If UKIP learn how to play the FPTP election system properly it could make 20 seats’ difference

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November 26, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

Whilst he was lauding UKIP’s victories in the Clacton and Rochester & Strood by-elections, I couldn’t help noticing a not very much reported comment Nigel Farage made. He was talking about UKIP’s first two MPs and noted that they would have had a third had they realised just how close Heywood and Middleton was. For a party that, you have to say, have played a political blinder in this past year, it can be seen as a real oversight. To understand why, you have to understand the vagaries of our election system (how votes are translated into seats).

A few weeks ago, our school had a visit from Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. She was explaining the situation in politics at the moment, and in particular the possibility that Labour could win the election on seats with a lower percentage of the popular vote than the Conservatives. She used an excellent way of showing how First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) works by saying that the way to succeed with it as an election system was to “win small and lose big”.

It is certainly true that under FPTP, which is a ‘plurality’ system – meaning you win your seat purely by having the most number of votes in a constituency, without needing to win 50% of the vote, a win by one vote means the same as a win by 10,000. It is also true that a loss by one vote means the same as a loss by 10,000. The result of this though is that you need to have your votes very geographically concentrated. It means you must not waste your resources where you can’t win and also where you can’t lose. It is why a General election campaign will be hard to run for UKIP – because they have to work out which is which among 650 seats.

This is why taking their eye off the ball in Heywood and Middleton was such a tactical error. They weren’t the only ones, because most polls had Labour winning by a large margin. But that seemed to discount the possibility of quiet tactical voting – which is where the Lib Dem and Tory voters were prepared to vote UKIP to get Labour out. Farage and other senior UKIP politicians were putting their all into Clacton, so desperate were they to get that first win, that they didn’t accept that that win was inevitable. They had a popular incumbent MP up against no-one in particular in the most UKIP-friendly constituency. No wonder Douglas Carswell won by 12,404 votes.

If Farage had knocked on about six hundred and seventeen more doors in Heywood and Middleton, UKIP might have won there.

617. It looks even smaller when in figures. That’s all Labour won by. That was the distance UKIP were from getting a “homegrown” (not an incumbent defector) into Parliament. If they had really thought about it, and it would have been obvious had they spent more time up there – UKIP would have three MPs by now, and Ed Miliband might possibly no longer be Labour leader.

In 2015, UKIP need to have an operation professionalized enough to know where they are scheduled to win big, and lose big, and leave them well alone. They need to find those places where margins of victory are small and target them as closely as possible. This could be the difference between them winning two seats next year, and twenty-two – it really could be that much of a difference.

I am still concerned about the impact of an election system that could mean the Lib Dems getting over 30 seats with less than 10% of the popular vote and UKIP getting possibly one seat with near 20% of the vote. But that’s an argument to have another time. Right now, the election system is what it is, and UKIP need to understand it, and play its’ rules properly.

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