Votes that count

As eagle-eyed readers may have noticed, I had an article in The Times yesterday making the case against electoral reform.  (It’s on page 77 if you missed it.)  Ken Ritchie of the Electoral Reform Society put the case for.  We are now regular sparring partners. 

Accompanying the two articles is a box briefly detailing the features of different electoral systems.  For first-past-the-post, it says ‘The candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins.  All other votes count for nothing.’ 

All other votes do not count for nothing.  Those voting for other candidates may not have produced the winner – amazingly enough, in all electoral systems there are winners and losers – but their votes serve an important purpose.  Why do people turn out to vote in seats in which their candidates are unlikely to win?   When I had a vote in parliamentary elections, I voted Conservative in a safe Labour seat (or what was a safe Labour seat).  I voted in the local elections on 6 May for Conservative candidates in a safe Labour area.  As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t wasting my time.  My vote is a public way of expressing my preference.  In many respects, there is a powerful incentive for parties who normally come second or even third or fourth to campaign hard in order to demonstrate that their cause is not lost in the area.  The votes gained by a party may not be sufficient to win a seat but they can send out a message.  That message may be ‘we’re on the move, watch out next time’.  The votes also add to the party’s total number to demonstrate the national level of support. 

One should not underestimate the sense of satisfaction of having voted for one’s own side, regardless of the outcome.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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6 Responses to Votes that count

  1. Jonathan says:

    While we can still read the Times Online (i.e. before next month) the article is here, minus the dodgy side box:

    I live in a very safe Conservative area, but did not consider my vote to be wasted, for the reasons you mentioned, but also because a coalition government with the Lib Dems was on the cards. Nick Clegg had said at one stage that he would take the percentage of votes into account when deciding who to form a coalition with, so not only did every vote count towards demonstrating the national level of support, but this could also influence to final composition of the government.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    This coalition raises so many questions! If I may put a few more to you:

    Will the Salisbury convention apply only to the Tory manifesto, especially given the LibDems renounced it in 2005?

    Will the LibDems get any Short money (another reason why all votes count)?

    Will there be a similar coalition in the HoL?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Excellent questions. There are a great many questions still to be resolved in the new circumstances. It could be argued that the Salisbury convention does not apply where there is no clear commitment in the governing party’s manifesto, though this may be an academic point – the coalition numbers in the Lords should be sufficient to carry the day in divisions. The coalition exists in respect of both chambers, though there is the interesting question of where members will now sit. Matters such as Short money – and whether any third party will get the opportunity to ask three questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time – are in the process of being considered. There was a seminar for clerks last week to discuss the various procedural issues arising from the new situation.

  3. Spot on, Lord Norton. There’s something disingenuous in saying that a vote for a losing candidate is a lost vote or unfair—ask those who were shut out from their polling stations on election night (or suffered from insufficient ballots) what constitutes fairness.

    By casting a vote for a losing candidate, one encourages one’s party and gives notice to its opponents—while freely exercising a civic responsibility.

    Conversely, come election day, must everyone be seen to win? Must everyone win prizes?

  4. James Walker says:

    But what about the spoiler effect?

  5. Croft says:

    You may not wish to tread here LN but I wonder if you have an opinion on the calculation on the AV referendum.

    1) Did the Tories agree to a referendum believing they could win it (for FPTP)

    2) agree to it as a way of getting the majority of their MPs to concede the issue to the referendum and not destabilise the government formation

    3) Expecting to lose the referendum but using the referendum as a sop to the backbenchers.

    4) Agreeing almost anything to get the coalition and not really making a calculation on the result at all

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