Rafael Nadal and the strange popularity of the popular vote
Everywhere you look now, there’s talk of who’s going to side with whom.
As part of this, there’s the key question of whether the Lib Dems will side with Labour in a coalition if Labour ends up in third place.
And even over the last couple of weeks, the way in which the term ‘third place’ is defined has changed. Now, when readers look at this they will be thinking of the ever-present opinion polls, and reflecting on the 34(C)-29(LD)-28(L) figures, or whatever variation on these is hottest off the press.
Saint Clegg has spoken, and has told us that if Labour gain the lowest number of votes of the three main parties, then they will have lost their legitimacy; they will even have become irrelevant, we are told.
Suddenly, almost everyone’s in agreement that who comes where in the popular vote is of utmost importance. If Labour form a government from ‘third place’, opine the pundits, there will be a constitutional crisis of Labour’s making.
And all of this is utter crap.
If Manchester United win the Premier League title, but have a lower goal difference than Chelsea as it looks as though they may, we won’t say that United cheated; we’ll say they ground out the results when it mattered.
If Rafael Nadal beats Todd Henbox in the final at Wimbledon in a five set nail biter, we won’t add up how many games each one got overall and then try and take Rafael’s big cup off him; we’ll talk about he won the crunch points in the tie-breaks, and what a great player he is.
And so it should be, by rights, with Labour if the gain the most seats with the lowest overall vote. It won’t be a matter for celebration perhaps, but nor should there be accusations, as now suits a pervasive Lib Dem-shoved narrative, that Labour have somehow cheated the electorate, and therefore their legitimacy as the party with most seats is in question.
I can understand why the Lib Dems would want to foist that narrative on us, and I can understand why it’s selling so well, but it doesn’t mean that it’s correct.
In all the thousands of column inches written on this subject since Saint Clegg went on telly, there’s been nothing that I’ve seen which explores WHY Labour enjoys this electoral advantage over the other parties, whereby it can win more seats with less votes.
Here, in 11 succinct pages, is the answer, brought to you by people who’ve looked at the actual facts.
The authors of this report reject the idea that there is a major systematic pro-Labour bias in the current FTTP system:
It [The report] shows that most of the bias can be attributed not to the operation of the first-past-the-post electoral system per se but rather to party and voter behaviour within the template provided by that system.
The report shows that the Labour party has been the most effective at working within the current system to hold and gain seats. The Conservatives have followed suit to a certain extent, while the Lib Dems have continued to do quite well but not well enough in plenty of seats.
Labour has done this by putting resources into marginals, at the expense of those that it does not think it can win, and those it thinks it will win safely, especially those in ‘core’ areas where it has chosen not to put massive resources into upping their turnout (in many areas, there has been a slide in turnout following deindustrialisation and the end of the unions’ active engagement in turn out operations). This is akin to Manchester United ‘taking the foot off the gas’ when 3-0 at home to Stoke early in the second half.
In other words, Labour has organised successfully, so it may win; the Lib Dems have not, so they’re more likely to lose.
(The other reading is to see the Lib Dems’ ‘popular vote’ strategy as deliberately building up to this current point, where they are able to sell their narrative that the popular vote should count for more than it has done. I do not know the extent to which this is deliberate Lib Dem strategy, and how much of their current narrative is post hoc, though there is evidence they have moved towards the same ‘targeting’ strategy as the other main parties in previous elections).
None of what I’ve said should be seen as an argument against electoral reform of some kind. I have no problem with such reform as long as it does not cloud an essential principle of returning an identified MP for an identified constituency.
My main point here is that, while electoral form may be desirable, Labour winning more seats with potentially the third most number of votes is not something for Labour to be ashamed of; it’s simply evidence that we’ve done well where it mattered under the current system.
The Lib Dem narrative of Labour illegitimacy is a strong (though false) one, and articulates well with the current anti-politics mood – even leading to the notion that Labour has in some strange way manipulated the system to its own ends.
It is, because it is false, a narrative senior Labour figures would do well to combat, before it is too late.