How Labour continue to be over-represented

As an addendum to my previous post, I have been poring over the numbers again and it struck me as notable that the Tories, despite never having dropped below 30% of vote share in modern times, have often won fewer than 200 seats whereas Labour, despite having dropped below 30% on at least two occasions (1983 and 2010), have never breached this psychological nadir. This year, again, they were forecast initially by the exit poll to weigh in at around 191 seats, but somehow managed to scrape in at 202 in the end.

In any first-past-the-post system, the winners will always benefit disproportionately and this is as true of the US electoral college as it is of Canadian ridings or British constituencies. For instance, people complain about Trump’s electoral college over-representation in the last presidential election in 2016 but forget that Obama benefited from a vote-to-college exaggeration twice before him, as did Bush and Clinton etc. This is simply an inherent function of this kind of system, and might be considered a sort of “winner’s dividend”. However what also appears to be true is that in Britain, the Tories have traditionally always had to “work harder” for their majorities than Labour, the result of a structural and psephological imbalance between the two parties’ support.

To highlight this, I have looked at how many votes per seat each party has had to win for their large majorities, comparing the Tory landslides under Thatcher and Boris, vs the Labour landslides under Blair. Even adjusting for total vote (in 2019 terms), the Tory majorities were much harder to come by:

Number of votes required per seat won by landslide winners (thousands, 2019 basis)

Majority winners

Note: in order to create a like-for-like comparison, I have adjusted the raw votes per seat upwards to the 2019 total vote numbers since the electorate has grown larger in absolute terms over time

To turn this around, if we look at how poorly the losers of those elections fared, one can see how under-represented or not they are in defeat. Again, the numbers show Tory defeats being much worse than Labour ones, which manifests itself in how the Conservative Party was at below 200 seats for the whole period between 1997 – 2010, something even Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn have not managed.

Number of votes required per seat won by landslide losers (thousands, 2019 basis)

Majority losers

Lastly, I look at the “tipping point”, in other words how the parties fare when close to each other – for instance in the two hung parliaments that we have had this decade. Extraordinarily, in both cases the Tories, despite being the winners of each election, still had to accumulate more votes per seat than the defeated Labour Party, turning the entire concept of a “winner’s dividend” on its head. By way of comparison, John Major’s slender absolute majority in 1992 only just saw the Tories needing fewer seats than Labour.

Number of votes per seat required in close elections (thousands, 2019 basis)

Close elections

At the very least this shows that the tipping point is well above the natural 50/50 threshold between the two parties. With the Tories having won a swathe of seats across the northern Labour heartlands, and with the impending promise of boundary changes, this could evolve somewhat; until it does though, Labour can relax in the knowledge that as a starting point, the electoral system still somewhat favours them.

The long arc of Tory progress (and why the SNP can be ignored)

Cameron Boris

On election night, I – unlike some around me (they know who they are) – was not losing my head. I had reasonable confidence of a substantial Tory majority, and had even put my money where my mouth was – being a buyer of a Tory majority at 44 in the spread betting markets. I had one central thesis: that the British electorate does not produce hung parliaments when there is a clear choice before them. Rather, hung parliaments only occur when the parties cannot distinguish themselves from one another (1974, 2010), or when they are unknown quantities (2017, pre-war). By this logic, Boris was in a good position to win outright.

This was despite the best attempts by the media to misread the polls. Like sub-par generals, journalists are always doomed to fight the last war, and the pollster who did “best” last time always exercises a disproportionate influence on their discourse the next time around. This year it was the YouGov MRP’s turn for lazy writers to place too much faith in, never remembering that no one pollster has ever been the “most accurate” twice in a row. In the event, the polls-of-polls were all broadly correct.

Of course there are other points of note about the Tory performance. On the one hand, there can surely be no denying Theresa May her contribution to breaking the Red Wall, and perhaps it really needed two heaves to get there; on the other hand, the media narrative on Boris being unpopular was I think well wide of the mark. Amongst key voter demographics, Boris was a positive, not a negative, and not just in contrast to Corbyn. Anyone who witnessed the acceptance speech by Ian Levy, the winning candidate in Blyth Valley, or to the reactions in Workington or Darlington, cannot doubt how central Boris was and how well he played on the doorstep as a loveable scamp who transcended class in his determination for Brexit.

Yet hidden amongst all the shock and turmoil lies a more profound truth: the Tories have been quietly improving their standing amongst the electorate for the last twenty years. Indeed the party have improved on their share of the vote at every election since 1997. They have also improved on their absolute numbers of votes since 2001 (the one surprise here being the considerable popularity of John Major even in 1997).

Conservative Party vote share and vote totals since 1997

Tory progress

This has not always translated into increased numbers of seats, due to the vagaries of the electoral system. 2017 saw Theresa May lose seats even as she surged to the highest vote share since Thatcher’s first election in 1979. William Hague, too, managed only a single net gain in 2001 despite a whole percentage point increase in votes. But set against this is the extraordinary fact that the party have now managed twice, in three elections, to work its way out of a hung parliament and back into a majority – a particularly difficult feat.

The cherry on the cake, of course, is that for those of us who lived through the dark days of the 1990s, we live to see a Tory government now likely to rule for at least fourteen years, and maybe nineteen. And whereas every other administration has won their biggest victories at or near the beginning (1945, 1966, 1983, 1997) only to see a long slow decline, somehow we have endeavoured to our greatest moment so far at the fourth time of asking, after a decade of being in power and all the scrutiny that comes with it. This is unprecedented and we are I think, allowed just a moment of self-satisfaction.

Majorities won by successive single party governments since 1945

Majorities

The one dark cloud being touted is Scotland. It will prove impossible for Boris not to yield to the SNP for a second referendum, they say. Yet for my own part, I reject this media interpretation. We should be clear that the SNP, whilst doing well in absolute terms, underperformed their own expectations and their previous results, and ended the night a slightly disappointed party. At 45%, their vote share was notably lower than the milestone 50% that they achieved in 2015, at the height of their post-referendum popularity. In seats, too, they failed to obtain the psychologically important 50 seats which they had set for themselves, and which would have cost Ruth Davidson a chilly outing in Loch Ness.

SNP and Conservative Party vote shares since 2015 vs support for Scottish independence

SNP

Source: Scottish independence polling from YouGov / The Times

Reading overlying themes onto partisan performances has its limitations. Reading Brexit results onto Tory or Labour support is impractical, for instance. But this is less so for one-issue parties such as the SNP or the Brexit Party. Their secular decline in their vote share since 2015 reflects the commensurate decline in popularity of the Scottish independence proposition over the same period. Much as the SNP have made headlines with the help of simplistic reporting, they are actually worse off than they have been in the recent past.

And here, given the success of my previous theory, is my second one: the popularity of independence in Scotland correlates directly with the efficacy of government in Westminster – not the nature of that government or its political colours, just plain ability to govern. Hence why the build up to 2014, with a coalition in place, led to one peak; the minority of 2017-2019 another (as were the mid-to-late 1990s). But I predict that as Boris gets his feet under the table and gets on with life, Brexit included, Scottish sentiment will begin to recede. Boris need not pay such calls for independence any heed, and all credit to him, he seems to be headed this way.

Support for Scottish independence (1978 – 2012)

Westminster effifacy

The progress that the Conservative Party has made since the mid-1990s is a tribute to various leaders, each in their way: William Hague for his “night shift”; Michael Howard, the man who arguably saved the Conservative Party with his performance in 2005; David Cameron and his decontamination; May and the recognition of the new tectonic plates of class and economics; and finally Boris, who with his ambiguity over Brexit somehow captured the skeptical but generous spirit of the age. Even Iain Duncan Smith was a useful placeholder. The fact is that this 80 seat majority is a tribute not just to Boris’ political skills, but rather to a long, slow, and painful rebuild which for all its highs and lows, has seen indomitable progress towards power. Just what the Conservative Party has always been about.

************************************************************************

A slightly self-congratulatory update (2 Jan 2020)

First, it seems this theme of long term progress has been picked up by various commentators, such as Martin Kettle at the Guardian, who notes that:

“The Tories have now formed four governments in a row. Remarkably, they have increased their share of the vote for the last six elections. They have 200 more MPs today than in 1997. Those who sit for seats in the north and Midlands have got most of the attention, and rightly so. But the tightening Tory grip in parts of the south that were once marginal also matters. The Tory advance across Wales is dramatic. And they remain a player in Scotland, something Labour can barely claim. They are UK-wide again. And they now have a new generation of MPs who can shape their party.

Secondly, there was an interesting graphic from the Financial Times talking about the Tories and the working class:

However whilst the FT was trying to make the point about Tory inroads, much of this graphic simply demonstrates the underlying improvement in performance, which would naturally eat into traditional Labour voters since Conservative success basically equates to Labour decline. Either way, the choice of 1997 as the starting point is notable and the story a component of what I outlined above in the original post.

Pochettino, Rationalism and St John the Baptist

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

John 1:6-13

The news of Pochettino being “relieved of his duties” was one of those events which, while an enormous shock at the time, with every passing day become more and more comprehensible; such that having had a couple of weeks to digest, it now seems the most natural thing in the world. Then Mourinho arrived so quickly that, as the Taoist saying goes, “if you use a sharp enough knife, the cow does not even know it is dead”.

The reason that a certain section of the fans – the majority, I suspect – were so saddened at Poch’s departure was because of how much we had all bought into “the Project”. Almost five and a half years is a life time in football today, and for parts of that, it really did seem that he was the one who had come to lead us to the Promised Land: a new stature, a new stadium, and an end to the trophy drought. Yet it had been clear for a long time that Pochettino also had limitations – limitations which, frankly, may yet prevent him from really becoming a top class manager anywhere else, even if he were to have more resources.

First amongst them was that he never really displayed tactical nous, and was instead a system manager. He belonged, in his way, to a tradition which places the system above all else, a tradition which can be traced from Guardiola, Bielsa and Wenger, all the way through Poch down to the likes of Eddie Howe and Ralph Hasenhüttl. System managers – perhaps we can call them “Rationalists” – when they are right, are irrepressible: their teams play throughout the season as a single unbroken line, constantly possessing, attacking and scoring, not punctuated by the mere whistle of referees starting and ending matches. The end of one game and the beginning of the next is seamless. This is what makes them so resilient and machine-like – scoring against them does not really achieve anything more than insects hitting the windscreen of an onrushing car. When it works, individual moments of adversity make no impact on a team’s mentality or emotion.

Against these Rationalists are the Empiricists, the school of management which takes each match as it comes and deals with them one at a time, often with tailored tactics for specific parts of the pitch or even windows of time. In this tradition belongs Mourinho above all others, the man who makes double substitutions at half-time and who famously defeated Pep’s Barcelona in 2010 with ten men. But there are others: Ancelotti, Allegri and Conte for instance; Marco Silva and, I would guess, even Big Sam. Italy was always the home of tactical men such as Lippi and Trap, with little acceptance of outsider Rationalists such as Sacchi. With them, the moment and the match are everything: these teams win cup semi-finals and finals, derbies, and top-of-the-table clashes. By and large, a siege mentality is useful; but so, too, is the ability to discard players when needed. In a sense, it favours a little bit of the under-dog.

The problem for the Rationalists is that when trying to make the system work, there is a fine line. Success is magnified by compounded success; but loss is likewise exaggerated. There is no “middle”. For an Empiricist, your last game can prove you right; for the Rationalist, only success over a long period can justify the seemingly rigid adherence to the system. Poch did not make substitutions. He did not, until near the end, introduce formational changes. He remained loyal to players at all times. More than anything, he was not good at incorporating new players and needed the constancy of his core group, pressing them repeatedly to come up with the same goods, game after game, season after season.

And this would have been fine, if players had rotated. But the iron law is that either the players have to be freshened up … or the manager does. But there was a further dichotomy with Poch which was that he was so dogmatic that he struggled to bring in new players at all. I believe there is every truth to the claim that he rejected new signings during the summer of 2018, because he did not feel they would fit. Additionally, he did not have a great track record of new signings anyway after the departure of Paul Mitchell in 2016. His teams were always thrown by resets such as summer breaks and even normal international breaks – form was always randomised after such events like the dice in a game of Boggle. Yet at the same time he refused to introduce new talent, meaning the squad was tired out. It was intensity without any possibility to refresh.

Which brings us to what Pochettino should be seen as: not as the Saviour, but as St John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness before the coming of the real thing. Poch understood that for a few seasons he had to ignore the noise of fans and media and demands for silverware, and just concentrate on stature. The rest would come. He was specifically the right man for bringing Tottenham out of being a probable-top-six club to a regular-top-four one – a role he may be destined to repeat, since if he were to join either Man Utd or Arsenal, they would rightly want this particular trick repeated. His five years at Spurs were a necessary time and place, and he leaves a platform ideal for the next step, whether that be under Mourinho or anyone else. He fit that stage of Levy’s development plan perfectly, and in retrospect, it was never likely to be anything more. Much like Bielsa, he may be destined to never achieve true greatness; and much like St John, he may not himself be the True Light, but rather be destined for undignified decapitation.

Pochettino

Nonetheless St John has his retinue of true followers and believers, and good luck to them. There are those who might want the Rationalist system despite the tactical rigidity and squad management. These are perhaps the purists, though they are destined to be as tangential as the Mandaeans. For myself, despite the initial shock, I am all for the man who may well turn out to be the True Light.

In nomine Domini, Amen