2017 UK Election – a glance back to the mythology vs the facts

It’s been eighteen months since 555 & Counting was updated. The main explanation is things cropping up to hinder plans and create delays. That’s topical! All the same, the untypical voting pattern in 2017, out of alignment with the UK’s four previous elections, did have an influence in knocking us slightly off course. As did the Brexit imbroglio, too omnipresent to be prevented from silencing all arguments needing to be advanced for electoral reform.

The myth abounded even among eminent scholars that UK politics had bounced back to rude health. They claimed 2017 to be a massive return to two-party politics and ‘a big turn out’. Both were statistically untrue, as this website was pointing out in 2017 (see last para here) and (fourth para here). But real facts find traction in the public mind hard to come by. Factoids, truisms and positive sounding spins always get in the way.

As if to prove the point, I recently spoke to one of the country’s most celebrated and sought after election analysts after he’d given a presentation. He seemed slightly irritated that an evidently unqualified non-entity had stepped up to present him with the reality of those parliamentary seat distribution statistics. He dismissed them with disdainful waves of the hand and a comment something like ‘Oh, you always get that.’ Afterwards, I thought, had he been pressed or tired, he could have invited me to email him with the data.

This is a hot off the press up-date of our European general election participation table that records the impressive improvement by Spain in its election held at the end of April 2019:

Sweden and Italy held elections in 2018. It’s doubtful even young readers will live to see the UK achieve Sweden’s 87.2%. But when comparing ourselves to the three European economies roughly our size, including Italy, we fall well short of them.

Now we fall well short of Spain too. If our 2017 election had seen the same turnout rate as Spain’s this year, an additional 3.3 million Brits would have gone to the polls. We continue to accumulate evidence that first-past-the-post electoral systems suppress turnout. The US uses it and their last election got a turnout of 55.5%. The most powerful head of state in the world was elected with the support of not much more than one in four of his electorate. Something can’t be right, can it?

We are currently working on a different table that will analyse turnout rates in countries across the world that still hold to first-past-the-post systems. Forgive the spoiler but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the turnout rates are not at all impressive.

The limitations and warts of first-past-the-post have become all too apparent as well during the Brexit deadlock. It has made it clearer to a wider audience that our two-party system is demonstrably in a deep malaise. Electoral reform is now even more urgent. We’ll go into learning the lessons of Brexit in more detail in a post to follow soon.

2015 Chart

Because of the extraordinary similarity in the vote split between the 2015 and the previous three elections, there’s not a lot we can add to the comments we’ve already made. Here is the chart:

2015 enlarged update Aug 2015

Click here to see how similar the chart looks to those for 2001, 2005 and 2010.

Looking back over the 2001 to 2015 timeline the tide has turned from Labour towards the Tories. But ‘tide’ is surely an exaggeration. Look at the figures in this table:

This time, the Tories attracted just under one in four of those entitled to vote, exactly the same as Labour did in 2001. Do not forget that the support for Labour and Tory combined, the two largest political parties, has averaged 43% of the electorate in our four 21st Century elections. That means they’ve been disputing the difference of the consistent  20 million votes or so jointly cast their way. The reality we boil down to is the rivals must persuade about one million out of those 20 million to stick or switch, depending respectively whether they’re in power or trying to get it.

That is the essence of a little in-fight that leaves 25 million of the electorate each time – the ones who didn’t vote or voted Other – out in limbo land. And on top of that, the 9 million or so supporters of the losing rival don’t have that great a time either. Anyone with leanings towards Labour who lived through the 18 year reign of the Tories that began in 1979 might remember how politically marginalised they felt for so long. Similarly, Tories who endured 13 years under Labour starting in 1997 might have felt an equal sense of desperation (although Tony Blair acting pretty much like a Tory PM must have been some consolation – sorry, Tony, cheap shot!).

But none of this seems to carry weight with the Labour and Tory party machines and their politicians. Their simple aim each time is to offer about one million people a carrot that tastes and smells a little sweeter than their rival’s. Because that’s what they need to trigger that crazy allocation of seats in parliament and give them their outright majority to govern in Westminster. That’s their desire – winner-take-all. If it comes off, they feel validated; if it doesn’t, crushed until next time round when they pick themselves up ready to play the game again…and again…and again. Is this a fully mature approach to the politics and governance of a 21st Century democracy of 65 million people?

 

2010 Chart

The 2010 election may have produced a very rare outcome where neither Labour or Tory for once gained overall control of the House of Commons. But the chart here shows just how similar the vote split was to the elections of 2001 and 2005.

2010 enlarged update Aug 2015

Click here to see how similar this looks to the charts for 2001, 2005 and 2015.

Once again, the non-voter block (nearly 16 million) was by far larger than the largest party’s share (Tory, 10.7 million) and, as the following table shows, the vote share of Tory and Labour combined was pretty much as normal: just over two-fifths of the electorate.

 

 

Look at the very similar data for ‘Tory’ and ‘Other’ in the first three columns. There are only fractional differences between them. Then look at the all-important fourth and fifth columns which tell us about the split of the number of seats in parliament. Through the distorting machinations of our electoral system, the Tories ended up with over three times the number of seats. And Labour, who polled 1.75 million less votes than Others got just under three times the number of seats.

This underlines very well the message of the last four elections. Under our archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, power in parliament is proportional to the way it allocates seats, not to the voting intentions of the people.

 

2005 Chart

Looking at the charts in this section of 5.5.5 & Counting should soon show you that a very similar pattern of voting has emerged in UK politics in the four elections since 2001. This is the chart with results for 2005:2005 enlarged update Aug 2015

There is striking similarity between this chart and the ones for 2001, 2010 and 2015.

The 2005 results shown in the following table include in the last row the combined vote for Tory and Labour, revealing something disturbing. Together, the two largest political parties have fallen well short of attracting even half the votes of the electorate. It’s actually only a whisker over two-fifths.

 

Labour was the winner in 2005 with a fraction over one-fifth support of the 44.22 million people entitled to vote. They only got 35% of those who voted. In other modern democracies, this level of support could well have made them the largest party in the legislature but left them nowhere near the number of seats for outright executive power. There are a handful of exceptions who follow the Westminster model, including the USA.

There is no doubt that on 5 May 2005 one of the biggest ever distortions of democratic principle occurred in peacetime. It was possibly the most extreme misallocation of power ever seen in an advanced western nation. This website’s name is a constant reminder of that date and the fact that we keep counting off election after election is if everything’s fine and dandy.

2001 Chart

Looking at the charts in this section of 5.5.5 & Counting should soon show you that a very similar vote split has emerged in UK politics in the four elections since 2001. Start by taking a look at 2001: 2001 enlarged update Aug 2015 You may want to quickly look at how similar this is to the charts for 2005, 2010 and 2015.

More figures for 2001 are shown in this table. We have added an extra row to show the combined vote for Labour plus Tory. This reveals that together they attracted the support of only 43% of those entitled to vote. The non-voter group at 40.6% (18 million) nearly equalled the joint vote for our two largest political parties.

Yet neither one of these two parties ever has qualms over claiming the right to govern with an outright majority when they get the better of their rival. Getting the better of your rival in this context has come to mean polling the few more per-cent that boosts the triumphant one to a total of 10.5 to 11 million votes. In this instance, Labour crept back into Westminster to claim their outright majority in 2001 with the support of 10.73 million, less than one in four of the electorate. But we invite you to see how it actually gets worse next time round. If you’re of nervous disposition have something steadying to hand before you look in close detail at the analysis for 2005.