How people elect parliaments
Great Britain is not a uniform partisan landscape. While the three main parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat – dominate the nation’s politics, regional differences disrupt the neatness of national vote aggregation and national polling.
This post surveys the election battlegrounds in five distinguishable ‘battlegrounds’.
The partisan landscape in Northern Ireland, where voters elects 18 of the 650 House of Commons members, involves five special political parties that simply do not correlate to the mainland major parties.
The ‘nationalist zone’ (consisting of either 58 or 59 of the 59 seats in Scotland and 9 of the 40 seats in Wales) is also striking different from the rest of England and Wales.
On the mainland, there are also two categories of seats where one of the two largest parties does not figure: 50 ‘Tory/LibDem’ seats, and around 15 ‘Labour/left’ seats.
The fifth and largest battleground is the remaining 500 seats that follow a more normal pattern.
The Northern Irish situation – not likely to have an impact
Northern Ireland MPs are drawn from 5 unique parties not present outside the region.
There are two unionist parties, the DUP and the UUP. There is the centrist Alliance party. There is the SDLP, which is loosley linked to the national Labour Party. And there is the nationalist party Sinn Féin, now clearly a left-wing party.
In Northern Ireland there are 18 seats. The DUP (8) and UUP (2) currently hold 10 seats between them, and are likely to support a Conservative government if their votes should be needed.
The results of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held only a few months ago on the same electoral boundaries give some guidance of the few seat changes possible here.
South Antrim may well switch from the UUP to DUP, but that changes little politically.
Two DUP seats have a slight chance of switching to parties that might vote in London to oust the Conservative government. The DUP’s Upper Bann is being stalked by Sinn Féin. The DUP’s Belfast East might also be snatched by the Alliance party. Neither result is probable.
The UUP looks more likely to lose it’s seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to Sinn Féin, however. Sinn Féin has held the seat before, and at the Assembly elections won 42% of the vote to UUP’s 30%.
Finally there us Belfast South, held by the DUP, but which could see a four-way shootout, with any of the DUP, SDLP, Sinn Féin or the Alliance emerging from the scrum.
Overall, there are two possible switches from conservative-supporting to Labour supporting MPs: one likely (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) and one less likely (Belfast East) – and one potential switch in the other direction (Belfast South). The net impact is between plus-1 and minus-2 votes for the Tory government.
The final wrinkle is that Sinn Féin MP’s have for decades refused to take up the seats they win, declining to take the oath of office. If their 3-4 votes were to become crucial in a very close national result, it would be in a context where the DUP and UUP were also empowered with a balance of power. As such Sinn Féin would have to reconsider their position. Given that they have matured as a political party in both parts of Ireland in recent decades, and share in government in the North, they would most likely take up their seats and with it very significant influence over national policies towards Ireland.
The ‘nationalist’ contests in Scotland and Wales
The Scottish Nationalist Party won a near whitewash of the seats in Scotland in 2015, one of the most striking pieces of evidence that first-past-the-post causes major problems with representation ever seen. The SNP won 56 out of 59 seats on 50% of the Scottish vote.
The other three main parties won just a single seat each, despite Labour candidates having the support of 24% of voters, the Conservatives 15%, and the Liberal Democrats, whose vote is concentrated in a few localities, 8%. A party-proportional result would have been something like a result of 30:15:10:4 seats among these four parties.
The SNP make no denial of this electoral system failure, and have a strong track record of calling for proportional representation to replace this manifestly unfair electoral system.
The Scottish Conservative Party has since 2015 grown its public support as an opponent of the SNP. Recent polls are showing around 43% for the SNP, and around 25% for each of Labour and the Conservatives. The Conservatives also seem set to benefit from some tactical voting by Scots opposed to the SNP’s Independence agenda.
But such a vote rise for the Conservative party is not enough to win many seats, all the more so if many voters turning away from the SNP go back to the Labour party, not the Conservatives.
Two seats – West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Berkshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk – look likely to fall to the Conservatives. Three more – Perth and North Perthshire, East Renfrewshire and M0ray – are possibles. But east Renfrewshire is as likely to fall to Labour, not the Conservatives, and Moary is the seat of the SNP’s commons leader, David Robertson.
All up, the median likely gain for the Conservatives could be guessed at four seats.
Some media are making higher estimates for SNP losses. But all forecasters agree that the SNP will keep at a minimum 46 of the 59 seats.
In Wales there are nine seats with ‘nationalist’ contests, in which Plaid Cymru candidates either win of come second. But none of these are relevant to the greater national political battle, as the other leading party in all these seats is Labour in 8 cases and the Liberal Democrats in the ninth. The Conservative party will not take any of these seats. How many seats Plaid Cymru wins – it currently holds three – is of fairly local interest only.
The non-tory contests
Across England and Wales, there are another 16 seats that can also be written off as nationally significant battles.
These include five seats where Labour faces a Green challenge – four being massively safe Labour seats where the Green places second with around 10-15% of the vote, and one being the seat of Brighton Pavilion where the Green candidate holds the seat.
Nine seats are Labour v Liberal Democrat contests. Labour holds 7 of these, the LibDems 2, but whichever party wins these contests, the national political impact is again little affected.
All up, these three separated battlegrounds, sending 102 members to parliament, represent a likely return of 20 Labour MPs, with 52 SNP, 3 Plaid Cymru, 3 LibDem, 1 Green and 5 Conservatives. The Irish MPs would represent 10 unionists, 2 SDLP, 5 Sinn Fein, with two unpredictable.
Lets pause to consider the impact of all these anti-Conservative regions.
The total net impact of all these seats is 86 House for Commons votes to potentially support a Labour government, and 16 to defend one – a net advantage of 68 seats against the Conservatives.
That means that in the battle for the remaining 548 seats the victory target for the Conservatives is not half of them (275), but rather 309 of them.
The Conservatives need to win 322 out of these 550 –58% of them – to reach a narrow majority in their own right.
By winning 315 seats they would be able to survive the narrowest minority government reliant on the Northern Irish unionists.
Labour by contrast only needs to win 240 of the 548.
Of these 548 England and Wales seats, 50 fall into another special category – the Conservative v Liberal democrat seats, where Labour has no prospects of success.
In 2010 there were many more such seats, but the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in 2015 greatly reduced the size of this seat group.
The Conservatives currently hold 46 of these 50 seats, so there is virtually no gain possible for them here.
A large part of the effort of the tactical voting movement is at work here. Anti-Conservative campaign movement Tactical2017 has targeted at least 25 of these 50 seats – partly to help defend the remaining four Liberal Democrats, but also in search of potential wins of current Tory seats.
The Liberal Democrats are assisted by the fact that at least 5 of these target seats – Richmond Park, Bath, Twickenham, Oxford West and Abingdon, and Winchester – has a ‘Remain’ vote on Brexit of over 60%. In seven more of these seats the remain vote was over 55%. Some of these seats appear to be safe Tory holds, but they could be volatile.
Two constituencies – Bath and Twickenham – the latter seeing former minister Vince Cable is trying to re-enter Parliament – should be particularly vigorous contests.
Losing a significant number of these seats to the Liberal Democrats would be a painful loss to the Conservatives.
The remaining ‘standard contest’ battleground
That leaves 498 seats where the battleground is a more traditional contest between Conservative and Labour candidates.
The Conservatives need to win 282 seats in this battleground to retain majority. They go into the election holding 285 – showing how narrow their 2015 majority was.
271 wins would allow the Tories to cling to power with Irish unionist support.
Labour goes into the election with 213 of these 548 seats, and needs to pick up 15 more, reaching at least 228, to create the possibility of the rainbow alliance ousting the government.
Where the battle for control of the Commons is won is in the marginal seat contests, not the safe ones.
In 2015 the Conservative party won 10.8 million votes across England and Wales (leaving aside the handful of Welsh nationalist seats). The Labour party won 8.5 votes million over the same territory. This reflects the relative margin of several percent of the vote which the Tories on that election by.
But in the last election the Conservative Party had around 85% of these votes tied up in safe seats – either their own, or Labour’s. Labour had a slightly lower proportion of its vote locked up in non-marginal contests – around 82%.
Both major parties won around 1.6 million votes in the contests for the 40 or so highly marginal seats where the 2015 election was won.
As usual, the fate of the government of the country will ultimately turn on which of the major parties emerges with the necessary share of these marginals.
UK election previews – Post #3 of 6