Britain at the Polls 2015: some personal reflections on an eventful night - Dr Nicholas Allen
The 2015 General Election was the most unpredictable and eventful that I can remember. Several colleagues and I followed the unfolding drama of the night in the company of over fifty Royal Holloway students. We knew that something was up once the exit polls were published. By the early hours of the morning, it was clear that the outcome was going to be very different from that which everyone had envisaged.
We saw Scotland ‘yellow-washed’ as the Scottish National Party won all but three of the seats north of the border. We saw the Liberal Democrats reduced to a rump of eight MPs. We saw many leading figures in British politics lose their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy. We saw Nigel Farage fail to win in South Thanet. And we saw the return to Downing Street of David Cameron, this time at the head of majority Conservative government. To coin a phrase, very few people saw that coming.
So much can be written about the results, and a great deal will be written in the coming months. For the time being, several issues stand out for me, many of which relate to the mechanics of Britain’s curious voting system.
First, there was no dramatic increase in turnout (see Figure 1). Although this was a very close election, and although there were big choices at stake, the number of people who thought it worth voting did not shoot up. It increased by one point to 66.1%. Admittedly, this was the highest turnout since 1997, and perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies. However, politicians of all parties should be worried.
Compounding this reason to be worried is a second issue: the further fragmentation of the party system and the associated decline in the governing party’s share of the vote. In 2015, the two major parties won barely two-thirds of the popular vote. The Conservatives won their small majority on 36.9% of the vote. If this was David Cameron’s sweetest victory, he’s clearly never tasted real electoral sugar. Yet this small share of the vote was also won on a relatively low turnout. Since 1945 there has been a long downward trend in the ‘legitimacy’ of British governments, as defined by their share of the potential vote, which includes all eligible voters and not just those who did cast a ballot (see Figure 1). Measured in this way, the Conservatives’ mandate (24.4% of all voters) is the third weakest since 1945. Only Labour in 2001 (24.2%) and 2005 (21.6%) had a lower share of the potential vote.
Thirdly, of course, we saw the further uncoupling of Scotland’s voting behaviour and party system from the rest of the UK’s. Half of Scottish voters plumped for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for independence. The party won 56 out of 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats with one MP apiece. These results will place further strains on the United Kingdom. It is quite conceivable that the SNP will press for a second referendum after next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, and it is also conceivable that Scotland will be independent in a decade.
Fourthly, the SNP are now comfortably the third largest parliamentary party, but they secured this influence on less than 1.5 million votes. Britain’s first-past-the-post or single-member-simple-plurality voting system rewards parties that concentrate their support. The SNP concentrates its support in Scotland. Other parties, notably the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens spread their very substantial support much more thinly. UKIP won nearly 4 million votes across the UK, the Greens over 1 million. Their rewards were just one MP each. A strictly proportional voting system would have given them about 80 and 25 MPs respectively.
Voting reform is almost certainly not on the Conservative government’s agenda, but it should be. And some kind of German-style mixed-member voting system, which delivers a very high degree of proportionality (subject to a threshold) and maintains the tradition of a constituency MP, would be best.
On the one hand, such a system would help to limit the distinctiveness of Scotland from the rest of the UK, and it may reduce the prospects of independence since all unionist parties would pick up a decent number of seats. The Conservative and Unionist Party, if it still believes in the Union, should take note. On the other hand, the voting system, it would help future governments govern for the whole country. The present voting system is manifestly unable to translate Britons’ multi-party preferences into Westminster representation. If Cameron wants to govern in the interests of ‘One Nation’, he should think about the 5 million Green and UKIP voters who are represented by just two MPs between them.