Continuing the Electoral Reform debate

After a longer delay than I was planning, I’m now replying to some feedback I was given on my previous post on electoral change.

Firstly, it was suggested that while the party that wins the most votes might ‘lose’ to a coalition of smaller parties, it could only do so where it either voluntarily refuses to work with those parties (essentially ‘opting out’ of government), or else the smaller parties decline to deal with the largest party because they have chosen to work with each other – if you like, akin to the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreeing to be an ‘anti-austerity’ bloc in the 2015 election.

I think the first argument is somewhat unlikely – parties pursue their policy agenda, which means pursuing and holding on to power. The examples of Ted Heath in 1974 and Gordon Brown in 2010 (to a lesser extent also James Callaghan and John Major while actually in office) show that parties try by whatever means possible to maintain their hold on office.The whole point of PR is to ensure seats gained broadly reflect votes cast, thus (theoretically) giving the largest party the strongest hand for coalition negotiations.That is to say – we can discount the former because parties will always seek by whatever means to take power. Because of this, the second point is actually a major point in favour of FPTP. If the largest party cannot command the confidence of Parliament, due to the smaller parties effectively operating as one bloc, FPTP concentrates the voters minds on the choice between a government and an opposition, and makes it easier to replace a governing coalition with an alternative.

I would also briefly take this point to add that electoral systems are not just a means of turning votes into seats – the electoral system also influences the type of party politics that emerges. The Liberal/SDP alliance did not break through in the 1980s because FPTP encourages two party competition; in contrast, PR has been used in the following contexts with the following results:

  • List PR for European elections allowed UKIP to emerge as a major party in the mid 00s
  • The Additional Member System in Scotland established the SNP as the principal opposition to Labour in Scotland.
  • Single-Transferable-Vote in Northern Ireland has mapped the move from moderate to extreme parties, while showing that the sectarian divide has ot changed at all.

That is to say – the type of electoral system you choose influences the type of political party competition you get. So to acknowledge a different question on whether electoral change could take place at other levels – that is precisely the problem with changing at one level but not all levels – PR at local levels would encourage the proliferation of smaller parties and interest groups. FPTP is ultimately lots of small interest groups gathering into big formal coalitions (the major parties) – requiring them to decide together how to govern in the national interest.

I’d like to finally acknowledge one aspect of Jonathan Chaplin’s initial post that was also raised, and I did not quite do justice to – the role of Parliament as a debating chamber as well as a legislature.The example given was the Scottish Tories – they have held a pretty consistent 15% vote share since 1999 and not moved much since, but PR in Scotland enables them to win a representative voice in the Scottish Parliament. It is worth repeating that electoral choice reflects what one prioritises in an electoral system – so prioritising each party having a ‘voice’ in proportional strength to their votes would of course mean one would favour PR.

I think however this is to massively overstate the importance of representation compared to other political channels. Part of the reason for being involved in major parties is to make your voice heard in those parties. In the recently published book Those Who Show Up, the example is given of a Christian activist who became involved with the Liberal Democrats, and through her involvement the party ended up adopting what ought to have been their flagship policy – raising the threshold at which one begins paying income tax (a policy so popular that the other parties have adopted it!). Parties are not the only medium of being heard, and speaking in Parliament isn’t necessarily the best way to make yourself heard. I do not deny that representation is important insomuch as it lends respectability to a party, but representation is not the be-all-and-end-all. To revisit the Scottish Tories, while they have been consistently represented since 1999, one has to ask whether the system really works for them given that the prospect of the Tories being invited to govern in Scotland (barring major cultural change) is practically zero, thus negating their capacity to implement their policy agenda.

I’ll conclude this post by adding that I really enjoy the debate on electoral change and hugely value the thoughts and comments so far – I will post my own thoughts on ways forward in the coming weeks. I think this isn’t a debate that will go away, or one the Conservatives would wisely ignore in victory – and it is undoubtedly better that one faces it when one has the chance to, on one’s own terms. If I could seek consensus on one point, it would be that the debate on electoral change is worth engaging with as we determine as a society what we most value in electoral outcomes – but that that there is a debate to be had, not a wrong to be made right.

What makes an electoral system ‘Fair’?

If the surprise that the Conservatives won a clear majority was the biggest story of the 2015 election, the demands for electoral reform the result has generated must surely be very high also. I suspect that even if you don’t usually follow politics closely, you will have seen features, principally advocated by the Electoral Reform Society, arguing that our present electoral system (popularly known as First-Past-the-Post) is no longer fit for purpose – their principal evidence from the 2015 results being the Greens and UKIP gaining 16% of the popular vote, but a mere 2 seats for their trouble – in contrast to the SNP gaining 56 seats on a relatively paltry 4.7%. This argument is amongst those being used to argue that the result is illegitimate, and not reflective of the wishes of the nation.

My interest was particularly piqued by this article by the Director of KLICE, Jonathan Chaplin, in which he makes a strong case that Christians ought to support electoral change (I purposefully use the term ‘change’ rather than ‘reform’ as the latter implies a necessarily positive connotation). The crux of his argument I repeat below:

Those who benefit from FPTP but oppose the principle of proportional representation are in effect displaying profound disrespect for the views of millions of their fellow citizens. They are saying: Your political convictions are worth less than mine; it matters less that your views on justice and the common good are represented to government than that mine are.

I have to make a confession – I am a complete geek when it comes to electoral systems. While at university they were the topic I most enjoyed researching, so to have the opportunity to talk at length on the subject is a labour of love for me! In 2011 I wrote a position paper on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in response to a similar argument that was made for electoral change – in that instance, Christian think-tank Ekklesia argued not only that Christians ought to vote to adopt AV, but that it was an essential part of the church seeking fairness in society. While my paper is sadly no longer available online, the essence of my argument is that there is no impartial criteria by which we can deem one system to be ‘fairer’ than another. There is only one demonstrably fair choice system – simple majority. But it is only fair for so long as there are two choices – and as we are painfully aware, choices are rarely binary!

In the academic literature on electoral systems, the commentators themselves recognise the debate between systems that primarily aim to elect a government (ie. majoritarian), and systems that primarily look to elect a representative assembly (ie. proportional). No academic argues that one is ‘fairer’ than another for a simple reason – it’s entirely subjective! If you believe that our representative body should broadly reflect the votes cast by the population as a whole, then any non-proportional system is by definition going to be ‘unfair.’ If you instead subscribe to the view that the electorate want to choose who governs them, then a system which could allow the party with the most votes and seats to ‘lose’ to a coalition of parties who individually polled less, but collectively form a majority, is intrinsically unfair.

As the case against FPTP is already being noisily articulated I feel no obligation to repeat it here. Instead I will venture a few thoughts in favour of the system, and which would give proponents of PR pause for thought.

In the first instance, PR doesn’t necessarily lead to fairer outcomes. A very recent example of this was seen in the 2013 German Bundestag elections. Angela Merkel’s CDU increased their vote share by a full 5% and by all accounts clearly won the election. Instead of continuing her coalition with the FDP (the German Liberals) however, she was forced into a coalition with the second largest party the SPD, as her coalition partners had failed to surpass the 5% threshold necessary to win PR seats. Given that the Alternative fur Deutschland (the German equivalent of UKIP) also polled just under 5%, that meant that almost 10% of the German electorate went unrepresented, and the Germans ended up with a Grand Coalition that they almost certainly did not vote for.

Secondly, PR doesn’t usually lead to direct changes of government at the hands of the voters. Until Gerhard Schroeder won in the Red/Green landslide of 1998, most changes of government in Germany took place because the FDP switched their allegiance from the conservative CDU to the socialist SPD. It is not that it is impossible – simply that it is taken out of the hands of the voters because the decision to form a government is taken by the parties. The problem is compounded by the fact that PR encourages parties to chase a core vote to the exclusion of all else. Parties compartmentalise to reach their key voters and mirror their interests – which sounds great until you realise that the resultant governing coalitions become collective interest groups bartering for their narrow sectional interest. PR is used in my homeland of Northern Ireland, and it is striking that if you ignore party affiliation and simply classify members of the Assembly as Unionist, Nationalist, and non-aligned, the composition of the chamber doesn’t change at all. PR encourages parties and politicians to find an electoral niche and look after the interests of that niche.

The reason that is a problem was articulated by my earlier post in which I demonstrated that representatives don’t actually have much choice. It was striking to note that when commentators spoke of the new Conservative majority, it was observed ‘it is a smaller majority than the coalition.’ Note the term well – the coalition had a majority. Governments seek stability – stability comes through a secure majority that is able to pass the legislation they want, and block the legislation they don’t. With PR, you either have a highly unstable government (hardly desirable) or you have the exact same issue people have with FPTP – a majority government doing whatever they want. In his article Jonathan Chaplin contests that at least a majority government under PR has secured the votes of more than 50% of the electorate.  While potentially true (as no system is perfectly proportional) it does not address two concerns – voters are deprived of the opportunity to directly choose who governs them, and no party is encouraged to appeal beyond their natural base.

Let me stress that I am not saying that PR is intrinsically wrong – simply that every electoral system has its own problems. Nor would I say my case for FPTP is entirely based on trashing PR. As a Conservative I ought to favour PR – the present system favours Labour (who tend to win constituencies with smaller populations and a lower turnout), and PR would prevent them from being able to introduce radical programmes with less than majority support. And yet I support FPTP. One of the reasons for this I have alluded to – it encourages parties to seek beyond their natural base, which in practice means seeking the support of the moderate ‘undecideds’. However much voters may complain parties are too alike, there is something to be said that FPTP encourages parties to chase the moderate centre rather than a niche vote.

My final defence of FPTP relates directly to the 2015 election – at the end of the day, the electorate made a choice. It is with good reason I posted that, in my view, tactical voting does not exist – in actual fact there is no choice system that can completely eliminate the incentive for voters to vote for an alternative to their first preference. FPTP means that the voters consider the person representing their area, and whether or not they would support or oppose the government – and if they oppose the government, whether they would form part of the principal opposition party. It accurately captures the desire of the voter to punish the government for poor performance, or indeed to punish both large parties for poor performance!

I am not saying that FPTP is fairer – simply in my view that it is preferable to PR. I do however want to recognise two challenges that 2015 in particular flagged up. Firstly is that the SNP won almost every Scottish seat on 50% of the Scottish vote. It looks unfair, but the swing in those constituencies was astronomical – over 30%! Even if FPTP accentuated the result, something powerful is going on in Scottish politics, and fixating on the electoral system is not going to address that.

Then we have the Greens and UKIP – and especially UKIP’s astonishing 13% of the vote. Not since the SDP/Liberal alliance performance of 1983 has such a large vote had such a meagre return. While it is a concern, I think we must acknowledge two factors. The first is that the electorate was in complete flux – the Lib Dem vote collapsed and there was no way of knowing where it would go. For the first time in many years voters didn’t know whom was first or second in their area – which contributed to a higher number of ‘wasted’ votes. The second is there is a challenge for all the parties to re-energise the political process – turnout was still an unacceptable 66%, and party membership has been in freefall for decades. Voting for minor parties is not necessarily a reflection of a fractured electorate, but an urgent call for parties to re-engage with the electorate.

I could go on at length – and indeed I would love to have extended conversations on my pet subject! For now however I would conclude with this summary argument – it is absolutely right that we should debate our electoral system and not take it for granted, but let’s at least agree that no one system is objectively better or fairer than the others.

Whatever the choice, the hard work lies ahead

In just over 24 hours the polls will have closed, and the fun will begin. The nation will have chosen, but unless the polls are very badly wrong it won’t be clear what the nation has chosen. The fact is, until we get the first key constituency results we’re not going to have the slightest inkling how the election has unfolded – and really it comes down to three key questions:

  1. Have the SNP swept the board in Scotland? It is likely that they will advance, but if Labour prove adept at holding on to their seats, Ed Miliband’s bargaining hand is potentially much stronger. I for one suspect that if the option is on the table for a Lib-Lab majority coalition, the two parties would jump at it with both feet – but that will only happen if the SNP advance falls far short of their current polling projections.
  2. Will the Lib Dem vote hold up? Their vote is certainly going to collapse – I am absolutely certain that it will do so in east Oxford – but where they have a sitting MP (and that MP is staying on) it will be interesting to see how well they hold on. If the night is a disaster for them, it may well be a sign the Tories have done enough to win the tranche of Lib/Con marginals they failed to take in 2010. If they’re doing better than the polls, they may well be in a strong position despite their collapse in support.
  3. Will the UKIP bubble burst? This is the biggest variable. So far the UKIP share of the opinion polls has stayed stubbornly at 13%. It is assumed (not necessarily a given, but certainly probable) that a large number of these UKIP identifiers would otherwise have voted Conservative. If they conclude in the quiet of the voting booth tomorrow that they dare not take the risk, then the Conservative vote share might prove substantively higher than the opinion polls are suggesting. If it holds up however, then the Conservatives can probably wave goodbye to any hope of a clear majority.

In deference to the opinion pollsters, who frankly have had the second most horrible job of this election (after all the poor souls actually standing for office) they are quick to remind us that there are too many variables to accurately predict the outcome – they are stressing they are making projections (ie. this is what the result would be based on current polls) rather than predictions – they aren’t any more confident than the rest of us. And top of the list is the assumption that the SNP have Scotland bought and paid for – I certainly expect them to advance, and I think the main parties have a lot to learn from how the SNP energise their supporters – but it is not a given! Every vote really is going to matter – and I have unashamedly urged readers to vote Conservative wherever they live, because in such an uncertain environment it is the only way to ensure the continuation of a government with a coherent plan for the economy.

That said – I would now like to sketch out two scenarios, which show that regardless of the outcome, there is work to be done, and we all need to be ready to stand up and pitch in.

In scenario one, we have a badly hung parliament, where at least two parties (or at worst, more than three!) are required to form a majority government. It will be hellish for the MPs, but more importantly it means our electorate will be fractured beyond all recognition. The task then will be for parties, activists and voters to learn how to adapt to the new political reality – and not least to divine if this is a short term tremor, or a long term shift. In either event, in the chaos there is an opportunity to shape the future of British politics, and that shape will be determined by those who show up – whether for good or for ill.

In scenario two, the Conservatives win a majority, or close enough to a majority to safely govern for the foreseeable future. First of all, there is no way Labour can win a majority – the SNP are doing too well in Scotland, and the Conservatives too well in England. The best Ed Miliband can hope for is to reach a deal with the Lib Dems. Secondly – even if I wake up on Friday to find (to my intense relief) Britain has stayed with the Cameron government, the battle is not won. This election campaign has been fraught, grisly, and notable for the failure of not just the parties, but even the pundits and the voters to reach beyond their core support. There is a huge opportunity for any party and politician brave enough not simply to rise above the demonisation that has arisen in political life, but to stand up to it. I touched on this theme a few months ago – that basic respect has left public life. There is a gap in British political life for someone who has the integrity to stand firmly and unashamedly for their principles, but treat their opponents respectfully.

That is why the result of tomorrow’s poll is only the beginning – the real work begins on Friday morning.

There’s no such thing as tactical voting

With commentators insisting the election is close (to which I include myself), it is inevitable that you are going to hear talk in the media about tactial voting – which can be defined in short as ‘voting for a preference other than your first preference, to attempt to bring about a more preferable outcome.’ In one of my earliest posts I explained how this comes about – in systems such as First-Past-the-Post the only thing that matters is which party finishes first, and so voters of parties with less chance of winning (historically the Liberal Democrats) ‘loaned’ their support to the most preferred of the two parties most likely to win, to try and prevent their least favourite candidate from winning.

The most obvious place that this is potentially going to take place in the 2015 election is in Scotland, where the three pro-Union parties might encourage their supporters to vote for whichever candidate is most likely to prevent the SNP from winning locally – as shown in this example. In 2010 I was asked by my friends to comment on tactical voting, partly because I was foolish enough to mention that my MPhil Thesis was on the subject of Tactical Voting, and partly because of the Tactical Situation in Oxford, where Oxford West was a Lib Dem/Tory marginal, and Oxford East was a Labour/Lib Dem marginal. On that occasion I shared the distinction I used in my research – expressive voting means you vote for your first preference, even though by voting differently you might have secured a better short-term outcome. Tactical voting means you vote for a preference that is not your first, in order to secure a better short-term outcome. I suggested then that it was up to the individual voter to decide which priority was more important.

Five years on, I am now convinced that tactical voting does not exist, except in the strictest sense of an academic measurement. The reason for that is that I think there is a single measure that applies to all political activity, and especially to teh act of voting – pragmatic voting.

I will use membership of a political party as an example. If you show me a person who agrees with 100% of their party’s political platform, you are showing me a one-person party. Politics is about building formal and informal coalitions of like minded people, who share agreement on enough important issues to band together and attempt to achieve their programme. A necessary part of that action is accepting that parts of the programme will not be 100% to your taste. It is a pragmatic consideration. And it is true for party members across the UK – not all of them will like their party leader; they will think their current policies are too right or left wing, or not right or left wing enough – but they still loyally ask their friends to vote for their party. It is not tactical, in the sense that it is the first choice of the options available to them, but it is a pragmatic choice – and not least one that carries the cost of having to defend policies and persons regardless of how your friends will perceive you.

But surely, you might say, those poor voters who want to vote Liberal Democrat or Green or UKIP are voting tactically when they instead vote Labour or Conservative? I contest that this is only true insomuch as it is used as an academic measurement. In practice, every voter does exactly the same thing – make a pragmatic choice. The Liberal Democrats are the perfect example of this – their strategy over time focused on persuading their votes to keep voting for them, forsaking the short-term outcome for a longer term outcome. And in many seats it paid off – they overtook Labour in some seats to become the main opposition to the Conservatives, or they overtook the Conservatives to become the main opposition to Labour. And from that base-camp, they became the beneficiaries when there was a swing against the incumbent, and thus able to win seats that years before seemed unwinnable.

In short – there’s no such thing as a tactical vote, because there is no such thing as a non-tactical vote. Every vote is pragmatic – from deciding whether to impact the short-term outcome or the long-term outcome; to deciding if you are voting for the best candidate, or the best party; the best party, or the best party leader; the best group of party MPs, or the best party policies … and many more variables.

I cannot advise you how to use your vote in light of that. Some of you may decide to favour the short term – perhaps because you live in Scotland and cannot risk your local MP belonging to the SNP. Some of you may favour the long term, voting for the party in third place last time around (as I am doing in fact!) so that they might challenge in future. I would simply say that every vote is a tactical and pragmatic choice – so know what you value, know how to make it more likely and make your vote count!

Do you trust the opinion polls?

Yesterday there was something of a minor earthquake in political circles when the figures were released for the latest opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft – which showed a quite incredible six point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. To date most polls had showed either a narrow Labour lead, or the two parties running neck-and-neck, so the figures were a quite literal bolt from the blue. But as Mike Smithson on Political Betting pointed out, the figures were also highly confusing, as an opinion poll by Populus showed a five point lead for Labour. They were conducted at the same time – so surely they can’t both be right, can they?

Opinion polls have taken a bit of stick over the years – not least since they predicted a Labour win in 1992 and completely missed the evidence of a fourth Conservative victory. But as Lord Ashcroft himself points out – polls are snapshots, not predictions, and they are only intended to give an indication of the general view of the public. So for those readers who don’t follow the polls, I wanted to share a few remarks to help you untangle this often heavily misused political device.

First of all, let’s clear up the Margin of Error. Politicians often bandy this about to dismiss polls that they disagree with, but it misses the point. The margin of error stresses accuracy – you only need to sample 1,000 respondents (provided the sample is balanced) to get a result that is accurate to within 3% either way – which isn’t bad at all (for those who wonder, you need a sample size more than double to reduce the accuracy to within 2%, and therefore pollsters decide it isn’t worth the expense). Taking the Ashcroft poll for example – the figures show the Tories on 34% and Labour on 28% – but it may well be both parties on 31%, or indeed the Tories on 37% and Labour on 25%. The margin of error simply means that it is not a perfectly accurate measure – but you can’t simply dismiss the figures out of hand.

Secondly, polls are snapshots of opinions. The question respondents are usually ask is “How would you vote if there were a General Election tomorrow?” – but there isn’t a general election tomorrow! If you look at historic polling (I recommend the UK Polling Report website for this – it is very user friendly!) you will observe that incumbent governments do very badly while in government but then recover as the election draws nearer. That is because voters don’t often like what governments do, but when forced to choose at the ballot box, prefer the government to the opposition!

All of these mean that the most important thing is not a specific poll but the overall trend. Politicians are very prone to take an isolated poll and shout about it from the rooftops when it suits them, and then turn around and dismiss another poll when the figures do not suit them. The truth is that polls can be useful for indicating whether a party’s message is sticking or having any impact – if their numbers are generally going up for example, even if the poll is not accurately guessing what percentage they will get in the end, the poll is demonstrating the party is becoming more popular. Based on that, the party that should have the most to worry about is Labour. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there is a swing heading back towards the government, and the Labour lead in the polls has been falling month on month. Phrased another way – their lead is nowhere near big enough for a party looking to win an election in less than five months.

A final word of warning is this – polls predict a national share of the vote, but elections are decided locally at each constituency, and do not account for variations in vote change – while the Lib Dem vote is likely to collapse from 23% to 10% (or worse) their vote isn’t necessarily going to collapse in every constituency – especially where they have sitting MPs. You should not be surprised if there are huge swings to Labour in some of their heartlands for example, but much smaller swings in the marginal seats. So we have to treat opinion polls with care, yes – but they can also be a useful barometer into just how well a party is resonating with the electorate. And at the moment, the barometer is not showing the kind of support that makes me think we will wake up to a Labour majority in May.

The Christian heritage of voting

2015 has been marked red in my diary for the last four years with one clear message: ELECTION YEAR.

With the election only 124 days away, I am opening this crucial year with a feature on one of the very first articles I read for my course on Voting Theory, which acknowledged a rather surprising contributor to development of electoral democracy – the adoption by the medieval Church of the conclave to elect a new Pope. Now, with my reformed Protestant theology I was not expecting that I would be very warm towards the article, but the explanation of how the Conclave came about was a fascinating insight into how the historic church used a form of democracy to achieve unity – while of course acknowledging that when the church was to divide in the reformation, one of the issues at stake was Papal Primacy! If one sets aside the religious aspect however, the problem faced by the medieval church was rather similar to what all modern democracies face – making a choice.

If you will forgive a brief history lesson – the Conclave was introduced in the first instance because the Church had to reconcile the fact (notionally at least) that God had appointed one person to the role of Pope, but that the Cardinals held sincerely different beliefs whom that man should be. A democratic vote was judged the means of acknowledging there was a division, and achieving a united result. In actual fact, the subsequent development of the distinct features of the Conclave vote, namely the necessity of a two-thirds majority, a secret ballot, and the Cardinals being locked away until a decision is reached, were all intended to achieve a final result that would be clear, achieved quickly, and would not be challenged afterwards.

The church may have been authoritarian in nature, and the era described many centuries previous to us, but there are some good lessons to learn from the choice by the medieval church to adopt a voting mechanism to choose their leader:

1. Division is to be expected
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united as to bicker.” There is a worrying trend in modern politics to criticise opponents for daring to have a contrarian view – which in my view is both an attack of freedom of expression, and also what Sir Humphrey would refer to in Yes Prime Minister as ‘playing the man, not the ball.’ Let’s not be disheartened that division occurs, but rather be glad that we can enjoy earnest debate, reassured that every government will be challenged and held accountable for the decisions it has taken, and embrace the opportunity each of us has to assess the personal performance of our local MPs.

2. Elections are meant to ultimately unite
The intention of the Papal Conclave was (and still is) to unite the church in support of the man elected as the Pope, regardless of whom the man might be. The General Election of May 2015 will be exactly the same – it will tell us whom the country has chosen to entrust to the task of governance for the next five years, whether they should govern alone or in some form of coalition; and potentially even whom the principal opposition should be, or with whom the largest party should form a coalition. At the moment we can only guess, but by the morning of Friday 8th May 2015 we will know.

3. The choice is ours
With that in mind, we should remember what a great privilege it is that we have the opportunity to choose who represents us in Parliament, and therefore to determine indirectly whom will form the next government. The obvious flaw of conclave was the limitation of the franchise to certain Cardinals – whereas the vast majority of us enjoy the right to vote for our MP. We’re going to be divided in our sincerely held beliefs, but we’re also going to achieve a clear outcome by the end.

I would not be so arrogant as to attribute sole success of democracy to this part of the Church’s history – but when we ask what Christians have done for us, we can certainly learn from this aspect of their history, and take to heart the lessons for today.

The Labour lead is soft

Around this time last year there was plenty for Conservatives to be gloomy about, with the opinion polls showing Labour hovering persistently in the high 30s and the Conservatives struggling to break out of the low 30s. The latest opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft shows the two parties more or less neck-and-neck on 30% and 31% – and most other polls show a similarly small Labour lead, but basically too-close-to-call. It reflects an assertion that I made last winter which is worth repeating now: The Labour lead is ‘soft.’

For the benefit of the vast majority who (very sensibly) don’t usually bother with opinion polls, a ‘soft’ number is an unreliable number that is highly likely to change. The classic example of this is in fact the polling numbers for the main opposition party during the middle period between elections – lots of voters indicate that they want to vote for the opposition because the main thing governments usually do is annoy the electorate – an astonishing example is from September 2008 when an Ipsos-Mori poll had the Conservative opposition on an amazing 52%! When you consider that the Tories ended up with 37% of the vote in May 2010, you can see that the number was not a reliable estimate but rather a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with the Labour government of that time (and, given that most other polls weren’t that high, also likely to be an outlier!)

So one year on the polls have narrowed, and the main news I am taking is this – the Labour lead was soft, and probably still is soft. Lots of voters were angry and disappointed, and probably still are – but they aren’t sure they are ready to trust Ed Miliband and Labour. The impact of this is potentially huge – using electoral calculus I did a base prediction of seats assuming that the Conservatives had 30% of the vote, Labour 31%, the Lib Dems 8% and UKIP 17%. In this model, the Conservatives would have 273 seats and Labour 324 – to all intents and purposes, a Labour government. I personally think that the polls will shift between 2 to 3 points simply because of the soft Labour lead – adjusting for a 2.5% swing from Labour to Conservative (ie. Conservatives on 32.5% and Labour on 28.5%) puts the Tories on 308 and Labour on 292. I took the model one stage further and supposed that a reasonable percentage of the UKIP vote swings back to the Tories – not impossible given that Lord Ashcroft’s findings showed that over half the UKIP vote placed the Tories second. Reducing UKIP to 10% and giving an extra 7% to the Tories put the Conservatives on 352 and Labour on 254 – a clear majority for the Conservatives.

Of course all of this is supposition – in all of this the Lib Dem vote remained stubbornly at 8% – but it may recover. Labour may in fact recover voters from the Green party – and this model did not account for the rise of the SNP in Scotland. But it does show that a soft poll lead can massively hide what is actually happening. It is also my theory that if the Tories begin picking up reluctant UKIP voters, and/or Labour begin picking up reluctant Green voters, that will accelerate a poll trend away from the smaller parties and towards the two largest parties. At the moment the polls are telling voters it is too close to call and no party is likely to win a majority – that incentivises voting for a smaller party to hold the balance of power. If either Labour or the Conservatives begin pulling away into a clear lead and there is the possibility they can form a majority government, then the smaller parties mean begin to lose support in the polls as the voters focus instead on whether they want David Cameron or Ed Miliband in Downing Street – and the lower those numbers go, the greater the likelihood more wavering voters will leave the smaller parties and vote for the big two.

It could go either way and it is still too close and too uncertain to call – but I am absolutely certain that the Labour lead remains soft, and the Conservative vote is certain to increase between now and the election.

The Constituency Effect

In a number of posts so far I have referenced tactical voting and the distorting impact of the First-Past-The-Post system we use for Westminster elections. I did not want to assume that everyone is automatically familiar with why this is the case, so I am very briefly going to touch on how votes turn into seats. If I were to compare my previous post on the likely composition of the House of Commons with the actual projected vote shares of the parties, there would be an obvious disparity – that is to say, the Greens and UKIP would only have a collective 4 seats with around 21% of the vote, while the Lib Dems with a projected 8% might end up with 32 seats! This of course is deeply ironic given the Lib Dems past history – in 1983 (as the Liberal/Social Democrat ‘Alliance’) they finished 2% behind Labour on 24% of the vote, but won a mere 21 seats to Labour’s 220! The reason is simple – they finished a strong second in lots of seats, but you don’t get seats for finishing second!

On Political Betting there is an excellent article explaining how the Lib Dem vote could collapse, but they could still remain major players post 2015. While their vote is likely to collapse everywhere, and especially where a sitting MP does not run again, they only need to poll about 35 to 40% of the vote to stand a chance of holding on, especially if UKIP or the Greens take votes off Labour and the Conservatives – they only need to finish with more votes than any other party in these core seats. It is a bizarre truth that the Lib Dems might crash to 8% of the vote overall, and in many seats finish with less than 5% of the vote – but in a crucial 30 odd seats, sneak a win with 40% of the vote. That’s the constituency effect – as ABBA would have put it: “The Winner Takes It All.”

Now it is not the purpose of this particular post to visit the long-running debate on whether our present electoral system is unfair and should be replaced by a proportional system, as is used for devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is simply to highlight that if you do vote for a particular party, it only impacts your given constituency – and even if a party is bombing nationally they still might pull out a strong local showing. I suspect this will contribute to a lot of disappointed voters based on current trends – imagine for example if UKIP and the Greens outpoll the Lib Dems, but Nick Clegg ends up choosing the next coalition partner because the Lib Dems have enough MPs to do so?

This is why my advice on making your own vote count is very simple – judge the incumbent MP. If they have done a good job, and you are happy with the party leader they would endorse as Prime Minister, vote to re-elect them. If not, then vote for the candidate who is best placed to defeat them. As I mentioned in my last post, you do not gain bonus prizes for voting for a different opposition party member. In much the same way, it doesn’t actually matter (directly – but I will revisit this!) if you decide to vote for the candidate who will finish 3rd (or 4th, or 24th) in the election. Your vote still won’t impact the final outcome, except to prevent the candidate in second from beating the winning candidate. Although you can vote expressively for a particular party I would encourage you to make your vote count – endorse your MP, or vote for the candidate most likely to hand them their P45!