Election trends and what they tell us

The decline in the two-party vote, increasing voter disengagement and fewer of marginal seats have all combined to create a system that doesn't work.

The decline in the two-party vote, increasing voter disengagement and a fall in the number of marginal seats have all combined to create a current electoral system that no longer works, John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and an election expert has explained. Professor Curtice’s exit poll last week correctly predicted the outcome of the election – including the unexpected reduction in the number of Lib Dem seats.

In a presentation at the Institute for Public Policy Research this afternoon, he outlined many of the failings of the present first past the post system. Among the most instrucitve findings was the long-term decline of the two and even three-party vote; last week’s election saw the proportion of votes for others in Great Britain alone rising to 10 per cent – an all-time record.

The number of marginal seats (see graph below) has halved since the mid-50s, down from 166 to 86, with the number of Lib Dem seats still relatively high, in spite of the system, 45 seats higher than the post-war mean prior to 1997, and the combined Labour+Conservative vote at levels not seen since the 1920s.

The apparent anti-Tory bias is still there and will remain. Turnout in Labour seats is 7 points lower than in Tory ones; Labour holds small majorities in 83 seats compared to 60 for the Tories; and in seats in which the party is third, Labour’s vote is only 16.6%, the Tories’ 28.4%. Put simply, Tory voters more than Labour tend to vote wherever, in ultra-safe seats and seats in which they stand no chance of winning.

The impact of the expenses scandal, Professor Curtice added, was not as strong as the media would have you believe. Incumbents who had been caught up in the scandal did better than candidates who had taken over from MPs who had been forced to step down. In Labour seats, an incumbent who’d been tainted had a swing away from them of 6.1%, only marginally worse than the swing away from Labour incumbents who hadn’t been affected, 5%, while new candidates in seats in which the previous Labour MP had been quit over expenses, like Luton South, saw a 7% swing away from them.

In Conservative seats, the same was true. In seats in which a tainted incumbent had stood, the swing to the Tories was 2.7%; where a new candidate stood, as happened in Sleaford and North Hykaham, where Douglas Hogg was forced out over his claim for moat cleaning, the swing was only 1.4%.

Though expenses weren’t as big an issue as many thought, trust in politics has gone up gradually since 1987, as turnout has declined. The proportion of the public distrusting of government is now 40%, with turnout – though up 3.7 points to 65.1% since the last election – historically low by post-war standards; turnout never dropped below 70% in each and every election between 1945 and 1997.


Professor Curtice’s main conclusions are that “there is still a problem of voter disengagement” (see graph above) and that the “West Lothian question” will once again rear its head given the disparity in Tory support between Scotland and England – in England alone the Tories have a majority of 63; in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the majority is 21; and in the whole of the UK the Tories are 19 short of a majority.

Update 0915hrs 14/05/10

To download the presentation, please click here.

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