The oppressed Scottish Conservatives (both of them)

There’s a slightly odd post on FiveThirtyEight which I noticed: Breaking News: U.S. and U.K. Redistricting Processes Equally Boneheaded. I wonder if this is what we Brits sound like when we pontificate on US politics.

The part I couldn’t help laughing at.

In the UK by contrast, the net effect of these aspects of the mapping system is one-sided against the Conservatives. The Conservatives have little presence in Scotland (where they hold 1 out of 59 seats) or Wales …

…and a nice large illustration of Scotland to show how terribly the constituency boundaries oppress all those hordes of Tories. Um.

This is a problem of first-past-the-post, first and foremost; there are arguably ancillary problems with the system being marginally skewed pro-Labour due to urban voting concentrations etc etc, but they just don’t come into play at this level. Why?

The reason the Conservatives don’t have many seats in Scotland is – let us be sadly honest – that the average Conservative parliamentary candidate is about as popular on a Scottish doorstep as the rent collector. In 2005, they were fourth, with one seat and 15.8% of the votes; in 2001, the same, with 15.6%. In 1997, they took a staggering no seats on 17.5% of the vote – whilst the SNP, on 22%, took a mere six out of 72.

Coming fourth with ~16% of the vote in an overall campaign, without a great deal of concentration of your voters in specific regions, is almost guaranteed to be a damp squib in a first-past-the-post system. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Conservative Party or the Labour Party; any marginal systemic biases the system may have are vastly wiped out by the sheer scale of the problem.

We can see this using a (very non-Tory) example – look at the Liberal Democrats in 1992, across the whole UK. They took 18% of the vote, but only twenty seats – 3%. In 1987, the Alliance took 22.5% of the votes, but still only ~3.5% of the seats; in 1983, 25% of the vote… and still only 3.5% of the seats.

Would it be better under a non-FPTP system? Well, we actually have a perfect laboratory system here – Scotland. Let’s look at the 2007 Scottish elections – the Conservatives took 16.6% of the “constituency” vote and secured 5.5% of the seats, but 14% of the “list” vote – and 23% of the seats. This puts them on an average share of 15.3%, with 13.2% of the seats – not particularly unrepresentative number-wise, but definitely polling around the same as they did for Westminster elections.

In 2003, the same pattern – 16% of the overall vote, 14% of the overall seats – and again in 1999 – 15.5% of the votes and 14% of the overall seats. In both cases, they took the lion’s share from the proportional-representation list votes; indeed, in 1999, they didn’t get a single constituency seat.

So, yes, if there were not a FPTP system the Conservatives would do better; there is one, and they get hammered. But to use the situation of Scotland – where the Conservatives manage to be a third-place party if they do well – as though it is indicative of the rest of the UK is either disingenuous or just confused; the political realities of Scotland just aren’t the same as the nation as a whole. We cannot logically leap from “the FPTP system is wildly biased against a local minor party”, when we know that FPTP is already biased against minor parties, to “the FPTP system is therefore wildly biased against that party when they compete nationally as a major player”.

3 thoughts on “The oppressed Scottish Conservatives (both of them)”

  1. And then there was this one from the EU elections where they decided that it was meaningful to group Plaid with the BNP as “nationalists”. I conclude that they don’t actually know anything about UK politics, and look forward to more amusement as their election coverage continues.

    (Then again I thought they were pretty overrated for US election coverage. Their fancy model did give the correct prediction in 49 states, but so did the incredibly simple “average the last two weeks of polls” model that other sites used)

  2. In retrospect, I suppose the key test for 538 would be had they managed to predict the 2004 election at the time using their fancy model. How accurate were their Senate/House predictions compared to a simple average, I wonder?

    Thanks for the Plaid note… I had, I admit, entirely forgotten that far back.

  3. It’s not just the US that doesn’t understand this, it seems. I was listening to Radio 4 on Saturday and their news program had someone discussing the SNP conference, and claiming that they were likely to do badly at this election because third-party votes would get squeezed between Labour and Conservative.

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