There is a sense of surprise at the re-election of David Cameron’s conservative party, which won 331 of the 650 mandates in the 2015 United Kingdom General Election. That is the smallest number of mandates a majority party has won in a British election since after the second 1974 election.
The result wasn’t as big a surprise as one might think.
To be sure, polls had shown a tight race. Most showed the Conservatives and Labour tied, or with a slight conservative lead at something like 36-35. Consider the following graphic:
Blue represents the Tories, red Labour, purple UKIP, yellow the LibDems, and green the Greens. Although the two major parties are nearly tied at the end at around 35%, Labour had been steadily losing support while the conservatives had been slightly climbing. If there was momentum, it was for the Tories.
Here are the actual results: Conservatives – 36.9%, Labour 30.4%, UKIP 12.6%, the Lib Dems 7.9% Scotish National Party 4.6%, Greens 3.6%
From this result here are the mandates: Conservatives 331, Labour 232, SNP 56, Lib Dems 8, Unionists 8, UKIP 1, Greens 1 Other 15.
One thing a single member district plurality (SMD-P) electoral system provides is that there can be a large swing in mandates won from a relatively small swing in total percentage of the vote. SMD-P is a system where people vote in districts for one candidate. Whichever candidate gets the most votes (known as a plurality) wins the seat. That’s how we run most of our Congressional elections in the US.
This hurts smaller parties. The anti-EU party could turn 12.6% of the vote into only one seat. Yet geographically based parties like the SNP could turn 4.6% of the vote into 56 seats as they swept Scotland. It also means that a 6.5% differential between the two top parties can turn into a difference of almost 100 seats, or 15% of the seats available.
Think of it this way. If the vote was perfectly even in every district, a party could win 51% to 49% in every district; a close election would yield all seats going to the party with 51%! Obviously some districts are safe for a particular party and others are contested at various levels. But the result almost always is that the party that “wins” has a much larger majority in parliament than the vote total would indicate.
(Aside: If you follow American politics you might counter that even though in 2012 the Democrats earned more votes than the Republicans, the GOP got a majority. That happens in part due to gerrymandering — designing districts to get the optimum outcome for a party– but also because Democrats rack up huge vote totals in urban districts, while Republicans win closer suburban and rural districts. In Great Britain the divisions aren’t so stark, so elections behave more like one would expect).
In 2010 Great Britain had its first hung parliament (no party gaining a majority) since 1974. That’s because the Liberal Democrats got 23% and 57 seats. The Conservatives only got 36.1% and 306 seats, while Labour got 29% and 258 seats.
The change from 2010 to 2015 for the top two parties was Conservative +0.8%, Labour +1.4%. Both parties gained, but Labour gained a bit more than the Conservatives. So why did the Tories gain 25 seats and Labour lose 26? The answer is due to the smaller parties. The LibDems went from 57 seats to only 8, while the SNP went from 6 to 56. In Scotland alone Labour lost nearly 40 seats to the SNP – that means they gained seats in the rest of the country.
The LibDem loss should have been expected. Small parties are always at risk when they form a coalition with larger parties, unless they can provide something unique that the voters want. Nick Clegg couldn’t do that. That loss of support translated to more mandates for the Conservatives.
That brings us to the polls. The pollsters were pretty accurate for the small parties, and pretty close for the conservatives too. The only real problem, then, was that Labour totals were inflated by about 3% consistently. That’s not a huge amount, but still a significant gap given how much agreement existed in the polls. The most likely reason is that conservative-leaning voters upset with the Cameron government told pollsters they were leaning Labour, but came home to the Conservatives on election day. Not that they were lying to the pollsters, but there’s something about actually voting that can cause people to stick with a party they thought they might abandon.
Before the elections some conservatives voiced optimism that by moving Labour more to the left, Miliband might inspire higher Tory turnout than expected. That sounded like the usual wishful thinking but may have actually happened.
Polls can be off, and as noted, just a few ticks in one direction can make a major difference in the result. I am not surprised that the conservatives gained a majority. The 2010 election was the first since 1974 with no majority, and it was obvious that the Lib Dems were not going to gain many seats this go around. So it appeared that either the Tories would gain a small majority (which they did), or that Labour would have to work with the SNP.
A change in power to Labour was unlikely for another reason. Labour leader Ed Miliband had not generated a sense that his leadership would provide a positive change. Labour had been declining in the polls and people weren’t warming to Miliband. Late deciders may have been swayed by Cameron’s positive economic results (compared to the rest of Europe).
Cameron has five years now to govern as a majority party, unless he calls an early election. He has promised a referendum on EU membership by 2017. The Cameron era continues.