Posted by Brad @ 11:35 am on April 26th 2010

The Wedge Issue Between Tories and LibDems

Is shaping up to be civil liberties, where the two most closely overlap, and where the conservatives believe they can pick off voters suddenly inclined towards the Liberal Democrats.

The UK election has become one of the most fascinating in many, many years, with the incumbent Labour party now running third, all the mojo settling (for now) on the third party Liberal Democrats, and David Cameron and the conservatives possibly getting squeezed out and screwed out of Number 10 Downing. All indications are that May 7th may be a pivotal moment in contemporary British politics.


  1. Somebody link me to a site that explains how a party can finish a distant third in a British parliamentary election and still end up with a plurality of seats. I’m unable to explain this to my student competitors, or even to fully understand it myself.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2010 @ 12:12 pm

  2. Isn’t it the same way congressional districts work? First past the post. So, while the Lib Dems may get 30% of the vote, they may get it spread across the entire country. Whereas Labour may only get 20% of the vote, but if they wind up first past the post in N number of districts, they get N many seats.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2010 @ 12:23 pm

  3. Well, that’s the explanation I’m getting from various places, but mathematically it makes almost no sense given the numbers involved. Also, if I recall correctly, there have been previous PMs who LOST the election in their own constituencies, which would be impossible in a pure first past the post system–in that they would not be MPs at that point, at all, and hence presumably ineligible for the office.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2010 @ 12:28 pm

  4. The reason the math has me confused, by the way, is the issue of margins. Yes, I do grasp that the votes may be distributed in such a way that a party can win more constituencies while losing the total vote, just as for instance a Presidential candidate can win the electoral college while losing the popular vote.

    But here we are talking about a result in which the LDs edge Labour by something on the order of eight points and win up with one fourth as many seats. And that strikes me as, well, fantastically unlikely based on the maths involved. The LDs as I understand it tend to do well in Cornwall and Wales; Labour in the urban centres as well as the midlands and southern Scotland; the Conservatives everywhere rural. So it seems to me that for the math to work, the LDs have to run a narrow second in all of the other parties’ two constituencies and then win by ridiculous margins in their strong seats.

    Is that really the way the math shakes out, or is there some aspect of the system that I just don’t get?

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2010 @ 12:36 pm

  5. Here’s an excellent interactive map as a guideline for the election. I gather that Brad’s understanding (which was initially mine as well) is correct. It’s just mathematically weird.

    “Hung Parliament” would be a good name for a British porno.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2010 @ 12:50 pm

  6. Well, part of the weirdness arises from the sheer number of electors and the relative smallness of their constituencies. It’s more like the House of Representatives than the electoral college, only in the UK it would be a house with 650 congressmen (MPs), the majority of whom elect the Prime Minister from among their ranks.

    Even our Congress has a significant disparity between, say, national party ID and makeup of Congress. In England the problem is amplified because they have even more representatives representing many fewer people. So, their House of Commons has about 35% more seats than our House of Representatives, despite having 80% less constituents to represent. Or, to put it another way, it’s about 1 member of parliament per 95,000 Brits, vs. 1 congressman per 710,000 Americans. Throw into the mix the fact that while Britain is not a two party state, the ubiquity and resources of the #1 and #2 party is substantially more than the (distant) #3, and you get an amplification of representation skew. And it goes without saying that, while their gerrymandering is very different than ours, there is still plenty of weirdness in terms of how constituencies are drawn up (and it also goes without saying that that tends to heavily favor those parties that are well established, old, and have the most resources).

    I think you’re right in your comment 3, that if an MP lost in their district they would be, by definition, ineligible to be Prime Minister. I wonder when the last time that happened was.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2010 @ 1:26 pm

  7. Incidentally, depending on whether Clegg can hang on in a position of strength, the Lib Dems have been pushing to reform that system to make it more favorable to third parties (or, as they would put it, to correct for that skew) and may make that a precondition of any alliance with the Tories (which, I would have to think, the Tories would be crazy to accept). So this debate, by virtue of the Lib Dems sudden ascent, may suddenly, in the final weeks of the campaign, become very very hot button (even more so if, as you say, the result in seats turns out way skewed from the result in national vote).

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2010 @ 1:30 pm

  8. You know, now that I think of it: it’s possible that the un-elected PMs to whom I was referring in comment three were serving in the House of Lords. I guess it would be possible for a peer to run for election in the Commons, lose that election, and then wind up as PM anyway due to retention of the other seat. I suppose. Maybe.

    Who WAS the last PM to rule from the HOL, anyway? I think I remember that Halifax, who was seen as the primary alternative to Churchill at the time Chamberlain resigned, wasn’t seated in the Commons, so it must be a relatively recent thing.

    I need to look these things up. I think my meanderings here may be putting at risk our award-winning expertise as analysts of British politics. Quick, delete these comments before Dizzy notices!

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2010 @ 1:52 pm

  9. I’ll be damned. Britain had an unelected Head of Government as recently as 1964. Apparently the Tory PM resigned due to health reasons; the Conservatives went into an extended bicker-fest as to the replacement, and the Queen basically said, “screw you weirdos; I’m appointing the guy from the House of Lords who’s advising me on the crisis as PM.”

    Bizarre system. I mean, that would be like a Presidential candidate selecting the chair of his VP search committee as the VP candidate, or a President nominating his personal lawyer to the Supreme Court.

    This also answers the question about whether you can be PM without having a constituency; apparently the guy actually resigned from Lords in order to run in a by-election for a Commons seat, and during the interim 15 days or so he was indeed PM without being an MP.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2010 @ 2:03 pm

  10. In my inbox just now. These games are actually pretty good for gaming out scenarios.

    Hi fellow politico,

    With the U.K. in the middle of an election campaign, Prime Minister Forever – British 2010 has been released!

    Can Cameron’s Conservatives take a majority and the Prime Ministership? Or will Prime Minister Brown hold on despite the odds – perhaps with Clegg’s Lib-Dems becoming the new kingmaker?

    PM4E – British 2010 uses the latest PM4E game engine and an awesome 2010 scenario, including 16 parties, 22 regions, and all 650 constituencies.

    (Latest game engine includes multiple ad types, campaign morale affects, enhanced endorser system, ability to turn minor parties on or off, advanced map shading, and more.)

    We will also be adding to the game in the next week leading up to the election, including scenario tweaks and added features.

    If you are an owner of Prime Minister Forever – British 2005, you are entitled to a discount (see the link on the order page).

    For more information or to get it now, go here:

    Any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

    Good gaming!

    Anthony Burgoyne
    Games that spark the political imagination!

    Comment by Brad — 4/29/2010 @ 9:09 am

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