Great Scott! This is what first-past-the-post does

pic_201505_10“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.

pic_201505_11As 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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.


7 Responses to “Great Scott! This is what first-past-the-post does”

  1. 1 yuen 22 May 2015 at 11:49

    in fact, the GRC system, by aggregating a larger no. of votes, brings the results closer to proportionate; if all the seats were SMC, WP would probably not have won all 5 seats in Aljunied so its seats % would have been lower

    • 2 yawningbread 22 May 2015 at 23:47

      Huh? Are you sure you’ve got your math right?

      • 3 yuen 23 May 2015 at 04:17

        not really a math issue, statistics maybe; the WP got about 54% I believe; with 5 districts, it is likely that some of them would WP getting less than 50%

      • 4 Basic reasoning first before statistics... 28 May 2015 at 10:52

        Non sequitur.

        In the US presidential election system, the “aggregate” in almost all states is the entire state. You can get fewer votes and still win the election. You get a landslide with a few percentage points over your opponent. Proportionate indeed.

        Win small across many aggregates, and it doesn’t matter if you lose super big in a few.

    • 5 Edwin D 25 May 2015 at 10:47

      You realize that your argument similarly applies to all PAP GRC wards with 50+% “majority” right.

      The point of this article is to show that only a slim majority is required for a “landslide” victory. I do not see this as democracy. It is a easily exploited voting system. Gerrymandering comes to mind.

      The only argument for it is that proportional representation leads to parliamentary paralysis. I am less persuaded however that we should sacrifice fairness in the name of efficiency.

  2. 6 Robert 26 May 2015 at 18:20

    On the specific politics about the election:

    Labour was punished by two nationalisms. In Scotland, Labour were seen in league with the Tories as both were on the ‘No’ side in the Scottish Independence Referendum, and the SNP were largely successful at painting Labour as ‘Red Tories’ [1] and capitalising on the fallout from the independence referendum. The centre-right Alex Salmond reigned post-referendum making way for Sturgeon, making the SNP fit into a popularist left vacuum that they created from former Labour supporters whom they successful demonised. Conversely in England, Labour were painted as being communist [2] and in league with the SNP [3]. Both the Tories and UKIP created a narrative in which “A vote for Labour in England is a vote to be ‘held hostage’ by the SNP”. The sociopath Teresa May called the predicted electoral success of the SNP a ‘constitutional crisis’ and John Major – a man so hated that his own party ousted him in a coup, referred to the SNP as a coup [4, 5]. Labour’s position on Europe meant that the fascist Nigel Farage and his UKIP were able to capitalise on the stupidity popularist right [6].

    The Liberal Democrats [Lib Dems] had a bloodbath – that is fair to say. Their supporters were mainly firmly part of the principled liberal-progressive left. In 2010, there was much resentment with Labour for going into Iraq, and the financial crisis of 2008. Their voters could not go Tory, and so Lib Dem in 2010 seemed like a good option to stay ‘left’, but away from the Tories. The problem in our electoral system, as described, is that if you don’t vote Labour – you will get Tory. This is what happened in 2010, and despite being designed to prevent such a thing, we produced a hung parliament. What did the Lib Dems do? They could have supported Labour – with fewer seats but a more natural bedfellow (both being left). No, they supported the Tories. The last thing Lib Dem supporters want is their party offering support to a right-wing government. They were punished in England for this. Furthermore, significant Lib Dem support also comes from Scotland – again, the SNP managed to capitalise on Lib Dems – painting them also in league with ‘The Tories’ (which is true). (I should also point out that Tories are poison in much of Scotland after that butcher and nefarious criminal Thatcher laid her hands on it – treating Scotland like a colony. The vile woman was loathed and the Tories have never recovered electorally in Scotland since her tenure). So where did Lib Dems go? The Guardian pre-election polling [7] seems to suggest they went back to Labour, some went to the SNP, and some to the Tories [which is odd and suspicious – but that’s what they think]. The Lib Dems, being the minority party in Government 2010-2015 found themselves exactly in the same position as The Greens were in Ireland in previous years. And like the Greens in Ireland, they were punished the following election.

    You claim that there seems to be a “leaching of support from the political centre to the margins.” It is not so simple as that. The basic left/right ideology doesn’t work so well because the UK is, annoyingly, a conservative (small c) country. Many of the main parties are trying to capitalise on that centre-right vote. I would say that there is a wholescale shift to the right with each party trying to cannibalise that centre vote. The far right British National Party has collapsed to a marginally more centre UKIP, and the socialist Labour went scrambling to Greens, who are closer to the centre left.

    Labour: There is a leadership election ongoing in the Labour Party after the left-leaning Ed Miliband resigned the morning after their defeat. Many in the Labour party want to return Labour to “the centre” – which is a euphemism for returning Labour to the right. But the Labour party is vast and its members range from hard-left socialist to centre-right Blairites.
    Tories: are already right, but are perceived as being too ruthless and harsh by many. There are some Tories who are centre-right (some even marginally into the left) but the party is being dragged to the right by UKIP.
    UKIP: These guys are fascists, but have used a series of former Tories and other politicos to give the party the illusion of being less barking mad than they really are. During the election campaign, they tempered their language a bit to try and move it from the far-right to the (popularist) centre-right. They did so to give a veneer of legitimacy to what they were doing – to make their racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic views seem more ‘reasonable’. They are dangerous.

    SNP: Were traditionally thought of as ‘Tartan Tories’. They were centre-right under Alex Salmond who led the party during the independence campaign. The party is supported by a small number of very rich donors. The new leader, Sturgeon, is popularist left – but many in the party would just as easily by UKIPpers has they been in England. If Scotland gains independence, the SNP would split if Scotland did gain independence as there are two factions within the party (the centre-right old guard; and a centre-left new membership are being held together be their unifying desire to seek independence). The SNP pretend they care about social welfare. They do not.

    Obviously I cannot comment on your comment: “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.” But this isn’t what is happening in the UK, in my view. Rather each of the parties are trying to chase the voters in the centre ground (and esp. the centre-right).


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