When it comes to numbers, coverage of politics in the UK tends to be rather mesmerised by opinion poll ratings and seat projections. However, there is a richness to the working of our electoral system which this narrow focus misses, so here are three simple numbers that give a hint of what lies beyond the simple horse-racing obsession. Just to reassure anyone who isn’t too keen on mathematics, the numbers are all simple – and in fact all the same. Because in three different areas the key number to understand is quite simple “one half”.
1. Many seats never change hands
First, since 1970 half (or to be precise, 49%) of parliamentary seats have not changed hands even once at any of the general elections. The same party has won each and every time.
Landslides have come and gone, the internet has arrived and the Berlin Wall has departed, Thatcher and Blair have swept all before them and then been brushed aside themselves, class lines have become blurred and ethnic diversity has increased – and all through that, in half the seats the same party keeps on winning.
So whatever dramas the overall general election campaign will bring in 2010, for much of the country it will actually be a case of the same again as it has been at every election over the last forty years. Swinging back and forth to choose the government is something other people do.
The sclerotic nature of much of our electoral system helps explains why people are often disenchanted with the system and also why so many MPs fell so far out of touch with the public over expenses. As Mark Thompson has pointed out there is a simple correlation underneath the MPs’ expenses scandal: the safer an MP’s seat, the more likely they are to have abused the expenses system.
The way in which our electoral system hands over a job for life (unless you really mess up) to so many MPs is an important part of the argument for electoral reform. Arguments over the extent to which the number of seats a party wins reflects the number of votes it has secured are certainly important, but so too is the question of safe seats and whether in practice MPs are held accountable for their record.
Somewhat surprisingly, the sheer volume of seats that never change hands decade after decade has only been sparingly used by electoral reformers in the past. But this is a point that is being made increasingly frequently and, if there is a hung Parliament after the general election or if Labour’s referendum on the alternative vote system goes ahead, expect to be thoroughly sick of hearing it by the end of the year.
2. Many contests are not Labour-Conservative
Second, although the national media will understandably focus on the Cameron versus Brown, Conservative versus Labour contest, turning to constituencies again gives a rather different story.
In fact, despite the national attention on Labour versus Conservative, only a minority of constituencies are Labour versus Conservative battles. Just slightly over half – by just a whisker, but still a majority – of constituencies have one of the other parties in first or second place, or are three way marginals (taking the Thrasher and Rallings list of three way marginals, which is in fact slightly cautious in its classification).
Whilst the national media story may be about Conservative versus Labour, when it comes to actually choosing how to vote on the constituency ballot paper, around half the country will be facing a different sort of contest – Conservative v LibDem, LibDem v Labour, Labour v SNP and many other combinations.
As with the first half figure, this one too highlights how the national media story of the election will for many people be different from the local picture. The national story of choice between Labour and Conservative does not match up with a local story of no change in many places and different patterns of choices in most.
It also means that to understand the election, whether when studying the media or political communications, a focus on the national or on the two main parties alone will miss the real explanations and lessons.
3. Large-scale churn amongst supporters
Third, research has shown that over the last few general elections on average only around half the people who voted for the Liberal Democrats (or one of its predecessor parties) at one general election also voted Liberal Democrat at the next.
That churn is a huge challenge for the Liberal Democrats, but also holds out a big opportunity – for it means there is a large pool of people who have voted for the party but aren’t currently intending to do so.
Although the churn figures are most striking for the Liberal Democrats, churns happens with other parties even when there are apparently static opinion poll ratings. Under the surface there is often much happening even if the net effect is little.
At work are two, rather contradictory, forces. The public overall pays very little attention to politics.
Michael Ashcroft’s account of the polling he commissioned during the 2005 election – Smell the coffee – illustrates this well. Talking of his daily tracking poll of British voters run between early January and the end of March 2005, Ashcroft says, “Every day over this period at least two-thirds, and often up to 90% of respondents, when asked ‘has there been anything in the news about what the Conservative Party has been saying or doing that has caught your eye this week, whether on TV or radio or in the papers?’ could think of nothing. Even some events that were covered prominently in the news were recalled by almost nobody”.
Yet party support in tracker polls often fluctuates sharply – and more sharply that explained simply by the vagaries in the small sample of fresh voters contacted each day for most tracker polls. Largely not paying attention but still often changing party preferences: even when the aggregate figures say not much is going on, the reality is usually a brittle score-draw between competing effects.
Adding this all together, the way our electoral system works in reality, on the ground and in the public’s minds, is often very different from that seen by focusing just on aggregate national figures and horse-race comparisons. Understanding what is really going on requires a very different focus and one that reflects the perspective of the public.
And whatever else the 2010 general election may bring, it’ll be an election of three halves.
Mark Pack is Head of Digital at Mandate Communications (www.YourMandate.com) and is co-editor of Liberal Democrat Voice (www.LibDemVoice.org). Until summer last year he was Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats.