether constituencies were mostly straight fights between only two candidates or multi-cornered contests. It is statistically virtually impossible for a 50% vote-share to translate to such a large majority seat-wise if there had been straight fights in all constituencies. In Scotland, there were 346 candidates competing in the 59 constituencies, an average of 5.9 candidates per constituency. The SNP, Labour, Conservative and Liberal-Democratic Parties fielded candidates in every one of them, so voters had at least four candidates to choose from.
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Looking at the United Kingdom as a whole, headlines the morning after also expressed astonishment that the Conservatives had seized a (slim) majority in Parliament. They won 330 out of 650 seats — a result that no pundit had predicted. By all accounts, even the Conservatives were stunned by their own victory. Labour saw significant losses and the Lib-Dems had a bloodbath.
Yet, what was the vote-share that gave the Conservatives their majority? Just 36.8 percent, less than one percentage point improvement over their 2010 performance of 36.1 percent.
Votes-wise, Labour’s improvement was slightly better than the Conservatives. Its vote-share went up by 1.4 percentage points, and considering that it lost vote-share in Scotland, it must have gained quite respectably in England and Wales, but even so, it lost 26 seats!
The dice-like quality of first-past-the-post is rarely as evident as this. Again, it can largely be attributed to the huge number of candidates standing for election. There were 3,971 persons contesting, an average of 6.1 per constituency. Theoretically, it was possible for a candidate in an “average” constituency to win with just 16.5% of the vote.
Another feature of the results is obvious. A party is better able to translate votes into seats if its support is geographically concentrated. Thus, the SNP whose support is within Scotland was able to translate its 4.7 vote-share (across the UK as a whole) into 56 seats — or 8.6% of the total 650 seats. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) actually did far better than the SNP votes-wise, winning 12.6% of valid votes, but because its support was thinly spread across many areas, this performance (a quadrupling of support since the 2010 election) yielded just one seat. Likewise the results for the Greens.
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Looking at vote-share is a better indicator of where political opinions are shifting to. Unfortunately, I cannot provide much of an analysis since I can’t claim to know a lot about what the parties stood for. From what I have read, though, there appears to be a leaching of support from the political centre to the margins, the biggest casualty being the Lib-Dems. Many erstwhile Lib-Dem supporters were unhappy with the way the party had to make compromises with the Conservatives in the coalition government of 2010 – 2015, and this time around, they deserted the party. They wanted a party of principle, but found themselves with a party of ugly compromises.
Where did they desert to? That I’d like to know.
Meanwhile, despite the slight uptick in this election, the combined vote-share of the two mainstream parties, Conservative and Labour appear to be on a steady downward trend if we look at the general elections of the last 30 years. At first the beneficiary was the Lib-Dems, but no more. Voters seem to be migrating to parties of principle on the margins rather than support the parties of muddle in the centre of the political spectrum. The interesting thing however is that the winners among the smaller parties don’t share the same ideology. The SNP with its demand for Scottish independence and a strong belief in a welfare state is at one corner, the Greens at another and UKIP, the anti-immigration party, at yet another.
I wonder if we will see a similar trend in Singapore, where voters “give up” on the middle-muddle parties and move to those with sharper positions.
We will soon know. The Singapore general election is probably just a few months away.