Home > General Politics, Labour Party News, Terrible Tories, Trade Unions > Rafael Nadal and the strange popularity of the popular vote

Rafael Nadal and the strange popularity of the popular vote

Mornin' Saint Clegg

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.

 

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  1. April 27, 2010 at 10:48 am

    “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.”

    I wonder, if the Lib Dems come third in votes, does that mean they’ll have lost legitimacy and become irrelevant, and so Clegg will insist that any coalition must be a Labour-Tory one?

  2. Rob
    April 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    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.

    Yes, but as a neutral I’d rather not see Man Utd strolling to a win against Stoke. Your analogy might work, but it doesn’t prove that this is a desirable state of affairs, does it?

    I posted a rambling comment to this effect on LibCon recently, talking about how both Labour and the Tories have drifted towards centralism and neo-liberalism since the early 80s. I don’t remember it (being less than 2 years old at the time) but I wonder if the 1983 election result had an effect that nobody remarks upon. By proving the weakness of the popular vote as a mechanism for change, did it free both Labour and the Tories from any fear of grass-roots movements or popular uprisings, leaving winning the affections of the Murdoch empire as the only game in town? By the next election, Labour were tacking to the right with Peter Mandelson running their campaign, and they continued in this direction for another decade until the Tories caved in. The Tories, it should be noted, never recovered from this and stand only 1-2% higher in the polls now than they did in 1997.

    To my mind, this neglect of the electorate is what has hollowed out support for both Labour and the Tories and what leaves them vulnerable to the Lib Dems now. To brand the Lib Dems as anti-politics whilst admitting that Labour has made a strategic decision to ignore large sections of the electorate strikes me as odd.

  3. paulinlancs
    April 27, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Rob

    I am not defending FPTP. I think a system which makes more votes count for more while retaining the validity of the MP-constituency link is a good idea. All I’m defending is the Labour party’s right to use its resources to best effect under the current system without being called for cheating.

    I couldn’t agree more that the needs of Labour’s core vote (I’m not that interested in the needs of the Tories’ core vote), but that’s not specifically to do with the electoral system.

  4. paulinlancs
    April 27, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Tom

    Excellent point. Needs saying out loud.

  5. Rob
    April 27, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Excellent point. Needs saying out loud.

    Really? The case for saying that Labour can’t expect to govern alone after finishing third on votes (down from first last time) is, I suppose, a vaguely Popperian one – that Labour have had their chance to prove their merits and have failed. In such a case, the public would have expressed a clear negative opinion on Labour’s conduct in government. In contrast the Lib Dems would be rising in vote share, indicating public willingness to let them try doing things their way. This view is predicated on the notion that our democracy is a Popperian system in which governments put forward conjectures (laws, policies) which are refuted by public expressions of dissatisfaction with them, indicating that new policies are required. Of course, this might be the wrong way of looking at things, but it is a plausible proposal for how democracy can work. I don’t think that Tom’s point is “excellent” at all, as it completely ignores the direction of travel of the parties concerned.

    I am not defending FPTP. I think a system which makes more votes count for more while retaining the validity of the MP-constituency link is a good idea. All I’m defending is the Labour party’s right to use its resources to best effect under the current system without being called for cheating.

    Who’s accusing them of cheating? Cheating implies that there’s a rule being broken or a procedure being subverted, and nobody is saying that. The popular-voteists are simply saying that they will not support a Labour government which tries to lead the country on the basis of the smallest share of the popular vote of the three main parties. It’s not necessary to accuse Labour of cheating, as the electoral system is perfectly capable of delivering “unfair” (to the voteists) results entirely within the rules (as, for example, was the MPs’ expenses system or the bank regulation system).

    I couldn’t agree more that the needs of Labour’s core vote (I’m not that interested in the needs of the Tories’ core vote), but that’s not specifically to do with the electoral system.

    (my emphasis)

    That’s where we differ, I think. I think that the revelation that Labour was immune to third-party challenge that occured in 1983 could be a direct cause of Labour’s increasing disdain for its core vote and this can only be corrected by electoral reform or the widespread defeat of Labour candidates in a general election. I discount the third possibility that Labour might wake up to this possibility of its own accord, given that every effort made by the party’s leadership in the last 25 years has been to diminish the role of the grassroots members in party strategy, and the likeliest outcome of a narrow Labour defeat in 2010 is that David Miliband becomes Labour leader with the full backing of Lord Mandelson.

    Look at the Tories for an example of how this is a bad idea. After 1997, did they reinvigorate their party by giving more power to members and calling for greater grassroots involvement (and not just in leaflet-delivery)? No, they pursued a centralist strategy of crafting a ‘message’ that would ‘resonate’ with the mythical missing Tory voters or those middle-Englanders who had incomprehensibly voted New Labour. They pursued their return to power via the media and via targeted mailshots, and where has it got them? Scarcely a percentage point higher in the polls than their worst post-war results, and that’s with the full backing of the Murdoch media empire and a deeply unpopular government presiding over a dramatic recession. The Lib Dems are the only party that are getting anywhere at this election, and is it any coincidence that they’re the only party who have a) almost no money, b) a culture of grass-roots organisation and c) some measure of internal party democracy?

  6. April 27, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Rob, I thought Tom’s point was an excellent one – directed as it is against the indubitable hubris of Nick Clegg and his Lib-Dem compatriots, which (along with similar expressions when voiced by Tories and Labour) have been tirelessly excoriated on this blog.

    The basic fact that Labour come in third, down from first, hardly makes them irrelevant – any more than Asquith’s and Lloyd George’s Liberals became irrelevant by reduction to third place. So it seems fair enough to turn Clegg’s point back on him, as Tom has done.

    Labour’s direction of travel, in terms of vote share, is irrelevant. Moreover, Tom’s point was predicated on Labour coming second, not third – which is pretty usual when Labour lose a general election and doesn’t usually call into question the legitimacy of the party.

    The rest of your reply someone else can take issue with…

  7. April 27, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    Hmm, I’m not sure I’m really doing what you’re accusing me of.

    But aside from the fact I think that Chris Dillow is right, and that this isn’t a particularly good argument, I also think the example of Manyoo is a bad one, as the Premiership is not an equal-opportunity meritocracy but a rampant plutocracy:

    http://liberalconspiracy.org/2009/05/16/what-we-can-learn-from-footballs-collapsed-social-mobility/

  8. April 28, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Paul S @ 8: I’ve replied to your point at your place, though I should say here that I’m not too fussed about the total legitimacy of the analogy; my main point stands up without it – that point being that FPTP may be a rubbish system, but that seeking to deligimitise whatever form of Labour victory may happen because of that is part of a deliberate anti-Labour narrative developed by the Lib Dems (and I would in their shoes) and picked up by the wider media/blogosphere either unthinkingly or connivingly.

    Rob @6: You make some interesting points there.

    1)[I]t is a plausible proposal for how democracy can work. I don’t think that Tom’s point is “excellent” at all, as it completely ignores the direction of travel of the parties concerned.

    I’m with Dave @7 that the direction of travel is irrelevant in itself, but is very handy for use as part of the anti-Labour narrative.

    Let me ask you: if the Tories win a small majority with a popular vote of less than they lost abjectly with in 2005 – not absolutely out of the question – will the right wing press say they are not a legitimate government? I don’t think they will.

    The ‘popular vote’ narrative goes all one way.

    2) “I think that the revelation that Labour was immune to third-party challenge that occured in 1983 could be a direct cause of Labour’s increasing disdain for its core vote and this can only be corrected by electoral reform or the widespread defeat of Labour candidates in a general election.”

    There is intuitive common sense in the point you make here and then expand well upon. However, I think it makes too many assumptions about a conscious link within the Labour party between policy formation and electoral strategy. It assumes some kind of Labour panopticon, with Blair and his ivory tower cohort surveying all these see and planning for their 100 year rule (as I think Niall Ferguson suggested there would be in about 2005).

    The reality of politics is it’s a lot messier. While there’s no way of proving it here, I thinkNew Labour policy was largely based on the neo-liberal doctrine handed down to it by the New Right, and while that certainly ended up with the core vote being crapped on, I don’t think there was a particularly conscious link to electoral strategy. The Labour party simply doesn’t operate like that. The ministers and their honchos make up policy, while the rest of us are expected to sell it in the constituencies, under orders from regional offices who ‘don’t do politics, but do elections’.

    Would Labour policy have been different under PR. It’s an impossible question to answer but no, I don’t think it would.

    3) On the issue of lib Dem democracy, I take your point, but I’m not so sure a meeting of MPs only on 12 May to decide which lot they form a coalition with sets a very good tone for the maintenance of internal democracy if they do get some power. They seem to be centralising really very quickly.

  1. April 28, 2010 at 7:31 am
  2. April 28, 2010 at 10:33 am

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