One of the assertions that I keep seeing on social media and other websites is that only a minority of people voted for the current government, with the implication that it therefore lacks both popular support and legitimacy.
It’s become something of a self-replicating meme, particularly among those who still haven’t come to terms with the fact that their opinions weren’t shared by the majority of voters. I see it so often that I’ve decided to respond to it here, so that in future I can just point people at this article rather than having to type all of this every time.
Usually, this claim takes the form of pointing out that around 37% of votes were cast for the Conservatives, although some (such as Astroturf campaign group 38 Degrees) like to go further and assert that only 24% of the electorate voted for them on the basis that you have to take account of non-voters as well.
While technically true, however, this does not in any way support the implication that most people don’t support the current government.
For a start, the largest proportion of votes cast were for a centre-right or right-wing party. If you add up the votes for the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP then you get a bare majority (just over 50%) of all votes cast.
Given that there were only two realistic options for who would be Prime Minister, anyone voting for any party other than Labour or the Conservatives would only expect to be in power as part of a coalition. UKIP and the DUP are both broadly right of centre parties, although their agendas differ greatly. So a vote for either of them was a vote for a right of centre government. And the only right of centre government which is in any way plausible is one in which the Conservatives are the largest party and David Cameron is Prime Minister.
Even if we had full proportional representation, therefore, we’d still have David Cameron in Downing Street and most government ministries run by Conservatives.
However, the people who voted for overtly right of centre parties aren’t the only ones who would be happy with that. A small, but non-trivial, number of Lib Dem voters would consider themselves centre-right rather than centre-left. The “Orange Book” Lib Dems would almost certainly be happier with a Cameron-led government than one led by Ed Miliband.
Then there are voters in Scotland who are nationalists first and conservatives second, and therefore voted for the SNP despite, rather than because, it’s a left of centre party. They, too, are presumably happy with the outcome of the SNP dominating Scotland with a Conservative government in Westminster. There may not be all that many of them, but the certainly exist. So we can add them to the overall total of supporters of a Conservative-led government.
OK, but what about the non-voters? Well, there are many reasons for not voting, but a general “none of the above” attitude is not the most common. Research suggests that antipathy to all the parties only amounts to around 15%-20% of non-voters. For the rest, apathy, disinterest and practical issues (such as being unable to arrange a postal vote in time) are what stopped them voting.
Of the apathetic voters, many of them are apathetic because they genuinely don’t care who runs the country. They can, therefore, be presumed to be, if not exactly happy, at least comfortable with the result of the general election in May. It is true, of course, that they’d also have been equally comfortable with a Labour government. But they can’t be assumed to be opposed to the current government.
For the rest, research also suggests that if voting were compulsory (as it is in Australia), non-voters would divide among the parties on offer in much the same proportions as actual voters. So if all those non-voters had voted, it would have increased the number of votes cast for the Conservatives more than it would have increased the number of votes cast for any other party. And the overall proportion of votes cast for the Conservatives would have remained unchanged.
It is, therefore, statistically indisputable that the majority of the UK electorate, at the 2015 election, preferred a right of centre government. The only area of difference is that some of them preferred a single party government while others preferred a coalition.
We can also look at this another way. A majority of the electrate wanted a right of centre government. Of those who did, a majority wanted a single party government. So a single party, right of centre government is the result that is the best fit for the largest number of the electorate. If, instead of voting for individual candidates in individual seats, we’d had a single election for four options…
A: left of centre coalition
B: left of centre single party
C: right of centre coalition
D: right of centre single party
…and used a ranking vote system, such as AV or Condorcet, to choose between them, then (barring some really weird ranking choices) option D would have won.
However you slice and dice it, you always end up wih the “right” result being either a Conservative government or a Conservative-led coalition government along with other right wing parties. There is no valid argument which results in any left-wing party being in government.
It’s not unreasonable to make the argument that a coalition of multiple right-wing parties would have been a better reflection of the overall preferences of the electorate, although even that has its issues (why should UKIP have been part of the government when Labour, who got considerably more votes and seats, are not?). But the one thing that you cannot honestly argue – or imply – is that there is some kind of “anti-Conservative majority” in the UK.