Election results #5: why UKIP won 12% of the vote but only one seat

We’ve looked at why the Conservatives won, why the SNP took Scotland, why Labour failed and why the Lib Dems were wiped out. Finally, inevitably, we come to UKIP. There’s no avoiding it really.

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I’ve made no secret of my attitude to UKIP, a party so awful that I seriously considered voting Conservative to avoid the apocalyptic scenario of my own constituency, the Forest of Dean, joining Clacton as the equal most backward and reactionary place in Britain. Everything about them is calculated to appeal to the lowest part of voters: to fear, exclusion and nostalgia rather than to aspiration, inclusion and actually building something. Their relentless meanness to the poorest most vulnerable people in the nation and in the world repels me. I am ashamed to be British when I think that they polled 12.6% of the votes — that 3,881,099 people in my nation said “Yes, these are the people I want representing me”.

But here’s the thing. That is what happened. 3,881,099 people — more than one in eight of those who voted — wanted a UKIP representative. And they got one seat. Meanwhile, the Scottish Nationalists garnered only 1,454,436 votes — not much more than third as many as UKIP — but won 56 seats. In other words, the SNP won a seat for each 26,000 votes, but UKIP won a seat for each 3,800,000 votes. The SNP got 150 times as many seats per vote as UKIP did.

That can’t be right, can it?

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Now of course the Liberal Democrats — and before them, the old Liberal Party — have been banging on about proportional representation (PR) since forever. That’s because the LibDems have traditionally been the parties badly served by the present system in which we directly elect representatives, one for each constituency. In pretty much every election, the Lib Dems’ share of the seats has been much less than their share of the vote.

And the two big parties that benefit from this system — the Conservatives and Labour always get more seats than they would in proportion to votes cast — have of course resisted all attempts to change our voting system. Because why would they reform a system that works in their favour?

So: should we use proportional representation?

I really don’t know.

For one thing, it genuinely is much more complicated than our present system. (Unlike the AV system, which we rejected in 2011 largely because the big parties told us it was “too complicated” even though it’s actually an amazingly simple tweak to the present system.) True PR systems are complicated. Complicated enough that I’m not going to make a fool of myself by trying to explain them.

But, well, maybe sometimes the best solution is complicated. Lots of methods in statistics are complicated, but they give us much more reliable results than just eyeballing the data. Many politicians would like to use the “simple”, “common sense” approach to policy: to say that when country X did Y, the result was Z, so we should also do Y so we get result Z. Yet there’s a whole science of statistics that says, hang on a minute, we don’t know that Y caused Z. In making policy we defer (or we should defer) to experts who can tell us the true meanings of correlations. Maybe in forming the governments that make policy, we should similarly defer to those who understand the more complex system that gives better results?

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What I do know is that if as a country we’re going to move towards a PR system, this may be the best time to do it. We have a manifestly unrepresentative set of representatives in the House of Commons; and the very fact that it’s a better set then the one we would have had under a PR system (more compassionate SNP MPs, fewer borderline-racist UKIPpers) give us moral high-ground to work towards reforming the system in the knowledge that if we succeed, it won’t be in our interests.


And so we reach the end of this series. To summarise the five parts, my reading of the election is

  1. The Conservatives won by default, because no-one else presented a compelling vision, and it was sufficient for them to portray themselves as experienced and competent.
  2. The SNP did amazingly well because they were the only serious partly that offered a serious alternative to the austerity rhetoric of the mainstream.
  3. Labour lost because they didn’t present themselves as meaningfully different to the Conservatives, merely a less experienced and competent version of the same thing.
  4. The Lib Dems were wiped out because instead of talking about what they are for, they just said “at least we’re not those guys”.
  5. UKIP won only a single seat, despite getting three times as many votes as the SNP, because our electoral system is not proportional (but it serves them right because they’re scumbags).

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Does that seem about right?

11 responses to “Election results #5: why UKIP won 12% of the vote but only one seat

  1. Pingback: Election results #4: why were the Liberal Democrats wiped out? | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. Andrew Hickey

    STV, the PR system supported by the Lib Dems (and the only one I would support at all), is no more complicated from the voters’ point of view than AV, and little more complicated when counting. Essentially, it’s just AV except taking the top N results (where N is probably about four) in larger constituencies. See http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/single-transferable-vote for an explanation of it, and my own http://andrewhickey.info/2014/10/21/we-need-stv-not-pr/ .
    I’d also argue that we don’t necessarily have a better Parliament than one under a PR system. Yes, we have more SNP MPs than we would have — though not as many more as you might think, because no usable system completely eliminates geographical variation, and under STV they’d probably still have about thirty MPs — and fewer Kippers, but we also have far more Tories and Labour than we would have, far fewer Lib Dems and Greens, and (I think) fewer Plaid.
    And that’s assuming people would have voted the same way under a different system. As you’ve said yourself, the current system requires voters to lie about what they really want. STV wouldn’t.

  3. Thanks, Andrew, that’s very helpful. I’ll go and read the links when I have time, but for now, I have to go and see Paul McCartney … I’m sure you’ll understand :-)

  4. Andrew Hickey

    I do. Going to see him myself on Thursday. Hope the show today is as good for you as the shows I saw in 2001 and 2011 were.

  5. Australia where I grew up uses a mix of STV and AV, if I understand what those terms mean in the UK context. The lower house seats use a preferential system where you rank your local candidates and one is elected per electorate. The upper house electorates (each state) elect 12 seats, though typically only 6 per election (I think). It seems to work pretty well at delivering the awful governments we deserve, but the balance of power is often held by third or 4th parties, and even independents.

    Now I live in the US where electoral boundaries are drawn by politicians and everything (almost) is first-past-the-post. The result is that virtually every state and federal election is safe so the vast sums of money that are raised are ploughed into only a few actual competitive campaigns, and most of the population don’t get a look-in.

  6. Takes a scumbag to know a scumbag! I’m not in favour of UKIP or its unreal policies; however I take it that you think it’s alright to lower yourself to childish name calling when you don’t agree with someone. Grow up and make a cogent argument to support your opinion; don’t just state facts that any of us could find and call it your research. PR is long overdue, notwithstanding the low 66.1% turnout, as many of the voting public don’t think their vote will ever count! Over 15.7 million didn’t vote – if they were UKIP supporters, Nigel Farage would have been Prime Minister with around 7.2 million more votes than the Tories. To that end, please stop calling the voters of this country ‘Scumbags’!

  7. (Ian, sorry that it took my a few days to pass your comment through moderation — I was away over the weekend, and on an Internet fast.)

  8. “Over 15.7 million didn’t vote – if they were UKIP supporters, Nigel Farage would have been Prime Minister with around 7.2 million more votes than the Tories.”

    And if they were Lib Dems then Nick Clegg would have been Prime Minister with six million more votes than the Tories. And if they were Pirate Party supporters then my friend Loz would be Prime Minister, with four million more votes than the Tories. So that doesn’t really prove anything about UKIP, especially as there’s no more reason to think that non-voters support UKIP than any other parties…

  9. Andrew, I take your point; however I was just using UKIP as an example! I think it is the lack of reasonable PR that is making voters feel almost disenfranchised and not bothering to vote. Let’s give people a worthwhile voting system where their vote can count.
    Let’s look at another possibility – 2 round vote! i.e. negative selection – Vote for the MP(s) (in the recent labour leadership style) that you DON’T want representing you; therefore at the end of the first round, whichever MP reaches 50% of the vote is removed! For example if 51% didn’t want a Tory MP (Who could win with a lower majority in the current paradigm) then that MP is removed from the next round. Then the voters can vote for whoever is left. This removes the current farce that a region can have 60% of voters not wanting another Tory MP, can vote to have a different party. It wouldn’t take long to set up, but would the Tories or Labour sign up to that? BTW – I am not anti Tory or Labour – I just want to see a fair system where the parties can put forward their manifestos (At least 3 months before polling day – gives the public a chance to read, discuss, think and decide their best choice) and then using the negative selection method give all of us a better chance of our vote counting!
    Thanks for reading my mini rant, but believe me I am open to any and all other fair suggestions…

  10. Well, Ian, I am not at all sure that your proposed two-round system would work well; but I think you, Andrew and I can all agree that we desperately need something better than the stupidly-named FPTP system — both in the interests of essential fairness and to re-energise the missing voters.

  11. You can’t prepare for the future with constant rapid change and a open border to the whole of Europe. This isn’t a game.It’s not racist to vote to control immigration (not stop it),redraw from forign affairs,trade with the commonwealth,invest more into the NHS and bring back gramma schools.

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