Who ‘wins’ British Elections?

The usually erudite and accurate William Keegan published an article in the Observer entitled ‘Elections pick losers, not winners. Cameron deserves to lose.’ I’ll leave the second sentence and concentrate on the first, because in the article Bill goes on to say:

“Memories of prewar unemployment and the social insensitivity of the Tories were enough to drive Churchill out in 1945. But in 1951, having achieved much in a period when austerity was necessary and not a political stratagem, the Attlee government was tired and it was “time for a change”.” (my emphasis added).

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen this statement, or something very much like it, in the past – and it’s wrong.

What is true is that Labour ‘lost’ the 1951 election in the sense that they got 295 seats to the Tories 321. But in terms of votes Labour won in 1951, and won much better than they did in 1945.

First, here’s the three results between 1945 and 1951 in terms of seats:

Lab Con Lib Other
1945 395 215 12 18
1950 315 298 9 3
1951 295 321 6 3

On these results to argue that a ‘tired’ Labour lost in 1951 seems plausible. But dig a bit deeper – here’s the results in terms of share of the vote:

Lab Con Lib Other
1945 48.1 40.1 9.0 2.8
1950 46.2 43.5 9.1 1.2
1951 48.8 48.0 2.6 0.6

Labour not only won the popular vote in 1951, it got more votes than it did in 1945, its vote rose from 11,995,152 in 1945 to 13,266,592 in 1951.

What ‘defeated’ Labour in 1951 was two things: firstly the vagaries of our only partially representative democracy and the collapse of the Liberal vote into the Conservatives. Labour piled up votes in mining, industrial and urban areas – the joke in the South Wales valley’s was that the Labour vote had to be weighed rather than counted. But massive majorities only return one MP – the more evenly distributed Tory vote won them more seats.

What happened in 1951 was not a ‘tired’ Labour government loosing momentum, but a reinvigorated Tory party decimating the Liberals and winning the most seats. As Mark Jenkins pointed out in his interesting ‘Bevanism: Labour’s High Tide’ (1979) individual Labour membership, trade union membership, numbers of trade unionists affiliated to Labour, all continued to rise well into the 1950s, only subsequently going into decline.

Why do any of these details of history matter? For several reasons.

First, they remind just how imperfect our ‘first past the post’, unevenly sized constituency system is. It frequently produces perverse results. To make the point, you only have to look at who ‘won’ elections since 1945 and what share of the vote they got. Not once did the ‘winners’ get 50% or more of the vote*.

GE since 45

*2010 Tory vote only.

Second, it reminds us that this distortion of the outcome can lead to serious errors of analysis about the underlying political trends. Labour weren’t ‘tired’ or in retreat in 1951, although that is now the received wisdom.

Thirdly, it will all become highly relevant after May 7th 2015.

  • On current forecasts Labour and the Tories are almost tied in the polls, but Labour would probably edge it on seats (a reverse of the 1951 situation).
  • UKIP are forecast to get around 12-14%, but will probably win 1-3 seats.
  • The Lib Dems on the other hand have only 8% or so but are likely to win 25 or so seats.
  • Meanwhile, the SNP with only a tiny share of the national poll will probably win around 50 seats.

If you needed any more evidence that our ‘representative’ democracy is deeply flawed, these probably outcomes ought to make it perfectly clear to anyone willing to look at the evidence. There is every possibility that we will see a crisis of legitimacy on two levels after the Election – a crisis in legitimacy for whoever forms a government and a crisis of legitimacy about the whole electoral system itself.

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