A parliament of winners

The UK media is normally much better at writing about hung parliaments and government formation than is its Canadian counterpart. That being said, there are exceptions, such as this recent op ed piece by David Blair in the Telegraph, On May 8, a loser could enter No 10.

Consider the following excerpts:

The polls show that no party is on course for an outright majority: that much is clear. But they also suggest that the relationship between votes cast and seats won – always a pretty tenuous link – could be on the verge of breaking down. If so, this may be an election where the losers are rewarded with power and the winners consigned to opposition.


With Labour’s support concentrated in the cities and the constituency boundaries unchanged since the last election, the party has an inbuilt advantage when it comes to taking seats in the Commons. The Tories could fight a successful campaign that wins the vote – but loses the election.


[t]he polls suggest that this election could produce not one but many oddities. Ukip may come third and score a double-figure share of the vote, yet win only three or four seats.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems could be in last place with less than 10 per cent, but the incumbency advantage enjoyed by their MPs may allow them to cling on to about 20 seats.

If so, the parliamentary arithmetic would point towards a Labour-Liberal coalition. In other words, the parties that lost the election, coming second and fourth respectively, could end up running Britain anyway. Downing Street would be occupied by a coalition of the losers.


In an age when politicians are automatically suspect and confidence in democratic institutions is threadbare, an outcome along these lines would – and I put the point delicately – be difficult to explain. The public may find it impossible to understand why the party that won is out of power – and the losers have somehow taken office.


Here is the point that Mr. Blair conveniently ignores: if the May 7 UK election results in a hung parliament, there won’t be a winner, there will be 650 winners.

As I have explained on numerous occasions, in Westminster-style parliamentary democracies such as we find in the UK, Canada, Australia to name but a few, we do not elect governments. A general election is not really one election, but a multitude of elections — one in each constituency. Voters in each constituency elect an individual to represent that constituency. We may opt to vote for one candidate based solely on the party he or she represents because that is the party we would like to see end up forming the government, but as an individual voter, we have no control over how our party of choice will ultimately fair overall.

Therefore, every single candidate elected on May 7th will be a winner, and the new parliament will be a parliament of winners.

Because a general election is not one election but (in the case of the UK) 650 elections held on the same day, the national vote total is actually irrelevant. Mr. Blair observes that “the relationship between votes cast and seats won” is “always a pretty tenuous link”, but that is only true if one ignores that it isn’t a national vote — it is 650 constituency votes. Many candidates will win their seat with less than majority support, but the voting system used in the UK (and Canada) does not require that they receive a certain percentage of the vote, only that they win more votes than any other candidate.

Take for example the most marginal seat in the 2010 UK general election, Hampstead and Kilburn, which was won by the Labour candidate with only 42 votes more than than the Conservative candidate. It was also the tightest three-way marginal in the country, with Labour receiving 32.8% of the vote, the Conservatives 32.7% and the Liberal Democrats 31.2%. Those totals represent 96.7% of the total votes cast (the 4th place candidate received only 1.4% of the vote), so don’t for one moment try to argue that most voters’ votes didn’t count or didn’t matter. In that close a race, very single vote cast was counted and mattered. I am not trying to argue that First-Past-the-Post is a perfect, good or even desirable voting system here; I am simply stating that it is the voting system we have, and it is imperative that we understand how it works.

It could very well be, on May 7, that the Labour Party wins more seats (but not a majority), and that the Conservatives win fewer seats, but have a larger national share of the popular vote. This does not make Labour a “loser” since it is not the national share of the popular vote that is taken into account. It is not the national share of the popular vote which determines who forms the government, it is which party, or coalition of parties, has the confidence of the House. And it is those 650 winners elected on May 7 who will make that determination, which is exactly what we elected them to do.


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