Episode 19: First Past the Post?

John Lanchester

The Tory papers are hitting the delegitimisation thing pretty hard today. The front pages are:

Nightmare on Downing Street (Telegraph)
Miliband trying to con his way into No. 10, says PM (Times)
For sanity’s sake don’t let a class war zealot and the SNP destroy our economy – and our very nation (Daily Mail)
Post-election shambles looms as legitimacy crisis worsens (Independent, which may have surprised its readers by telling them to vote Tory)

And then for light relief, the two papers owned by Richard Desmond:

Why You Must Vote for Ukip (Daily Express)
Brits live sex show on Magaluf booze cruise (Daily Star)

The delegitimisation story is going to be an interesting test of how much power the newspapers still have. They have much less than they used to in most areas of our national life, and the same is probably true here. On the other hand, according to the surprisingly entertaining and interesting focus group reports of Lord Ashcroft, most voters don’t know it’s constitutionally kosher for the party coming second to form the government:

Most did not realise such an outcome was even possible, and many – including many who planned to vote Labour – were indignant at the idea: ‘They would have cheated their way in’; ‘It would be underhand. Not what the public wanted, not what the public said’; ‘It’s dealmongering, moving away from democracy’; ‘If that happened, at the next election, I’d think, what’s the point of voting?’ Not everyone was exercised about it – but so many felt so strongly that it suggested such a government would have a job persuading the public of its political legitimacy, however constitutionally permissible it might be.

If this focus group is representative, that’s a potentially big problem for Labour, in the event of the outcome that the polls are currently predicting: a Tory plurality of votes and seats, and a Labour government. One of Ashcroft’s interviewees had a compelling suggestion: ‘What happens if no one can form a coalition? Does it go to penalties?’


  • 6 May 2015 at 2:22pm
    Dave Boyle says:
    The problem for Labour has been that they've felt unable to address the long-known outcome of the election (hung parliament) and instead cleaved to the majoritan fantasy that they seek and hope to form a majority government; that's not just because of the skewed frame promoted by the increasingly ludicrous media, but for the same reason they're deeply ambivalent about alternatives to FPTP - it sticks in the craw to not be running things themselves alone.

    As a result, Miliband and others have spent 6 weeks mouthing plainly not-likely-to-happen homilies about wanting to win a majority, which both creates the idea that something short of it is illegitimate, and by not talking about this likelier scenario, have failed to use their media time to explain that the media BS about who can and can't form a government is, well, BS.

    • 6 May 2015 at 2:47pm
      AlexS says: @ Dave Boyle
      Yeah you're right. Only Labour have been even more idiotic than that. Their Scots branch office has vomited out a plethora of leaflets and tweets explicitly stating that "the largest party gets to form the government". In those words. Pulling the rug from under their own feet in an attempt to dissuade Scots from voting SNP. It was a high risk strategy, it's failed, and is about to blow up in their stupid, stupid faces

    • 6 May 2015 at 5:53pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ AlexS
      Would you have favoured them coming out and saying "we'd like to win, but if we don't we can still be a factor in the formation of the new administration"? That sort of thing? I haven't followed this very closely but I would have welcomed some of the old-fashioned swings and balances analysis - where will the Tories win, where lose, and it would be interesting to find out why Farage and his lot get some much space. How many seat will they get? Two? Three? Wow twice as many as the greens. Where is Screaming Lord Sutch? The Nation calls for you.

    • 6 May 2015 at 7:03pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ AlexS
      I've written more about this on my blog. It's been a depressing and frustrating campaign, because of this issue most of all; it seems as if what could have been a positive, hopeful campaign - a canter towards a more-or-less guaranteed anti-Tory majority - has been fought out in accusations, silences and evasions.

      The problem for Labour is that, as soon as Sturgeon said the SNP would help lock the Tories out, she removed the main reason left-leaning people in Scotland had for not voting SNP. (There are others, but that was by far the strongest.) Ironically, while that's a gift to Labour at the UK level, it poses an enormous threat to Scottish Labour: there are 40 Labour MPs in Scotland, 36 of whom could be losing their seats tomorrow night. I think Gordon Brown's speech the other day gave some idea of what a truly positive, "why you should vote Labour anyway" Scottish campaign might have looked like. Unfortunately I don't think Jim Murphy's up to it - hence his cunning wheeze of getting the "vote SNP, get Tory" threat back out of the box, even if it meant going along with the Tories' lies. People whose judgment I respect have said that it could just work, by reminding people that they hate the Tories more than they love the SNP, but it's just as likely to make people realise how they're being manipulated and react against it. In any case it's a nasty, mean way to campaign, not to mention being based on (not to put too fine a point on it) Tory lies.

  • 6 May 2015 at 7:20pm
    streetsj says:
    This could be the beginning of the end of our ludicrous first past the post system.

    There should be no room for tactical voting. And there should be no room for a system that gives 100% of the seats to the party with 50% of the vote. (Who knew that the Tories still polled 15-20% of the Scottish vote?).

    If the outlook ahead of a second election this year is for a similar vote I would hope there would be more honest debatenabout what sort of deals parties would be prepared to do. (Do they discuss that in Continental elections?).

    The reason UKIP has had so much coverage is that hey did actually poll more votes than any party at the last national election. What the general election will prove is that it was just a protest vote.

    • 6 May 2015 at 10:20pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ streetsj
      It will also prove, as you pointed out first of all, that people don't get the representation that they vote for - something the LibDems have illustrated many times before. UKIP will probably poll the same number of votes as the LibDems but get a couple of seats to their 20-odd.

      It's interesting to note that the one party standing to gain most from FPTP this time round - the SNP - are also demanding the introduction of PR. So much for democratic illegitimacy there, then.

    • 7 May 2015 at 4:12pm
      AlexS says: @ streetsj
      I'd have liked them not to repeatedly lie in such a way as to undermine their own prospects of forming the next government? Sort of basic stuff, really

  • 7 May 2015 at 10:17am
    Bernard Porter says:
    Interesting comment on the Guardian election website today, in connection with Stephen Kinnock's candidacy in Aberavon, that his wife - Helle Thorning-Schmidt - became Danish PM in 2011 in a three-party coalition despite her Social Democratic party's finishing second.

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