How people elect parliaments
There is no genuine equality of the influence of the vote of each British person in national elections.
Endemic to all single-member-division electoral systems is a striking degree of influence difference.
Sometimes fairly modest differences can be driven by differences in the number of people enrolled in each electoral constituency. Such divergence – known as malapportionment – is fairly low in Britain today.
But there are some regional differences, with Scottish and Welsh voters holding a modest but noticeable advantage in enrolment-based influence. The Conservative Party has long grumbled about this fact, and has frequently proposed to re-allocate the Commons seats to reduce this difference.
But by far the more important impact is the diversity of influence caused by the relative safety of most of the 650 seat contests.
As ever observer knows, to live and vote in a politically safe constituency gives a person very little impact on the overall election outcome.
Each of the Labour and Conservative parties hold roughly a third of all electorates so safely that they barely need to worry at election times. This means, of course, that national policies and social investments do not need to be targeted towards the majority of the nation.
Influence is far greater in the marginal constituencies, where the fate of government is determined. This means that national policies are distorted to try to win the minority of voters who might switch parties in what is already a minority of seats.
Reform campaigner Owen Winter, one of the leaders of the Making Votes Matter movement, has dubbed that small wedge of the population the ‘elite club’. Nice if you are in it, but hardly a basis for a fair and broad-based democracy.
How big is the ‘club’? In advance of each election it can only be estimated, and observers are tracking around 80 of the 650 constituencies closely in tomorrow’s poll. If you happen to live in one of those localities, and might change your vote, you are the over-empowered ‘elite’ in such a democracy.
But after each election, it is possible to create statistics about such influence, by measuring the relative sizes of the win margins for each seat.
Let’s turn the margins of victory – the ‘majority’ between the seat winner and the second-placed candidate in each constituency – into a relative scale of points.
(This method of course ignores the political significance of all the other candidates standing, and also plays strangely in seats with close 3- or 4-way battles. But it’s a useful measure for almost all the seats, and reflects what voters must confront as they attempt to influence the outcome of elections in their constituencies.)
For ease of illustration, assume that the average voter on this scale of influence has 100 points of influence on the election.
In theory, in a system with equal political influence, every voter would have the same 100 points.
But at the 2015 UK election, it turns out that just 5% of the electorate had influence in a range between 95 and 105 points.
Another 45% of voters had votes worth less than 95 points. In fact, 25 % of voters had less than 67 points of relative influence.
Voters in 42 constituencies – won by 26 Conservative and 16 Labour candidates – were the nations safest, and therefore least influential, political contests, with less than half of even the mean level of influence. Very little about national policy will be directed at the opinions of more than 3 million voters who live in these localities.
The real impact comes at the top end of the scale, where relative influence balloons out dramatically. Around 25% of voters had more than 200 points – more than double the normal level of influence on the overall election outcome.
Just 8% of the electorate had more than 500 points, and an astounding 5% – the voters in the 34 most closely-won districts, had over 1,000 points.
These are Owen Winter’s ‘club’, the people who determine the government of the nation for everyone else.
To highlight the significance of these super-voters, the Conservative majority in the House after the 2015 election was just 12 seats.
16 of these 34 powerful seats were won by the Conservative party. Voters in the constituencies of Thurrock and Bedford in England’s east, Bury North, Bolton West and Weaver Vale in the north-west, Derby North and Telford in the Midlands, and Gower and Vale of Clwyd in Wales were among those where the previous government’s narrow majority was created.
Other high-influence voters resisted the Tory win. 13 of the seats – including 5 in London and a number across the midlands and the north, were won by Labour.
The Liberal Democrat result in Orkney and Shetland made the list, as did four seats in Northern Ireland.
Of course, many of the voters in those 34 constituencies were solid supporters of their political parties. It was really the swinging voters there – obviously an even thinner sliver of the whole British electorate – who really determined the election result.
Historians celebrate the British Great Reform Act of 1832, which began a long process of extending the right to the vote of people in Britain. But it has in fact been estimated that at the time this Act only expanded the franchise from 5% of the population to 8% of it.
It seems that nearly two centuries on, British politics is still controlled by just 8% of its population.
Britain – like Canada, the United States and many other jurisdictions using single-member district systems to elect their parliaments – is simply not a nation where every vote is equal.
UK election previews – Post #4 of 6