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Why LAB wins more seats with fewer votes : The way First Past the Post works in its favour

August 13th, 2014

Understanding Labour’s “other crutch”

We’ve talked a lot on PB about Labour’s “electoral crutch” – the big shift to it since 2010 of Lib Dem voters which has so far remained. Well Labour has another crutch – the electoral system which could be equally or even more important.

UK general elections are not decided by aggregate national vote shares but by FPTP elections in 650 separate seats where voters choose which individuals they want as their MPs.

Unlike the Euro elections the process is not about voting for parties but for people and whoever tops the poll in each of the 650 goes to Westminster. In one seat last time, Norwich South, the Lib Dem candidate won with just 29% of the votes.

Generally the party that chalks up the biggest aggregate national vote share ends up “winning” but not always. LAB won on votes in 1951 but the Tories were returned with a workable majority. In February 1974 Harold Wilson’s LAB secured fewer votes than Heath’s Tories but won more seats.

    The biggest driver of the seats:votes ratio is not as commonly believed the “boundaries” but the fact that LAB seats on average have significantly lower turnout levels than CON ones

The chart above shows the gap. Boundaries do play a part as the third drop down chart shows but not on the same scale as turnout. Added complications are that the Tories see many more votes “wasted” in seats where they come third and are much more vulnerable than LAB to tactical voting.

In what could be tight election on national votes shares Labour could easily repeat February 1974 and win on seats but lose on votes. If the tactical Anti-CON element is strong, which I believe it will be, then we could be heading for what could appear a perverse and unfair result.

It might just be possible that there could be a LAB majority on fewer votes.

Mike Smithson

2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble