Votes per MP, a disparity and an argument still true

One of the first arguments I heard in favour of electoral reform was how the number of votes required to achieve an MP was badly loaded in favour of Labour and the Conservatives. All these many years later it is still a compelling argument – although not the only one in support of change. In those days, some forty years ago, I was not a member of a party, nor especially a supporter of any of them. In those days I was left of Labour, and had I been able to vote I would have opted for Labour only if nothing further to the left was available. Nowadays I am tribal Labour, and yet still want change. In the end it comes down to fairness.

I am aware that statistics can be manipulated to mean all sorts of things. But raw data is an absolute, it is the unvarnished truth. The following two tables, a supplement if you like to my Vote harvesters post, show two extremes. The first shows the ten highest examples of votes required to win a seat in Parliament, the second show the ten lowest.

Year Party Votes seats votes per seat
Feb 1974 Liberal 6059519 6 1009920
Oct 1974 Liberal 5346704 13 411285
1979 Liberal 4313804 11 392164
1970 Liberal 2117035 6 352839
1964 Liberal 3099283 9 344365
1983 SDP-Liberal Alliance 7780949 23 338302
1987 SDP-Liberal Alliance 7341651 22 333711
1992 Liberal Democrat 5999606 20 299980
1950 Liberal 2621487 9 291276
1959 Liberal 1640760 6 273460

Liberal supporters in February 1974 had to see over a million of them turn out before their party won a seat. Quite extraordinary. All ten are Liberal incarnations, and for comparison the highest figure for the Tories was in 1997 when each of their MPs required 58188 votes nationally. For Labour 1959 saw 47350 votes per seat.

Year Party Votes seats votes per seat
2001 Labour 10724953 413 25968
2005 Labour 9552436 355 26908
1945 Labour 11967746 393 30452
1997 Labour 13518167 418 32340
1983 Conservative 13012316 397 32777
2010 Labour 8606517 258 33359
2010 Conservative 10703654 306 34979
Oct 1974 Labour 11457079 319 35916
1966 Labour 13096629 364 35980
1987 Conservative 13760935 376 36598

This second table can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most obviously it looks like Labour gains most from the current voting system. It also shows that Labour voters are the most efficient, turning in greatest numbers in places where victory is possible, and not bothering where their chances are low.

It is not an exclusive Labour preserve though, and nowhere are either Labour or Tory numbers worse than the Liberal Democrats. (In 2001 the Liberal Democrats had 92583 votes per seat, still more than three as many as the Labour needed in the same election.)

No electoral system will produce absolute equality when it comes to votes and the numbers of MPs they produce. However, it is clear that there is something dreadfully wrong, and it is being exacerbated by the increasingly pluralistic nature of modern British politics.

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2 Responses to Votes per MP, a disparity and an argument still true

  1. Whilst I agree with the above point and the analysis, there are two other factors that should be highlighted:
    1) Such a system is unresponsive to small changes and over-responsive to large changes.
    2) It is also regionally divisive. Your data shows how the liberals / third+ parties suffer. It would be
    interesting to see the regional data and how it effects the two “big parties” (but I suspect that
    neither of us have the data or time to do the analysis).

    Dividing the country into two blocks:
    – Inner London and north of the Severn Estuary – Wash line
    – South of the Severn Estuary – Wash line (excluding Inner London)
    My guess would be:
    Votes per Conservative MP in Inner London or north of the Severn Estuary – Wash line: sky high Votes per Labour MP south of the Severn Estuary – Wash line (excluding Inner London): sky high

  2. You are right in that my time, and therefore ability to research, is limited.

    Of course, my blog and point reflects a gross generalisation. It also ignores regional differences. It is also true that voting habits are often a reflection of the voting system – it is not accurate to presume that under a version of PR that the seats won would be a reflection of the figures stated here. Nonetheless, it is true that the voting system gives a huge advantage to the two biggest parties, who therefore have little interest in changing something that benefits them.

    If UKIP take a large slice of the Tory pie in 2015 Cameron may begin regretting his stance towards AV.

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