Why the Liberal Democrats must be giving thanks for First Past the Post

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April 12, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

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At one stage, during the mass leaders’ debate last week, Nick Clegg turned and demanded an apology from Ed Miliband for the amount of debt that Labour left the country in when they left office in 2010. Earlier in the debate, Clegg had torn into David Cameron, lambasting his Coalition partner for the severity of the cuts the Conservatives had forced on the country and were planning to force in the future. In the media room, Ryan Coetzee punched the air in delight.

Coetzee is the Liberal Democrat party Director of Strategy. A combative South African, he is leading one of the most finely targeted campaigns in election history. Out of necessity. In 2012 the Lib Dems spent a reported seven figure sum on ‘Connect’, a database software from the USA that helps a political party target not just the people that they think might vote for them, but also to understand which messages are getting through to those voters and which might make them vote. Coetzee punched the air because the messages delivered in the Leaders Debate by Clegg were what he had found those thinking of voting Lib Dem in marginal constituencies wanted, or needed to hear in order to be more likely to vote. The message is that the Lib Dems will cut less than the Tories and spend less than Labour, therefore delivering a #strongeconomy #fairsociety (Clegg’s hashtags).

It is a further example of the very much under the radar election campaign the Lib Dems are undertaking. Clegg was widely considered to have ‘lost’ that debate. The Lib Dems are consistently polling at 6% in national polls, which, on a uniform swing, means they could have fewer than five seats. You would have thought the party would be falling apart. But Coetzee knows, and some political commentators can see, that if you understand how First Past the Post works, it is quite possible for them to get 6% of the vote and still get about 40 seats, making them serious contenders for a coalition.

The Liberal Democrats are working on the constituencies they hold, and, apparently, only on the constituencies they hold. There are 57 of them, and historically Lib Dems make very good MPs. So, when constituents are given the name of their Lib Dem MP they tend to answer the question of whom they will vote for differently. Having also worked out where the Lib Dems message of equidistance between the two mainstream parties is hitting home, they are targeting their resources, both human and financial, only at those constituencies where they have a chance of winning. This is why they are allegedly abandoning some of the constituencies they currently hold. This may include that of Danny Alexander, the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is currently expected to lose his seat to the SNP by a mile.

What is most ironic about this strategy is that it relies completely on the workings of an election system the Lib Dems have committed their last 100 years to abolishing. In 1974 Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe refused to join a Conservative coalition with Edward Heath despite being offered the position of Home Secretary because Heath wouldn’t offer electoral reform. In 1983 the Alliance (a combination of SDP and Liberal Party) achieved 25% of the vote and a paltry 3% of the seats. In 2010, despite ‘Cleggmania’, they got 23% of the vote and only 9% of the seats. In this election they may well get a higher percentage of seats than votes for the first time in generations. 6% of the vote adds up to about 2 million votes. In a marginal seat it takes about 20,000 votes to win. 40 multiplied by 20,000 is 800,000 votes. So a highly targeted campaign in which they win small and lose big in their seats is the perfect gaming of the election system.

I wonder what the Lib a Dems will think of electoral reform if it works?!

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3 thoughts on “Why the Liberal Democrats must be giving thanks for First Past the Post

  1. stephenjohnson2013 says:

    I think you will find most Liberal party members are opposed to FPTP on principle.

    Even if Lib Dems get 40 seats (6% of seats) and 6% of the vote, (they won’t – they may get 25 seats – 4% of seats – with 10 – 13% of the vote), the Conservative and Labour Parties would still be gaining a greater advantage from FPTP. They are likely to get around 280 seats each = 43% of the seats, with 33% of the vote.

    UKIP may get 10% of the vote and one or two seats. The SNP may get 40 – 50 seats (say 7% of seats) with 3% of the vote. That makes a nonsense of our democracy and will make a significant difference to the result of the election.

    FPTP is a mad, bad, and possibly dangerous system, at least to our democracy. Whichever party you support, it’s not about who wins the next election. It’s a bad system. We should change it.

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    • Thanks. You mix overestimation of the Lib Dem popular vote with underestimation of Lib Dem seats at the next election. But you also ought to know that I am for electoral reform. FPTP is out of place in the far more engaged, multi-party democracy that we are and I would have implemented the Jenkins Report if I had a chance (and I wasn’t a newly elected a labour government with a 179 seat majority under FPTP!). The Lib Dems have plenty of offer in a coalition, but it’s place in it will, I fear, depend entirely on FPTP working in their favour. As for SNP…I think we have to accept that a party that can win a majority under AMS is going to be all conquering under FPTP!

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  2. stephenjohnson2013 says:

    The forthcoming election may well demonstrate even more clearly and to a wider political audience that FPTP is no longer a suitable electoral system. However it is a big step to get the proponents of PR to agree which system should replace FPTP.

    Each system has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantages of FPTP – quick and simple voting and counting, together with the local nature of the single member constituency representation – give it staying power.

    By contrast the complexity of STV voting and counting, and the larger multimember constituencies make it something of a ‘marmite’ system. I agree with Jenkins’ comments on STV.

    AMS/MMP combines relatively simple voting and counting but also has its drawbacks – MPs elected by different routes, some by FPTP with constituency responsibilities, some as list MPs without a constituency, and the power that the party holds in being able to appoint the list MPs. This system requires all the constituency sizes to be increased, and boundaries redrawn.

    Criticisms of the Jenkins AV top up system (courtesy of wikipedia) are

    From FPTP supporters:
    1 It is more complex than FPTP for voters
    2 It is likely to lead to coalition government

    3 It will lead to “two types of MP”, as a majority would be linked directly to a constituency with a minority with a larger area overlapping the first group.
    4 It weakens the psychological link between voters and their representatives

    From AV and STV (Single Transferable Vote) supporters:
    5 It is not proportional enough
    6 It is too likely to lead to one-party government
    7 It will lead to “two types of MP”
    8 The constituencies will still not be able to respect “natural boundaries” (although the top-up regions will)
    9 It will not eliminate “safe seats”
    10 The top-up vote aspect is too complex and either a simple AV system would be better or STV/AMS.

    I promote a Party Proportional system called DPR Voting. (www.dprvoting.org) The advantage is that it uses the same single member constituency system as FPTP, so the number of constituency MPs stays the same and much of the electoral process doesn’t have to change. This would make it simpler to introduce. It also does not use List MPs thus removing one of the drawbacks associated with AMS.

    As compared with Jenkins’ AV+ it deals with many of the arguments from both sides. Nos 3,4,5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 do not apply.
    One aspect of the system of particular interest is the shift of party power away from the whips towards the individual and the constituency electorate which, to my mind, could be very beneficial.

    I am interested in your comments.

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