I like Simon Wright, the recently elected Member of Parliament for Norwich South. I met him at a training event at Lib Dem conference a couple of years ago and he seemed like a nice chap. Understated but passionate. There were a few other candidates in the room on that day who could have gone on to become MPs but he is the only one who made it.
However Simon has a particular distinction within the House of Commons. He was elected with the smallest proportion of the vote of any MP. He got just 29.4% of the vote in his seat. So he was elected when less than a third of the people who voted actually chose him.
Why did this happen? Well Norwich South is a marginal seat. But it is not just marginal between the Lib Dems and the second placed Labour party who got 28.7 of the vote (and just missed out on retaining the seat for former minister Charles Clarke). The Conservatives are also quite well placed having got 22.9% of the vote. And on top of that the Greens did unusually well (for them) in the seat too gaining 14.9% of the vote.
So it is a 3-way (perhaps factoring in the Greens a 3.5-way) marginal seat. That is why Simon managed to get elected on less than a third of the votes.
But to my mind, the fact that under First Past the Post candidates can be elected with such a small share of the vote in a one member constituency makes a mockery of the claims that the electoral system is fair. For all we know, the 70.6% of people who did not vote for Simon would have preferred one of the other candidates. But because their votes were largely split amongst several other candidates the barrier Simon had to vault was lower than all other MPs elected last May.
Having had a look at the full list of results (available here via Pippa Norris – an excellent resource by the way) I have spotted something else rather interesting. There are nearly 300 other people who have a right to be irked about Simon’s win.
There are 295 candidates from last May who got a greater share of the vote than Simon and yet still lost. Because the seats in which they happened to be fighting did not have the same sort of dynamics, in many cases they were two horses races the barrier that they had to vault was much higher than in Norwich South.
The most stark example of this is in Mid Dorset and North Poole. Here, Lib Dem Annette Brooke just held off a challenge from Conservative candidate Nick King. Annette won with 45.1% of the vote and Nick came second with. Wait for it. 44.5% of the vote. That’s right. He got more than 50% more of the vote share than Simon Wright in Norwich South and yet he still lost.
I think what this tells us is that running to be an MP is as much a lottery of what seat you happen to be running in and the local dynamics and relative strengths of the other parties as it is about any sense of fairness or picking a candidate who has the broad support of the voters.
A change to AV would address this problem. It would mean that winning candidates had to get 50% of all transferable votes. It makes the barrier that has to be vaulted the same for all candidates.
Of course under AV, perhaps Simon would not have become an MP. Maybe Charles Clarke or the Conservative candidate Antony Little would have got more transfers and hence won the seat. In the case of Annette Brooke it is easily possible that she would not have won her seat in Dorset either. Her majority is only 269 and over 2,000 people voted for UKIP. I suspect the vast majority of UKIP voters would have preferred a Tory MP to a Lib Dem.
But regardless of whether it might have meant that some Lib Dems who just scraped in last May under FPTP would have lost, that is immaterial to me. I am in favour of AV not for party political reasons but because of fairness. It would end the bizarre situation where a candidate in a single member constituency can be elected on less than a third of the vote.
That surely has to be a good thing for our democracy.
NOTE: The data only covers seats in the mainland UK so the 18 Northern Ireland seats are not included in this analysis.