Opinion: How 295 losers could have been winners

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.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Nicholas Lane 20th Mar '11 - 4:30pm

    A good article. As to the major benefits of AV one can also add:

    – an end to negative tactical voting.
    – obtaining a true reflection of the support for all parties on first preference votes throughout the UK.
    – the enfranchising of millions of voters who have felt disenfranchised for many years in constituencies where their vote has made little difference.

    But the princpal benefit of AV is as described by Mark Thompson – AV is a preferential voting system and the winning candidate will be the preferred choice of every person in the constituency who votes. In summary, I am of the opinion that AV is a much more inclusive and superior system to FPTP.

    Unfortunately there is a severe deficit of political leadership over this referendum. I fear that owing to Nick Clegg’s inability to lead from the front and bring momentum to the ‘Yes’ campaign (if he tried, I fear he would only ensure the ‘No’ side won) and Ed Miliband’s half-heartedness over the whole issue (he has to try and unite the progressive and conservative wings of the Labour Party, and campaigning vigorously for AV would hinder this) there are no heavyweight political figures spearheading the campaign that the public identify with.

    The ‘No’ campaign are doing what opponents of change often do: using scare tactics combined with extolling the (very dubious) virtues of the status quo. At the moment I fear that this will be enough to carry them over the line and if the ‘No’ campaign does win it will be deeply regrettable that the ‘Yes’ campaign were unable to enthuse the public and bring some political leadership to this important issue as the issue of electoral reform will have been not so much kicked into the long grass as kicked into an overgrown meadow.

    This problem, of course, leads on to a more serious one for the Lib Dems – how can they advocate a clear message and win support around the country when Nick Clegg is, and will most probably remain, one of the most unpopular political figures in the country?

    Nicholas Lane

  • david clayton 20th Mar '11 - 4:45pm

    @Nicholas Lane I love the comedy use of the terms progressive and conservative. The former being more like the LibDems and the latter meaning less like. AV is not a perfect system you will still get tactical voting – particularly over the issue of which candidate to put first as this may well be your vote that really counts in the end. No system is perfect and AV will be more likely to produce coalitions. In the interest of Lib Dems in the past, when they were likely to be the kingmakers, after the last incredible year i suspect that whatever the electoral system Lib Dems will take a right kicking.

    As to teh article itself you need to recognise that as the House of Commons stands we have representation for particular geographical areas and balancing votes across the country or even regions would bring an end to this. I would like to see some form of PR, ideally STV for the Lords and stick with FPTP in the Commons as it does provide constituency Representation and generally gives a clear winner.

    However if we do change to a system that produces coalitions i feel Parties should be duty bound to announce clearly before any election who they would make alliances with and what policies they may adopt. All your talk of voting ignores the fact that very few people voted for the policies now enacted by the Conservative led government. This change of policy pre and post election is much more damaging to democracy than the unfairnesses generated by FPTP.

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Mar '11 - 5:10pm

    @Nicholas Lane
    “The winning candidate will be the preferred choice of every person in the constituency who votes”. That’s impossible under any voting system except, perhaps, in a one-party state.

    Mark’s piece illustrates the nonsense of FPTP but doesn’t convince me that AV is better. If AV had delivered a Conservative victory in Mid Dorset and North Poole it would have been due to the second preferences of the 4.5% who voted UKIP plus a small proportion of the 5.9% who voted Labour. How would that have been that fair to the 45.1% whose first preference was for the Lib Dem candidate?

  • @ Old Codger Chris

    “How would that have been that fair to the 45.1% whose first preference was for the Lib Dem candidate?”

    You are apparently ignoring the other 54.9%. How fair is Annette Brooke’s victory to them?

    What about my constituency, Hampstead & Kilburn, where our Lib Dem candidate Ed Fordham finished third – with 31.2% of the vote! The winner, Glenda Jackson, only got 32.8% of the vote, while second placed Tory, Chris Philp, got 32.7% – a majority of 42 votes.

    Just think of that: we were within 42 votes of having a Tory MP who had been rejected by two thirds of the electorate. As it is, we have a Labour MP, also rejected by two thirds of the electorate, who doesn’t even live in the constituency and should have been booted out ages ago.

    FPTP, when looked at under the same lens as is being trained on AV, is a total and utter absurdity and needs to go.

  • Nicholas Lane 20th Mar '11 - 5:44pm

    @Old Codger Chris

    “The winning candidate will be the preferred choice of every person in the constituency who votes”. “That’s impossible under any voting system except, perhaps, in a one-party state.”

    Why do you say this is impossible? That is the precise result that AV will produce. The winning candidate will have secured the preference of the majority of voters in a constituency, either by securing over 50% of first preferences or by securing over 50% of overall preferences over any other candidate when all ballot papers have been considered and re-allocated.

    In the Mid Dorset and North Poole example, if most of those who voted Labour and UKIP preferred the Tory over Annette Brooke and under an AV election the Tory received over 50% when every voters’ preferences had been re-allocated, surely a fairer result would have been the election of the Tory?

    Nicholas Lane

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Mar '11 - 5:44pm

    You’re quite right to point out that Annette Brooke’s victory is unfair to the 54.9% who voted for other candidates. I just think that electing the candidate with a plurality of the vote – however unfair – is slightly less skewed than relying on the second preferences of even fewer voters.

    We’re unlikely to agree to on this, but Hampstead & Kilburn illustrates even more graphically that no system based solely on single member constituencies is fit for purpose – except perhaps in a small community devoid of political parties.

    If I can be half facetious, half serious, for a moment, it was a sad day when Glenda Jackson was elected to Parliament. She was one of our best actresses. What is she now?

  • I believe that the record low percentage vote for a winning candidate at a general election was in 1992 in Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, where Russell Johnston secured victory with 26% of the vote in a 4 way marginal over Labour, SNP and Conservative.

  • Old Codger Chris 20th Mar '11 - 6:00pm

    @Nicholas Lane
    A majority is not the same as every person.

    There are two issues here. One is that the 50% plus one vote required under AV is only achieved by giving equal weight to second preferences (and perhaps also to a few third preferences) on the doubtful premise that these are of equal value to first preferences.

    The second point is that not “all ballot papers (are) considered and reallocated”. Only a relatively small number of ballot papers – those showing a first preference for the least succesful candidate(s) – are afforded this treatment.

  • Anyone thought it might be possible to count AV differently? e.g. Count all first preferences and if no-one reaches quota, count all second preferences and add those to first preferences to see if they reach quota? Then, if necessary, all third preferences.

    Probably wouldn’t be workable, but at least this would get round this objection of some votes being supposedly worth more than others.
    @ Old Codger Chris
    By the way, if all votes are supposedly worth the same as any other under FPTP, how come Lord Ashcroft spent millions targeting a few key voters in individual constituencies? Sounds like they are worth more than other voters to me? What about all those safe seats, where voters are taken for granted? How much are their votes worth, compared to a marginal?

    I have to say, the more you think about this “unequal votes” ruse by the No campaign, the less it stands up to scrutiny.

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Mar '11 - 6:48pm

    Nicholas: “As to the major benefits of AV one can also add:- an end to negative tactical voting.”

    I disagree, I think negative tactical voting will rise exponentially under AV. If a voter particularly dislikes a certain party, then under FPTP he has to make a choice as to whether to vote tactically or not. Under AV no such choice is necessary – any voter with any sense will vote for as many parties as they can possibly stomach (maybe even some they CAN’T stomach) in a negative tactical way, while still voting for their truly favoured party as well. You will end up with millions of these tactical votes in every election.

    What this referendum comes down to is: should second preferences carry the same weight as first preferences? I think not, and I’ve just given one reason why. There are other reasons. Polls show that second preferences are highly volatile in a way that first preferences simply are not. How much more true that must be for third or fourth preferences. Not all second preferences will be taken into account – as Chris pointed out, the more unpopular your FIRST choice is, the more likely it is that your second preference will come in to play. And as those historians pointed out, if we include second preferences then we are creating multiple classes of voter. Those who have multiple preferences will have more powerful votes than those who have none; and even among those who do have second preferences, some will get considered, some will not.

    So including second preferences destroys the “one man one vote” principle and, for the other reasons I have mentioned, makes the result potentially LESS representative of the true will of the electorate, rather than more.

    Really, the Yes campaign have got way too carried away with this. This referendum isn’t about conservatism vs reform, and it certainly isn’t about FPTP vs PR. It’s about non-preferential FPTP vs preferential FPTP, no more, no less. The result won’t change very much – the whole thing is a tragic missed opportunity which has wrecked any hope of genuine reform in our lifetimes. Clegg had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.

    If the vote is Yes, Lib Dems will no doubt party long into the night. Then, at some point days or months hence, those who genuinely care about electoral reform will wake up one day and think: “Oh God, what have we done?” (If the vote is No then that will happen on the morning of May 6th.)

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Mar '11 - 6:51pm

    RC: And what would you do about the fact that some people would have NO second preference?

    Would you still reallocate the second preferences fo those who have them?

    So long as some people have more preferences than others, AV will always result in some votes being wirth more than others.

  • @Nicholas Lane
    “It will be deeply regrettable that the ‘Yes’ campaign were unable to enthuse the public and bring some political leadership to this important issue.”
    I agree that the issue of electoral reform will indeed be kicked into “an overgrown meadow” as this writer goes on to conclude, but I wonder if any of those who are trying to run the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign realise just how unique are the circumstances that have allowed for this referendum in the first place. Perhaps they would even like to let their followers know if they’ve got anything more to offer them during the last month of campaigning.

    They seem content that a grassroots army of local supporters should do all the donkey work :organising sparsely attended meetings, making endless telephone calls using a rigid, narrow script and standing on street corners; whilst giving virtually no direction as to how these enthusiastic but often rather politically naive supporters should react when encountering people who actually disagree with them!
    What is their plan of action, apart from sending regurgitated emails, when the really big hitters in the media weigh in on the ‘No’ side, other than to complain that the other side’s tactics are so unfair? By the time it gets to polling day the ‘Don’t Knows’ and the ‘Don’t Cares’ will still be none the wiser and they’ll tip it for a NO vote unless a really strong, resonant line can be found to convince them otherwise.

  • Patrick Smith 20th Mar '11 - 8:14pm

    The AV `Fair Votes’ referendum is a cri de coeur on behalf of all those who believe that each person who seeks to be an MP in House of Commons Elections should work a lot harder to secure at least 50% of the total popular vote and public mandate.

    The fact that Simon Wright MP Norwich South was the solitary out of 295 candidates in the last General Election who secured 29.5% and elected that makes it a `no-brainer’ that we must strive to communicate a simple message to the voters that things have to change on May 5th in favour of `Fairer Votes’.

    That Labour`s leader Ed Milliband would not have been elected without AV,that Tories and L/D Parties and Greens as well all elected their respective leaders via AV and bodes only hypocrisy, if all our main Leaders do not support change on May 5th.

    AV will give each voter a democratic vote for their preferred first and least choice as MP and equal constituencies will help to make `Fairer Votes’ a reality on May 5th. and drive a carriage a and horses through the `corrupt’ FPTP that has maintained a status quo that has re-elected into `Safe Seats’ 75% of Members who were caught out with sticky fingers in the `MP Expenses’ scandal.

    Do we want our MPs to work harded for their Seats in future or to continue with an electoral anachronism that was a product of the Victorain narrow view of post 1872 Parliaments that has not prevented the `Safe Seats’ `moat house’ liberty taking with the tax payers.

    It is time to clean up British politics on May 5th.

  • @ Stuart Mitchell

    “RC: And what would you do about the fact that some people would have NO second preference?”

    It would incentivise voters to work within the system. If you put a full run of preferences, then you fulfil the potential of your preferential vote. If you decline to do that, well that is your choice, but you are choosing not to make the most of your vote. It would be up to you.

  • Patrick Smith perfectly illustrates my point with his “cri de choeur” of aims and objectives but no strategy to win the AV referendum for the ‘Yes’ campaign.
    He may or may not be aware that the proposed reduction in the number of constituencies will still go ahead, regardless of whether or not the “corrupt FPTP” is retained. Yes, the cards are stacked one way.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '11 - 9:28am

    RC: “It would incentivise voters to work within the system. If you put a full run of preferences, then you fulfil the potential of your preferential vote.”

    Voting fo multiple parties for the sake of it – so your vote has the same potential as others? This is one of the reasons why I dislike preferential voting and will be voting No. Millions of preferences voted for will be meaningless, rendering the election a farce.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '11 - 9:35am

    Patrick: “The AV `Fair Votes’ referendum is a cri de coeur on behalf of all those who believe that each person who seeks to be an MP in House of Commons Elections should work a lot harder to secure at least 50% of the total popular vote”

    Well AV is no more able to guarantee a 50% share than FPTP is. I don’t even see why such a thing would be desirable in a pluralist system. If no canddiate can command the support of 50% of the people then that’s just the way it is – trying to contrive that level of “support” through a complex and meaningless electoral system is pointless.

    “That Labour`s leader Ed Milliband would not have been elected without AV,that Tories and L/D Parties and Greens as well all elected their respective leaders via AV and bodes only hypocrisy, if all our main Leaders do not support change on May 5th.”

    A single-winner leadrership election is completely different in principle from a multi-member Parliamentary-style election. It’s perfectly reasonable to support AV for the former but not the latter (this is actually the position of those people from the ERS who are running the Yes campaign!!)

  • @ Stuart Mitchell

    “Millions of preferences voted for will be meaningless, rendering the election a farce.”

    When all else fails, try argument by assertion, not logic, eh? YOUR preferences may be meaningless, but I’m sure the majority of people in this country could steal themselves to vote for other parties than their first choice.

    How meaningful was my vote, along with the remaining two thirds of the voters in my constituency, when we ended up with Glenda Jackson, an MP wanted by just 32.8% of the population?

    Arguments for keeping FPTP remain half-baked at best.

  • @RC – I live in a constituency ( Mid-Sussex ) where the Tory incumbent received over 50% of the vote. Breakdown as follows:

    Conservative Nicholas Soames 28,329 50.7
    Liberal Democrat Serena Tierney 20,927 37.5
    Labour David Boot 3,689 6.6
    UKIP Marc Montgomery 1,423 2.5
    Green Paul Brown 645 1.2
    BNP Stuart Minihane 583 1.0
    Monster Raving Loony Baron von Thunderclap 259 0.5

    Do you honestly think A/V will make any difference to me?

    I’m now left with voting Labour who are in a weak 3rd place, as I can’t in all good conscience vote Lib-Dem again which leaves me with no secondary preferences that I would want to give a vote too.

    In other words a wasted vote as far as I’m concerned

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Mar '11 - 4:41pm

    R C: Just because you voted for a losing candidate, that doesn’t mean your vote was meaningless.

    Yes, in your constituency 67.19% did not vote for the winner. But even more people didn’t vote for any of the other candidates, so it’s by no means obvious that a different result would have been fairer.

    The Hampstead and Kilburn result gives a perfect illustration of another reason why I dislike preferential voting. Sorry, but this one will take a bit of explaining :-

    If we had used AV in May 2010, and if second preferences had been distributed according to the YouGov poll of 4-5 May, then Glenda Jackson very likely still would have won.

    However, if the election had been re-run seven weeks later, with each candidate getting the same number of first preferences, but with second preferences now distributed according to the YouGov poll of 27-28 June, then it’s very likely the Tory candidate would have won.

    I’ve pointed out before that second preferences are extremely volatile; and one of the reasons for this volatility is that a large proportion of the electorate change their second preferences according to the relationships between the various parties. The two YouGov polls I referred to show this very starkly. For example, I as a Labour voter would be very well inclined to give my second preference to the Lib Dems if I thought there was a good chance of a Labour-LD coalition. If however I thought that a vote for the Lib Dems would simply prop up the existing Tory-led coalition, I would be far less likely to put my 2 next to the Lib Dem candidate.

    You see the problem here? The evidence shows that second preferences depend on a very large degree to relationships between parties, and – here’s the real crux of it – voters may have NO IDEA what those relationships are likely to be at the time they cast their vote. Second preference votes therefore become a gamble; and I don’t think elections should be about gambling.

    I realise that this problem also exists to an extent with FPTP, and even PR (witness those Lib Dem voters who regretted it after the election), but AV seems to me to amplify the problem way beyond its effect in other systems, due to the volatile nature of those second preferences.

  • Daniel Henry 21st Mar '11 - 4:52pm

    Remember in the last election when the Lib Dem leaflet featured those wonderful bar charts pointing out how Labour had no chance here and how only the Lib Dems could kick that Tory out? No doubt that Labour’s vote was squeezed, many left wing voters tactically voting for the Lib Dems as their best bet at kicking out the Tories.
    Under AV, such “squeezing” tactics wouldn’t work, giving Labour a fighting chance of building support and breaking through in that constituency.

    But you’re right – if the majority of the voters in a constituency are right wing, AV will give a right wing result. But atleast it will allow more choice as to WHICH right wing candidate you get in your constituency – I think you’ll agree that some are preferable to others!

  • Daniel Henry 21st Mar '11 - 4:57pm

    @ Stuart
    You could make the same argument against any kind of vote. The issue you bring up is a lack of information about how a party will act after the election and how that affects your informed choice. Some voters wouldn’t have voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 if they’d forseen the coalition, some voters wouldn’t have voted Labour in 2001 if they’d forseen the war in Iraq. Your argument could apply to ANY vote.

    When it comes to voting under AV, if you have a preference then you can put them, and if you don’t have any second preferences then you can just “plumb” for Labour. It’ll be entirely your choice.

  • @Nicholas Lane
    As to the major benefits of AV one can also add:
    – an end to negative tactical voting.

    Not a chance…. what will happen is that all parties will construct wish lists of candidates and preferences that they want to see in the voting pattern and advertise those intentions out to their supporters – you will see much more negative campaigning and tactical against candidates in order to minimise their chances of their preference votes counting.

  • Old Codger Chris 21st Mar '11 - 6:03pm

    I’m on the side of those who don’t think much of preferential voting. There are good PR systems which don’t allow second etc preferences but allocate seats on a proportional basis (or, prefereably, semi-proportional – proportionality can be carried too far).

    I might be persuaded to accept that there is some merit in second preferences. But once you get down to third preferences it’s donkey voting.

    All systems in which all MPs represent single member constituencies are hopelessly unproportional. It’s a matter of opinion whether AV is better or worse than FPTP – I think it’s worse, but both systems are rubbish.

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