What the UK election result numbers actually say

Sometimes when you analyse the actual numbers of election results, they don’t match up with the popular or media narrative. For instance, Keir Starmer’s “Landslide Victory” with 9,712,011 votes was actually won with almost 600,000 votes less than Corbyn’s humiliating defeat with 10,269,051 votes in 2019. The difference was that Rishi Sunak’s Tories actually got less than half the votes (6,814,469) than Boris Johnson’s did (13,966,454).  So much for “Getting Brexit done”.

But contrary to the opinion polls, which consistently showed Labour with 20% plus margins in their favour, Labour only got 10% more of the vote than the Tories (33.8% versus 23.7%). Sinn Féin were lambasted when their Irish local election result underperformed their opinion polling by a similar margin, but you won’t see many newspaper headlines calling this a disastrous result for Labour.

The difference is, of course, the first past the post electoral system which can yield hugely disproportionate results. Reform got only 5 seats with 4,114,287 votes while the Lib Dems got 72 seats with 3,501,040. Together with the Greens (1,841,888 votes) and the Scots Nationalists (708,759 votes) these four  smaller parties only got a total of 90 seats for a combined total of 10,165,974 Votes – well in excess of Labour’s 9,712,011 votes, for which they got 411 seats. And this is in spite of the Liberal Democrats getting their best ever seat result (72) despite receiving only around half the votes they did in 2010.

How long can the UK political system retain its legitimacy with support for its two main governing parties going lower and lower?

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The main argument for First Past the Post electoral systems is that they are simple and yield decisive results and should thus result in political stability. Comparing the recent political histories of the UK and US with countries using proportional representation systems tends to undermine that argument. Instead, they are more likely to lead to political polarisation and the alienation of large parts of the electorate, as evidenced by a long term historic trend towards reducing voter turnout.

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The main recent outlier to that trend was the Brexit referendum where every vote counted, whereas the majority of votes in “safe constituencies” matter little, if at all. This election was, if anything, a triumph for tactical voting and “vote management” with Labour, in particular, concentrating their resources of marginal target seats at the expense of their perceived safer seats. So much so that two shadow cabinet members, Thangam Debbonaire and Jonathan Ashworth, lost their seats.

Northern Ireland

The distorting effects of the First Past the Post system is also much in evidence in Northern Ireland, with much political polarisation, apathy, and alienation, and turnout, at 57%, even lower than in the rest of the UK, and the lowest in its history. The table below may be a little busy, but it reveals some interesting information:

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Sinn Féin’s gain of 4.2% may not have yielded any additional seats, but many of its marginal seats are now relatively safe, and it has made gains almost everywhere else. In particular, it is now within 179 votes of taking East Londonderry and has made huge inroads into Colm Eastwood’s majority in Foyle.

The DUP, on the other hand lost 8.5% of the vote resulting in three seat losses to Alliance, the TUV and UUP, and much reduced majorities everywhere else. Three of its remaining seats – Belfast East, East Antrim, and East Londonderry are now marginal, and their majorities in Strangford and Upper Bann are much reduced.

The Alliance vote declined by 1.8% and resulted in one seat loss and one gain – with Sorcha Eastwood taking advantage of the DUP’s travails post Donaldson. The UUP’s Robin Swann had a clear win in East Antrim while the SDLP retained its two seats in Foyle and South Belfast with reduced majorities.

The TUV’s Jim Allister had a narrow win over Ian Paisley Jnr. in North Antrim while ex-DUP independent Alex Easton had an easy win over Alliance’s Stephen Farry. Alliance have yet to retain any seat they have won and need to get better at building local organisations and doing the nitty gritty constituency work vital to consolidating swing support.

It used to be said that Fianna Fáil could put up a donkey and win in certain seats, so fierce were party rivalries and loyalties. However, this election showed that the quality of candidate can still matter at the margins with Robin Swann beating Paul Girvan and Pat Cullen consolidating Sinn Féin’s position in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

But the dominant theme has to be the consolidation of the nationalist vote while the unionist vote has fragmented somewhat more. Strangely, the Alliance Party managed to lose votes despite being in pole position to take advantage of the Donaldson Fiasco, while the SDLP continued its long term decline.

Conclusion

There has to be something wrong with a political system where 33.8% of the vote wins you a landslide majority and where Reform’s 14.3% of the vote wins them almost no representation. The result can be seen in the polarisation, alienation, and general apathy of the UK electorate with declining turnouts and where the new Labour government has almost no mandate to do anything other than end “Tory Chaos.”

In Northern Ireland, 27% of the vote was enough for Sinn Féin to secure its position as the largest party in Westminster, Assembly, and Local elections and was quite impressive considering it abstained in no less than four constituencies. The DUP avoided the double whammy of losing another leader, but it is difficult to see where they can go from here. Their “Safeguarding the Union” agreement with the Tories will soon be forgotten while the sea border remains. Their East Londonderry seat looks like the next domino to fall.

The Alliance surge appears to have stalled – they had an outstanding chance of winning three seats but won only one – while the UUP has avoided the ignominy of having no Westminster representation for the third election in a row. The SDLP managed to hold their two seats despite another decline in their vote, while Jim Allister finally won a seat for the TUV. He isn’t getting any younger however, and will there be life after Jim for the TUV?

For the second election in a row, Nationalist MP’s outnumber Unionists, but with such a low turnout, it is difficult to say what that might translate to in a border poll. Certainly, engagement with Westminster elections is at an all time low and Starmer has done little to raise expectations of better days ahead. Perhaps if he builds Casement Park and the new A5 motorway he can buy the Union some time. But Ulster has to start working better for the Union to be safe.

 

 


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