Err, umm, on legitimacy (again) and how the facts prove very little

Further to yesterday’s post on legitimacy, here is an interesting table. It shows the winning party at each General Election since universal suffrage, with the average number of votes per seat.

General Election Winner Votes divided by seats
2015 Conservative 34347
2010 Conservative 34979
2005 Labour 26908
2001 Labour 25968
1997 Labour 32340
1992 Conservative 41943
1987 Conservative 36598
1983 Conservative 32777
1979 Conservative 40407
Oct 1974 Labour 35916
Feb 1974 Labour 38690
1970 Conservative 39834
1966 Labour 35981
1964 Labour 38504
1959 Conservative 37674
1955 Conservative 38694
1951 Conservative 39438
1950 Labour 41988
1945 Labour 30452
1935 Conservative 25972
1931 Conservative 24206
1929 Labour 28045

I thought that this data would provide an insight into a broken democracy, but now wonder whether my efforts were an exercise in futility. It is an interesting table, largely because (as far as I can discern anyway) it actually proves nothing.

There are no trends, except, perhaps, that we are back to where we were some eighty years ago.

The factors which need to be taken into account are population size, turnout, number of parties standing, as well as the details about seats won.

On the cusp of failure, the Labour party in 1950 has the distinction of the largest number of votes per seat average for the governing party. The other end of the scale are the Conservatives in 1931, for whom their huge tally of 470 seats made their respectable vote look small.

Ah, legitimacy

Ah, legitimacy. It has to be said, that anyone who questions the legitimacy of a Government elected under first past the post generally gets a receptive ear from me. Well, sort of. I want change, because what used to work, in the days of a simpler democracy with less crowded ballot papers, is looking like it is way beyond its sell-by date. This is illustrated by dividing the number of votes received by the number of MPs elected.

Much like the much-touted, and wrong, argument about the current boundaries that give Labour ‘an unfair advantage’ , this simple equation ignores how the electorate actually behaves. The voter is an intelligent animal, able to understand what a safe seat looks like, how to tactically vote, and how to protest vote. Nonetheless, there is a clear failure in the current system, in part illustrated by dividing votes by MPs, in part illustrated by low turnout, and in part by showing the absolute power is granted with the consent of only one in four of the electorate.

Here is how many votes it takes to elect MPs for the main parties:

DUP 23,033
SNP 25,972
SDLP 33,270
Conservative 34,243
Labour 40,277
Sinn Fein 44,058
UUP 57,468
Plaid Cymru 60,565
Liberal Democrat 301,986
Green 1,157,613
UKIP 3,881,129

A couple of things that are worth pointing out. Individual MPs are not elected by aggregating votes across the UK – an MP is elected on roughly 20,000 votes. This is true of all MPs, accepting that this varies depending on constituency size (and some other factors). It is also worth noting the special circumstances that apply in Northern Ireland (first and third in this table are Northern Irish parties).

The real losers here are the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP, especially UKIP. I shed no tears for UKIP usually, but one cannot value democracy and then ignore the blatant unfairness of being able to attract almost 3.9 million voters and see the reward as a single seat.

Non-voting, the tyranny of choice?

The last three General Elections have seen a rise in non-voting. There are many reasons for abstention, and the figures do not include those who do not register, but amongst the most common excuse is the perception that votes do not count.

Firstly, I should make a very obvious point – one individual vote almost never decides an election. Voting is a collective activity.

I am an electoral reformer, and therefore it would be very easy for me to suggest that voter engagement is linked to an unfair electoral system. However, my objections to first past the post have nothing to do with turnout, and everything to do with creating a modern democracy that is adapted to pluralistic politics.

There are many reasons for not voting, and accessibility is one of them. However, it is also true that politicians are held in low esteem. Some of this will be down to some frankly stupid actions by politicians, but the media has had a large part to play too. Whilst I recognise that bad news sells better than good, the constant drip, drip, drip, of horror stories must contribute to the distrust of those seeking public office.

I am not about to suggest that our media change how they report things – if nothing else a free press is one of the guarantors of democracy. I am just seeking reasons why fewer are voting nowadays.

Regardless of the merits of proportional voting methods, I would hope that many would agree that we can modernise our democracy. One simple step would be to start using online voting, another would be to experiment with a different voting day; Thursdays are working days for most people, so why not try voting at weekends?

Is it ironic that the most recent national election where there was a choice of two produced the greatest turnout? I refer to the Scottish independence referendum. A simple choice, a good level of voter engagement. Has the increase in choice caused apathy? Is pluralist politics depressing engagement? Are the simple choices gone, because you do get some who label us as all the same – an argument that could be interpreted in a number of ways, including that increased choice has made making that choice more difficult.

There are arguments for compulsory voting, although I am yet to be convinced about this. Freedom of choice and compulsion are odd bedfellows. I do think that we should do more to encourage voting, and happen to believe that voting at sixteen will help. This has to be tied to curriculum changes to accommodate an emphasis on how our democracy works and why voting matters.

These statistics illustrate the rise of non-voters. It also shows a rise in support for parties other than the big two, which for the first time in 2010 surpassed the ten million mark as well as out-stripping the second-placed party. Whether this is reflection on the numbers of candidates (the bar is very low for participation in election these days) as opposed to an indicator of support leaking from Labour and the Conservatives I am not sure. I suspect that there is no simple or single answer to this, much like voter engagement and participation.

Lab Con Others Did not vote
1935 7984988 10025083 2981417 8532405
1945 11967746 8716211 3389068 8994317
1950 13266176 10140818 5364130 5521038
1951 13948883 12659712 1987999 6023980
1955 12405254 13310891 1043584 8083668
1959 12216172 13750875 1895605 7540972
1964 12205808 12002642 3448698 8261226
1966 13096629 11418455 2749663 8704576
1970 12208758 13145123 2951653 11007708
Feb-74 11645616 11872180 7804186 8426726
Oct-74 11457079 10462565 7269460 10905819
1979 11532218 13697923 5991221 9859377
1983 8456934 13012316 9192059 11513807
1987 10029270 13760935 8739999 10670598
1992 11560484 14093007 7960583 9647282
1997 13518167 9600943 8167174 12593497
2001 10724953 8357615 7285636 18022712
2005 9552436 8784915 8811159 17067304
2010 8606517 10703654 10377433 15915474


Labour on politics, democracy and devolution

Now we know what is in Labour’s Manifesto on politics, democracy and devolution.

Labour will:

*** set up a people-led Constitutional Convention to determine the future of UK’s governance

*** replace the House of Lords with a Senate of the Nations and Regions

*** pass an English Devolution Act, handing £30 billion of resources and powers to our great English city and county regions

*** give new powers for communities to shape their high streets, including power over payday lenders and the number of fixed-odds betting terminals

*** meet our promises to devolve further powers to Scotland and Wales

*** give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote

*** create a statutory register of lobbyists

You can read the whole Labour manifesto here.

The effects of IER

This table shows the seventeen wards in Southend-on-Sea and their electorates for the last four years. Included is the change over that period. Also shown is the change in the last year.

2012 2013 2014 2015 Change 2015 – 2012 % change % change 2015 – 2014
Belfairs 7461 7539 7544 7486 25 0.34% -0.77%
Blenheim Park 7954 7971 7987 7922 -32 -0.40% -0.81%
Chalkwell 7395 7336 7259 7164 -231 -3.12% -1.31%
Eastwood Park 7620 7697 7625 7555 -65 -0.85% -0.92%
Kursaal 7507 7431 7812 7633 126 1.68% -2.29%
Leigh 7446 7523 7471 7364 -82 -1.10% -1.43%
Milton 7830 7859 7386 7308 -522 -6.67% -1.06%
Prittlewell 7805 7777 7880 7712 -93 -1.19% -2.13%
Shoeburyness 8288 8538 8500 8545 257 3.10% 0.53%
Southchurch 7643 7754 7732 7627 -16 -0.21% -1.36%
St Laurence 7610 7687 7524 7490 -120 -1.58% -0.45%
St Luke’s 8190 8228 7977 7914 -276 -3.37% -0.79%
Thorpe 7520 7539 7512 7482 -38 -0.51% -0.40%
Victoria 7349 7557 7342 7231 -118 -1.61% -1.51%
West Leigh 7158 7232 7147 7083 -75 -1.05% -0.90%
West Shoebury 7534 7675 7471 7466 -68 -0.90% -0.07%
Westborough 7621 7589 7636 7515 -106 -1.39% -1.58%
129931 130932 129805 128497 -1434 -1.10% -1.01%

The last column shows the effect of IER (Individual Electoral Registration). Of course, not all the change is down to IER, but it must be the most significant factor.

The data could accurately reflect the adult (and near-adult) population in Southend-on-Sea. If it did it would fly in the face of other data which suggests a growing population for the town. According to these figures only three wards registered any growth: Belfairs, Kursaal and Shoeburyness.

If Southend’s population is growing, and yet the number of electors is reducing, then we are seeing an increasingly smaller proportion of the town’s citizenry taking an active part in local and national decision making. It also has a knock-on effect on the legal system – juries are selected using the electoral roll.

My ward has seen a substantial drop. Milton has the largest proportion of rented properties, and churn will have an impact on registration. However, this churn ought to be a fairly static feature.

What does this all mean? I can only guess, but I expect a combination of increasing larger rental population (and subsequently less settled) together with less engagement has created a growing number for whom democracy is something for other people. Add in the effect of IER, only affecting at the margins this year, and we are witnessing shrinking mandates for all politicians.

These numbers will affect ward boundaries. On these numbers Shoeburyness ward is almost 21% bigger than West Leigh. That is quite some gap.

I hope that candidates of all persuasions will encourage all they encounter who are not enfranchised to register.

Primus inter pares

I do not like the debates between the party leaders. The concept of first amongst equals is diminished in my view with the advent of these spectacles. These debates reduce a contest in 650 distinct and separate constituencies to a beauty pageant between three, four, or more, leaders of the main political parties.

I am often pointing out that the contest in Southend West will be between (Sir) David Amess and me (and whoever else is selected amongst the other parties). Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband will feature on the ballot paper.

I do not see this as enhancing our democracy. The leaders’ debates introduce a presidential element to the General Election, and if the contest is whittled down to who of the party leaders comes across best then the role of backbench MPs across the House of Commons starts to dwindle.

I realise that it is national issues that largely decide the outcome in each constituency, yet I hope that my efforts, and those of other candidates, have some bearing.

I doubt that these debates will go away, though. I sense that I am in a minority in being alarmed at seeing a whole campaign reduced to three one-hour slots (or whatever format is agreed upon this time). How long before our leaders are selected only for their ability to look good on camera, irrespective of their abilities to lead debate, set policy, or argue cogently?

There is a chance that the debates will be scrapped, although this unlikely. The Prime Minister is setting a precondition for his attendance; and the riposte from his opponents is the suggested empty chair solution.

I am not one to take David Cameron’s side normally, but I think he has a point about the inclusion of Natalie Bennett (Green Party leader). If we must have leaders’ debates then all who lead parties that genuinely seek to form a Government should be included. The simplest test of this is whether they are planning to field 326 or more candidates. 326 MPs is the minimum required to form a majority Government.

In 2010 six parties fielded more than 325 candidates: Conservative (631), Labour (631), Liberal Democrat (631), UKIP (558), BNP (338), Green (334).

The BNP will not feature beyond the fringes this time around, yet the Greens are threatening almost universal coverage (as are TUSC, I believe).

Whilst the current electoral system is skewed in favour of the big two, in the ‘anything can happen’ set of possibilities is a Green or UKIP PM (and indeed a TUSC PM if they do put up enough candidates). In these circumstances it is fair and reasonable to invite all leaders who face the possibility of residence in Downing Street. To do otherwise somewhat takes the electorate for granted, even if this is somewhat backed up by historical evidence.

One of my motivators for being an electoral reformer is my disappointment that so many of our elections are being seemingly decided before a ballot has been cast. A leaders’ debate that excludes any national party leader surely also somewhat prejudges the outcome. Whilst I believe it will be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband who wakes up as PM on May 8th, it is ultimately the decision of the people.

What a democracy should look like

Anyone that wades through the writings in this blog will know that I am a long time electoral reformer. Electoral reform comes in many forms; all aimed to improve engagement, access and accountability.

About time too, writes Matt Dent in reference to Labour’s proposals for House of Lords reform; indeed. The need for reform is acknowledged by most people, although opinions as to the exact nature of the reform vary.

Let me tackle just three key issues with regard to reform: as stated above, we should address engagement, access and accountability.

On engagement. Despite describing ourselves as home to the mother of Parliaments it is obvious to anyone who goes beyond a cursory examination that all is not well with this mother. We still have some seriously important aspects of how this country is run that are not subject to the scrutiny of an election. The democratic deficit, in the humble opinion of this observer, does much damage to trust in the system, and certainly fosters the belief that those in charge are not listening to ordinary people. The House of Lords is an undemocratic body. It contains 678 life peers (appointees), 85 hereditary peers (elected by all hereditary peers, there by fluke of birth), and 26 Lords spiritual (a by-product of our state religion). It is a growing institution – an irony is that whilst David Cameron wanted to reduced the size of the House of Commons, whose members are elected, he is keen on expanding the House of Lords.

Even its name is an affront; Lords and Commoners are terms that belong to the Middle Ages, not the twenty-first century.

Access to the House of Lords comes in three forms: patronage from the Prime Minister, being born into an aristocratic family, advancement through the upper echelons of the Church of England. Access is blocked for everyone else. Whilst there are apologists for this who claim that the upper chamber for Parliament is largely filled with experts and leading lights from the world of business, the arts, politics, etc this largely insults those not considered worthy of consideration. As in so many ways in our society, rewards appear to be given to the already over-rewarded.

Once in the House of Lords removal is all but impossible. Even imprisonment merely interrupts service. One of the keystones in any democracy must be the ability to remove those in charge; the absence of this facility makes for dictatorship. Elected members have to account for themselves on a regular basis to their electorate. As flawed as the electoral system is in the UK, it still requires MPs to persuade voters to back them. Those in the House of Lords are not subject to this inconvenience. Their Lordships do not even have a constituency – they are accountable to none.

The governed should be governed by consent. This consent is conveyed by means of the vote. Whilst elections do not deliver governance that everybody wants, it does deliver governance that the majority want. It also delivers governance that can be changed by those governed, and the governed can become the Government. An open, free, and accountable Government is the only way to stop tyranny.

A campaign that aspires to an extra 1.2 million young voters next year


I welcome any initiative that looks to improve voter engagement, especially amongst the young, and so I was pleased to have discovered The League Of Young Voters. Their aim of trying to get an extra 1.2 million young people voting by the end of next year is one I am happy to endorse.

I have to say, on a sour note, that I do not like the ‘Find Your Perfect Match‘. Aside from being out of date (the preamble begin thus: Elections for the European Parliament are on the 22nd May – match your views against the parties involved to help you choose who to vote for) I find that these sort of tests quite unsatisfying. I vote Labour less based on any individual policy but rather because of their underlying ethos. I imagine this is true of many voters and the parties they align themselves with.

I think fewer questions designed to tease out what appeals to a voter would work better. Some of the questions in the test work for a political obsessive like me, but I can imagine a few scratched heads from others. Questions based on policy rather than principles work only if you have a good grasp of policy and what drives it. The casual observer is not going to understand much beyond headlines.

Anyway, I know little about the organisation or who is behind it, but if engagement and turnout is increased then that can only be a good thing.

They are on Twitter, and there is a European counterpart.


I have been contacted by a number of Southend West residents regarding the proposals to enable the recall of a Member of Parliament. These are addressed to the Southend West MP, and vopied to me for my comments. The emails include this:

I think voters should have the power to vote out MPs who let us down. It should be a decision for us, the voters. It shouldn’t be up to a Westminster quango or other MPs.

So I’d like you to vote for the real recall amendments being tabled by Zac Goldsmith MP. These changes to the government’s plan would put the power in the hands of local voters. Please can you tell me how you will vote? And please will you contact your party leader and express my views to them?

I am all for making MPs truly accountable, but I am not sure the Recall Bill entirely does this. The problem of super-safe seats would still exist, and any Member of Parliament who is a dead cert for re-election is not truly accountable. As a long-standing member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform I want to change the voting system so that very vote counts. Every MP should have to work for every vote.

That being said, MPs must liable for the sack – especially when they wield this power over so many public sector workers.

So I do support a recall act (with safeguards to stop frivolous or overtly political manoeuvrings), and I hope that this will be followed with some wider ranging reforms that would ensure every voter has equal merit.

Who gives a damn anyway? Inertia, electoral fatalism, or just not enthused by the choices on offer

Total votes at each General Election since 1935 for Labour, the Conservatives, the rest, and those who did not vote

Total votes at each General Election since 1935 for Labour, the Conservatives, the rest, and those who did not vote

This graph shows the votes for Labour and the Conservatives for every General Election since 1935. It also shows the number of votes cast for other parties, and the number of people who did not vote.

What does this tell us?

It shows that for every election both Labour and Conservatives poll somewhere between 8 and 14 million. It shows that in 2010 they polled very similar numbers to what they polled in 1935. Since this is the number of votes (as opposed to vote share), and the electorate has clearly grown since then, where are all the new voters?

Well, the votes for third parties has grown, but this growth has been pretty steady since 1974. The biggest chunk of votes in this category goes to the Liberal Democrats, although nationalist parties also score pretty highly in their respective nations.

What has significantly grown, especially since 1992, is the number of abstentions. The really significant date is 2001, for this is when non-voters outnumbered those who plumped for the governing party.

There were be many reason for abstention, but it broadly divides into two camps: those who could not vote and those who chose not to.

If one looks at the Government party’s vote share as a percentage of all voters (whether cast or not) then one finds the last three Government’s elected with the consent of under 30% of all voters (although ‘consent’ is open to interpretation – abstention can be viewed as consent in some ways). Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide came with just 30.8% of all voters, and you have to go back to 1979 before you find more than a third of the electorate backing the winner.

Interestingly, the largest vote share was for Labour in 1951, an election they actually lost. This is the only occasion since 1935 than any party broke 40% (with 40.3%).

Abstainers accounted for 40.6% of the electorate in 2001, and 34.9% in 2010. Some could argue that those who want a ‘none of the above’ option are already winning.

I think this demonstrates a couple of things. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is that voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the choice on offer. This would also include those who feel that the alternatives have no chance of being elected, a kind of electoral fatalism gripping vast swathes of the electorate.

I also believe that voting on Thursdays, in polling booths, with pencils, is way past its sell-by date.

Whilst the two big parties are still acquiring far more supporters than the others, the growth in not voting must be cause for concern. When one factors in the numbers of those not registered (perhaps another 3 million) then it becomes a picture of a country being run by a party selected by fewer than one in four people.