May 2015 could be the ‘lottery election’ – where your vote is worth about as much as a lottery ticket
British politics is now truly a multi-party phenomenon. The SNP could win over 50 seats, potentially overtaking the Liberal Democrats, while UKIP and the Greens together currently have the support of over a fifth of the UK population. The era of everyone voting for the two main parties is long gone.
But what happens when this is combined with a worn-out electoral system like First Past the Post?
The answer is: chaos. May 2015 could be what the Electoral Reform Society is calling a ‘lottery election’ – where your vote is worth about as much as a lottery ticket.
The ERS asked polling expert Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde to look at some of the possible post-May scenarios: he found that it could all depend on relatively small swings of the vote affecting the whole outcome of the election.
Take one example. Despite the surge of the SNP to double-digit leads over Labour, small swings in the vote and its geographical spread mean they could either end up with a handful of seats or dozens (see graph). A neck-and-neck Labour/SNP result would leave the nationalists with fewer than 20 seats to Labour’s near-40, while a ten-point SNP lead would almost completely reverse that result.
When the Greens and UKIP are thrown into the mix, the result becomes even more unpredictable. What is likely, however, is that both parties will be disappointed, with UKIP potentially failing to build on their two by-election victories even with an expected 13 per cent of the national vote. At the same time the Greens – though likely to retain Brighton Pavilion – could fail to make any gains even with the 8 per cent they are currently polling.
Yet the Lib Dem vote could to some extent determine the election, with their support hitting the Conservatives harder than Labour. To illustrate this, a Lib Dem vote of 10 per cent would mean the Conservatives need a seven-point lead for a majority. But a Lib Dem result of 15 per cent would raise that to a full ten points (see graph).
That’s what happens when you try to squeeze six or seven-party politics into a two-party voting system. All the parties are affected by the lottery election one way or another, and while some may got lucky, others are going to be sorely disappointed.
Is this any way to determine the make-up of the next House of Commons? What can we do to make it fairer?
What we need above all is an electoral system that reflects how diverse British politics has become. One positive result of the May election might be that debates around electoral reform come back on the agenda. Perhaps we could even make 2015 the last lottery election.
Read ‘The Lottery Election’ here.
Josiah Mortimer works for the Electoral Reform Society