Posts Tagged ‘House of Commons’

Five reasons to vote in a safe seat

Why bother to vote in a safe seat, knowing your vote won’t make a difference to that constituency’s outcome? Jonathan Birch offers five key reasons why voting makes a difference to the legitimacy and stability of parliamentary democracy, even when individual seats don’t change hands.

Elections can be pretty demoralising if you live in a safe seat. Where I live, in Mid Sussex, the Conservatives have a majority of almost 20,000 and have held the seat since its creation in 1974. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. Nothing happens, no one visits. You’re lucky to get a single leaflet.

If I lived in a marginal seat, I’d have a realistic chance, albeit a very small one, of making a difference. In the 1997 election, the seat of Winchester was decided by a margin of 2 votes, so it was literally true that every vote for the winning candidate mattered. This happens every now and then in marginals. But not in safe seats.

The Electoral Reform Society estimates that over half the seats in the UK are safe, in the sense that the outcome is not in any serious doubt. Ideally, we’d have some sort of proportional representation that would give my vote a chance of influencing who gets elected. But we don’t. I know that the outcome of the election will be unaffected by my vote.

So why vote at all? Why bother when you know your vote won’t matter? I’m sure this is one big reason why, in every election, around 30-40% of eligible voters don’t vote. But I think there are still reasons to vote, in spite of our flawed electoral system. Here are five.

1: The seat might not be as safe as you think

We live in volatile times. In the 2017 election, some seats turned out to be far more competitive than anyone expected. One example is Canterbury, which had been held by the Conservatives since its creation (as a constituency) in 1918. Propelled by the student population, Labour overturned a majority of almost 10,000 from two years earlier. In recent years, Labour has lost all of its ‘safe seats’ in Scotland with the rise of the Scottish Nationalists. In 2017, they even lost Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, which had a majority of 23,000 in 2010. These things happen. But they don’t happen very often.

2: To influence your MP’s behaviour

Even in a safe seat, your vote counts towards the totals for each party, so it can make the seat a tiny bit safer or a tiny bit less safe. This makes no difference, you might think: the same MP is elected either way. But the behaviour of the MP will be influenced by the safety of their seat.

MPs in safe seats are under no serious pressure to deliver benefits to their constituents. They might be diligent MPs anyway, but they are not compelled to be. If they want, they can skip votes and debates and spend their time doing after-dinner speeches, serving on company boards, indulging in schemes and plots for their own advancement, and so on. By contrast, an MP defending a tiny majority has a motivation to work hard.

Moreover, an MP in a safe seat can also happily follow the party whip, even if the party line harms their own constituency. By contrast, MPs in marginals often feel much greater pressure to put their own constituents before party loyalty. Brexit has given us some interesting examples. Many of the most high-profile Labour rebels over Brexit—e.g. John Mann, John Woodcock, Ruth Smeeth, Gareth Snell, Caroline Flint, Jon Cruddas, Gloria De Piero—are in vulnerable, pro-Leave marginals.

It might occasionally be a good thing for an MP to feel able to oppose the interests of their constituents. Sometimes, we might want our MPs to vote in the national interest, setting aside the interests of the people of one small area. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

3: To make future elections more (or less) competitive

Parties invest their resources according to how competitive they think a seat is. In a safe seat, you will see few leaflets, few signs, few activists and probably no candidates. Once a party starts regarding a seat as a serious target, they start to have a chance of taking it, even though the incumbent party will also start campaigning more vigorously.

You might want your seat to be more competitive next time, if you oppose the incumbent party. Or you might want your seat to become less competitive, if you support the incumbent party. Either way, your vote will make a difference to the seat’s competitiveness, and that will make a difference to the atmosphere surrounding future elections.

4: To influence national vote share

The effect of your vote on the parties’ national vote share is minuscule. But you might conceivably tip your party over some significant threshold: from 39.9% to 40.0%, for example. Because we don’t have proportional representation, the national vote share officially makes no difference. But it does make a difference to the perceived legitimacy of a government. Governments in this country are usually elected with a minority vote share, but the smaller the minority, the worse this looks. When Labour was elected in 1997 on a 43% vote share, I don’t remember anyone complaining about their legitimacy or using the result as an argument for electoral reform. But when they were re-elected in 2005 on a 35% vote share (a margin of victory of less than 3%), people did complain, and it did strengthen the argument for electoral reform.

5: To help keep democracy alive

Turnout matters because it affects the legitimacy and stability of parliament, the government, and all the institutions of a democracy. Imagine turnout fell to 35%. What kind of democracy would we have then? What sort of democratic mandate could a government claim for doing anything? The overwhelming message from a general election with a 35% turnout is that democracy is in trouble, and its institutions and parties are not perceived as legitimate. It would be a perilous situation for the whole country.

This isn’t hypothetical: it’s been the actual situation for a long time in elections to the European parliament. One of the problems MEPs have faced for decades is that turnout in European elections is low. The result is that people don’t generally see their MEPs as representing them, or know much about them or what they do, allowing the idea of the EU as ‘undemocratic’ to take root.

So, in a vague kind of way, a vote for any party is a vote of confidence in parliamentary democracy itself. As an individual, your effect on turnout is even less significant than that on national vote share, so the effect is still minuscule. It also cuts both ways. You might want to undermine confidence in a parliament elected by an antiquated electoral system, which would be a reason not to vote. But if you still believe in parliamentary democracy despite everything, you can be comforted by the thought that your vote makes a tiny difference to its legitimacy and stability.


About the Author

Jonathan Birch is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the LSE.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

Different methods, similar outcome: comparing the Poll of Polls with MRP

The star of the show in 2017’s general election polling landscape was YouGov’s MRP model, which produced remarkably accurate estimates of the results in seats across the country. The equivalent model for this year’s election, explains Joe Greenwood, produces quite similar estimates to approaches based on the average figures from standard national polls.

At an excellent event on ‘Reading the 2019 election polls’ at LSE last week, the sense of anticipation regarding the shortly-to-be-released YouGov Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification (MRP) model was palpable. Indeed, the two academics who run the model using YouGov’s data, Ben Lauderdale and Jack Blumenau, made it a running theme of their presentation that they could not even hint at the model’s estimates of party vote shares or numbers of seats. Why the anticipation? Well, back in 2017 when many polling companies had a bad time estimating the vote shares of parties (especially Labour) in that year’s election, the previous incarnation of the MRP model was remarkably accurate at estimating, in particular, the seats that each party would end up with. Indeed, it predicted 93% of the constituency results correctly and anticipated shock outcomes such as those in Canterbury and Kensington.

Later that night, the model’s national and seat-by-seat estimates were released and indicated that, based on current voting intentions, the Conservatives would win a comfortable victory. Indeed, even at the lowest end of the estimates, Boris Johnson’s party was estimated to reach 328 seats, giving him a small majority (or a slightly larger one, once we take account of Sinn Fein MPs who do not take up their seats, and the seats of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons).

How did the model produce this estimate? Well, MRP begins by estimating the relationship between voting intention and key characteristics such as age, gender, and education. It then applies these relationships in different constituencies based on characteristics of their populations (obtained from official statistics such as the Census and subsequent updates), whilst also adjusting for the characteristics of the seats themselves (such as whether they voted Leave or Remain, and even how many fish and chip shops they have). It is this process that gives the model is particular benefit: estimates of the outcome in each parliamentary constituency.

At a national level, though, how different is the estimate of vote share produced by the MRP model from the average of the estimates produced by the standard polls that we have seen up until now? In short: not very different. I start by comparing the national level vote share produced by the BBC’s poll of polls with the equivalent figure produced by the MRP. As can be seen in the first figure, the estimates are remarkably similar. Indeed, none of the party vote share estimates given by the MRP differ from the equivalent figures in the poll of polls by more than 2%. The MRP gives the Conservative and Labour parties each a 1% higher vote share than the poll of polls, whilst it estimates a 2% lower share for the Brexit Party and a 1% lower share for the SNP. The Liberal Democrat, Green, and Plaid Cymru vote shares are the same in both approaches.

But, this is not the most important part: MRP’s main benefit lies in its seat estimates. Turning to the second figure, we can see a little more difference in terms of the number of seats the different approaches estimate each party will obtain, but still considerable similarity.

To calculate the seat estimates stemming from the poll of polls I took its national vote share figures and fed them, first, into Election Polling’s UK Swingometer (labelled ‘Uniform Swing’ in the figure). Then, to make a basic adjustment for the differing voting patterns in Scotland from the rest of the UK, I fed those same national vote share figures into Electoral Calculus’ equivalent swingometer, which also allows separate vote share figures to be entered for Scotland (I took these from YouGov’s latest national voting intention poll, which provides estimates for Scotland, and the columns a labelled as ‘Separate Scottish Swing’ in the figure).

The largest difference is that the MRP model’s estimate of Conservative seats (359) is 13 higher than the estimate (346) stemming from the Scotland-adjusted swing. Otherwise, none of the seat estimates that the MRP model produces are more than eight seats different from either of the approaches using swing based on the average national vote share from the poll of polls. In line with its higher estimate of Conservative seats, the MRP model estimates fewer seats for Labour (seven below the Scotland-adjusted swing) and the Liberal Democrats (six below the Scotland-adjusted swing). In short, the MRP model, when compared with swing-based estimates drawing on average national polling vote share, suggests that the Conservative Party will do slightly better whilst Labour and the Liberal Democrats will do slightly worse.

Of course, neither of these estimates can account for something very important: what might change in the final days of the campaign. There could be major events and associated shifts in voting intentions in the population or certain sub-groups. This might lead the MRP model to predict a notably different outcome from an application of swing (uniform or otherwise) based on national voting intention figures. However, that seems unlikely, and if things stay roughly as they are now then, whatever estimate of seats we use, the Conservatives seem likely to have a comfortable majority.


About the Author

Joe Greenwood @niceonecombo is an LSE Fellow in the LSE Department of Government, where he teaches on GV101 (Introduction to Political Science). He previously worked at YouGov and, before that, completed his PhD at the University of Essex. His research focuses on political participation, privilege, and perceptions in the British context.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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