Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

How First Past the Post could save the Lib Dems in 2015

We Lib Dems really dislike First Past the Post.

A post, yesterday

In fact I'd even go so far as to say that we hate it.

We hate the distorting effect it has on our politics. We hate the way its ossifying influence helps to keep the red/blue duopoly of our system. We hate the way it keeps smaller parties (not just ourselves but e.g. Greens and UKIP) out of power or even in some cases parliament altogether.

So I think it's fair to say we are generally not fans. And yet in 2015 the First Past the Post electoral system for Westminster could perversely be the thing that saves us. Let me explain how.

The Lib Dems got 23% of the vote in 2010 but only just over 8% of the seats (which meant 57 seats). As unfair as this is (and I regularly bang on about this as regular readers and listeners to my podcast will know) the reason is because the majority of that 23% of votes were wasted. When I say wasted I mean they were cast in seats where we didn't get an MP. In other words our vote was not very efficiently distributed given how seats are actually won.

But because of the way FPTP is structured we don't need to get 23% in order to return 57 MPs. In fact theoretically we could get way less than 23% and still hold all our existing seats. We could even get less than 8% of the vote and get 57 seats.

With 650 seats up for grabs the way to be certain of getting 57 seats is to make sure you get 50% of the vote in 57 of them. In reality you can often win seats on less (in some cases much less) than 50% but for illustrative purposes let's assume that's what we want to do. So if each seat has 1/650th of the voters we can see that the percentage of votes we theoretically need is actually

(100 x (57/650)) / 2

Or around 4.4% of the vote.

Of course this assumes an absolutely perfect distribution of our vote, i.e. getting exactly the votes we need (50% each) in the seats we are targeting and zero votes everywhere. In reality this would never happen. But what this demonstrates is that FPTP is almost infinitely elastic in the lack of correspondence between number of votes cast and number of seats.*

It doesn't take a massive leap from this to see that if the Lib Dems are very smart and target their resources with ruthless efficiency they have a reasonable chance of retaining most of their seats. When combined with the incumbency factor that many Lib Dems are expert at using to their advantage it becomes a potent scenario. The casualties of this of course would be all those candidates running in all the other non-target seats. If we follow this through to its logical conclusion then in order for this strategy to work they would get next to no or perhaps actually no help. We could see a large number of lost deposits. But I suspect the leadership would see this as a small price to pay if they get to retain a solid number of MPs.

Come 2015 I suspect the Lib Dems will get more than the 8% - 10% we are currently seeing in the polls. It will probably be into the teens perhaps around 15% in my view. But even if it isn't and it actually ends up being 10% or even lower, First Past the Post offers us plenty of scope for gaming the system to return us far more MPs than a simple "Universal Swing" analysis would suggest.

The only question really is whether the party leadership is ruthless enough to follow such a strategy and thus use the invidious and rightly despised First Past the Post system to its full advantage.

*As an aside here consider that UKIP could get 10% or even 15% of the votes and would still likely get zero seats because their vote is quite evenly distributed across the country which is an absolute killer for political parties under FPTP.


Antiochian said...

History has shown you win some, you loose some... why would one put a lot a lot of effort into Brent Central when some of the Cornish seats we lost could be retaken??

Bloke in North Dorset said...

I was trying to remember what your recent lowest seat count was, I had in mind that the Liberals were down to about 6 at some time and had to do some research and it turned out to be 1970 with 7.5% of the vote. I don't think it will be that bad.

I noted when I was doing the research that as LibDems you managed to get 46 seats with 17% of the vote in '97 and 52 seats with 18% of the vote in 2001, so you are probably right and you can survive quite nicely on a much lower % if you target your resources.

I suspect that something strange may happen at this next election. Its obvious you are going to lose a lot of the soft left who were looking for somewhere to vote so they could say they didn't vote Labour, call the Red LibDems for want of a better phrase. No matter how much you try they won't come back because they really wanted you to be another Labour Party where they could be big fish in a small sea.

What you alsoto do is try to appeal to those voters who couldn't bring themselves to vote Tory in '97 and '01 as well a people like me who are impressed with the Orange Bookers but don't like the authoritarians and statists like Tether, Hughes and Cable. In short, become a liberal party.