Archive for category Great Britain

Tory Victory Not Really a Surprise


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.

This was a clear victory for Scottish natinalists who could use this to mount another demand for a referendum on independence

This was a clear victory for Scottish natinalists who could use this to mount another demand for a referendum on independence

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.

Now former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who resigned his leadership role after the election.

Now former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who resigned his leadership role after the election.

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.

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London Burning

We live in an era of immense prosperity and security.   We can travel freely on foot or in a vehicle without worrying that we’ll be mugged or forced off the road by a gang of thieves.   Women can be out and about in most places without fearing assault, even children are generally safe – for all the fear of molesters and predators, it’s very rare that a child missing for awhile in Walmart or on the street isn’t returned safely without incident.

We don’t notice how secure our lives are because we worry about what could go wrong.   People do get mugged, even in nice neighborhoods.   Children are molested, women are raped, and people get carjacked.   Terrorists fly planes into buildings.   Yet if you look at all of this, especially with a dose of common sense (avoid obviously dangerous situations) the probability that we are going to suffer any of these is tremendously low.   People react in fear when seven people get sick from bad peanut butter — in a country of over 300 million.    From Japan to Europe to the US, we have more prosperity than anytime in history — and thus more security.

How thick is the veneer of civilization?   How deep does our 98% voluntary compliance with the rules and norms governing society penetrate?   Those with a really positive view on human nature tend to believe that people are good and naturally cooperate.   That describes the case in small close knit societies, but large mass social organizations (cities, states, etc.) security seems to require prosperity.   It’s too easy to rationalize looting, violence and theft if you can get away with it and be relatively invisible.

Consider what’s happening in Somalia, Uganda, and the Sudan.   Even small tribal communities with deep cultural bonds can fall into a spiral of violence when conditions go bad.   Darfur started with a drought.   Once violence and instability begin, they feed on themselves and grow.   At that point raw force is necessary to impose stability.  That requires a denial of basic freedoms and a powerful authority — what Thomas Hobbes would call a leviathan.

Hobbes would know.   He was born April 5, 1588, in a time of fear.   Less than two months after his birth the Spanish Armada took off towards England.  When baby Thomas was five months old people feared the Spaniards would decimate the British navy.   That didn’t happen — Britain’s defense became the stuff of legend — but it symbolized the world Thomas was born into.  On the continent the bloody “thirty years war” would start when he was just 30 years old; for most of his life Europe was mired in war, disorder and disease.  When the British civil war broke out when he was 54 years old he had seen enough to write The Leviathan, published in 1651 when Hobbes was 63.   In a world defined by war, fear and rebellion, the only way to maintain stability and protect civilization, he argued, was through a powerful authoritative state with a monopoly on force.

Hobbes is often used as a foil for those who value individual liberty over the state (he is also used to provide the name for a comic strip tiger).    And indeed, given the prosperity and stability of the last sixty years, we in the industrialized West cna be forgiven for thinking that security and voluntary compliance with social rules is the norm.   A powerful state scares us, leads us to protest, and is seen as a danger by people on both the left and right.

The reality is that human nature is capable of a variety of behaviors.  Given the right conditions we can be peaceful, cooperative and act out of both self- and other-interest.   Given other conditions we can be rivals who nonetheless maintain a sense of ‘fair play’ as we compete.    Under certain conditions something can also trigger a descent into barbarism, including the riots that have gone on for five days in London.

We seem to expect barbarism from places like Rwanda or Somalia.   Perhaps its a twinge of racism, perhaps its a kind of cultural chauvinism.   When it hits closer to home, as in London, it becomes far more worrisome — it reminds us that all of what we see abroad can happen in the industrialized West.    We are not immune from violence, we haven’t transcended the negative aspects of human nature.

We can debate the resilience of social stability.   Just as we may have too benign a view of human nature due to the times in which we live, Hobbes’ view erred on the negative side due to the times in which he lived.   Clearly even in impoverished regions communities often operate very well, with individual self-interest sacrificed for the greater good.   One of the challenges of western civilization is that due to individuation we now have placed a premium on self-interest.    For the first time, a successful civilization has been built around the idea of individual freedom and putting loyalty to self often above duty to society.   This is a noble experiment that relies on a fragile balance.

When there is no sense of social solidarity, it’s easy to “defect,” to break from the rules and expectations and try to benefit yourself — or give into emotional passion.  In such a case, two things keep order — a viable threat of force, or prosperity.   If the system creates prosperity and opportunity people realize that it’s in their interest to maintain it.   Instead of anger at “the man” or government, they are angered when people threaten unrest — if the comfortable way of life is threatened.

We are now facing an economic crisis as severe as that in the 30s.   That crisis crushed the veneer of civilization so that one of the most cultured and stable cultures engaged in war and mass atrocities.   Are the London riots a wake up call — a reminder that if we can’t solve our economic problems the whole core of a civilization we’ve come to take for granted is under threat?   Could this symbolize the possibility of the unthinkable — a breakdown in western civilization?   Is our greatest foe not Islamic extremism or communism, but our own greed and short sightedness?

The riots in London and a few years ago in Paris may be anomalies — outbursts of emotion and anger that dissipate when finished.   It does finally seem calmer in London, Manchester, Liverpool and a number of smaller cities to which the violence had spread.   Or it could be a warning of what might be to come if we can’t come together and repair the world economy.  Unlike Paris in 2008, these riots spread to other cities and were not the doings of a local ghettoized population.   We don’t need to agree with Thomas Hobbes to take the warning seriously.