Actually, most people are happy with the result of the general election

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 total 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.

  • Simon R

    An interesting perspective, but I fear there are several flaws in your reasoning.

    Firstly, a couple of things I (as a Labour supporter) agree with you on. The best measure to use is that the Conservative vote was 36.9% of those who voted, not the (lower) proportion of the electorate who voted Conservative. And based on the election results, even in a completely proportional system, it looks almost certain that David Cameron would have been Prime Minister. Based on the likely preferences of the smaller parties, it would have been almost impossible for Ed Miliband to get the support of MPs representing over 50% of those who voted, but it would probably have been possible for David Cameron to do so.

    So it seems to me the issue is not about the fact that the Government is lead by the Conservatives – based on the results, that seems a fair outcome. Rather, it’s the fact that the Conservatives have an absolute majority in the Commons. Remember, the UK has a system in which Parliament is supreme. A party that has a majority in the Commons can in principle do almost whatever it wants, and pass whatever laws it wants, subject only to being able to contain any rebellions amongst its own MPs, and to possibly having to wait due to the ability of the House of Lords to delay legislation. There’s no way that having that kind of power based on 36.9% of the vote is democratic or morally right – and that is the reason why many of us feel that, in moral terms, the election result was not legitimate. (You could possibly argue that even a party that won 50% of the vote perhaps shouldn’t have that kind of power, but that’s a separate debate, not really the issue here).

    And indeed, we already see some hints that the Conservatives do in fact intend to abuse their absolute power – for example in their plans to – in effect – gerrymander the electoral system to make it even more biased in their favour, and in the pressure coming from parts of the Conservative party to interfere with the impartiality of the BBC. (And, yes, I am well aware that, as far as managing the electoral system was concerned, Labour’s own record when they had an absolute majority was arguably not much better)

    If we had a fair system, in which Parliament really did reflect how people voted, then, yes David Cameron would undoubtedly still be Prime Minister, but in all probability, it would have been at the head of a minority (or possibly some kind of loose coalition) Government, which thereby did include parties that between them represented around 50% of those who voted. I do by the way realize that such an arrangement would likely have included UKIP, a party many of whose views I am very much opposed to. But hey, that’s democracy! Total power based on 36.9% of the vote certainly isn’t!

    But in your blog, you’ve gone even further than that. You appear to be trying to put arguments together to suggest that Conservative support was actually higher than the 36.9% they got. I fear there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on there. A couple of examples:

    Firstly, you point out that some people who, for example voted LibDem or SNP, would have preferred David Cameron to Ed Mililband as PM. That’s undoubtedly true. But then you fail to acknowledge that those who voted UKIP will undoubtedly include people who would have preferred Ed Miliband as PM. I myself know of people who were utterly opposed to the Conservatives but swaying between Labour and UKIP. The fact that UKIP picked up so many former Labour voters rather suggests that the numbers of such people was considerable. As far as I can make out, you seeem to be assuming that because UKIP are (supposedly) right-wing (something that UKIP themselves deny), a vote for UKIP in effect counts as a vote for the Conservatives. That seems to me not only rather patronising to UKIP voters but not remotely in accord with reality. Although it’s only anecdotal evidence, most of those I know who voted for smaller parties (whether UKIP, the SNP or the Greens, or some other group), were motivated more by ‘a plague on both your houses’ – in other words they wished to be governed neither by the Conservatives nor Labour. To actually make out, as you appear to have done, that this somehow should count as support for or justification for the Conservatives having an absolute majority in Parliament is – frankly – absurd.

    Remember too, that – thanks to the inaccuracies in the opinion polls – before the election results came out, almost noone believed that a Conservative majority was a plausible outcome. And indeed, in the final weeks of the campaign, much of the Conservatives campaigning was based on a message of (to paraphrase) something like ‘vote for us because otherwise the SNP will have power’ – and that message did seem to effective in persuading quite a few wavering voters. In those circumstances, it seems very plausible that at least some people voted Conservative in order to ensure they got a Conservative-LibDem arrangement in Government rather than a Labour-SNP arrangement, and that some of those people would not have voted Conservative if they’d thought that a Conservative majority would have been the result.

    Of course, all of this is to some extent speculation. None of these points changes the fact that, in the end, the Conservatives got 36.9% of the vote, and that’s the figure that, from the point of view of accepting democracy, is therefore the figure that we need to use in the first instance when assessing the legitimacy of the Government. I’m making these points rather to draw attention to the fact that if you want to start speculating on people’s motives, then it cuts both ways: There are arguments for putting the – shall we say – ‘2nd-preference’ Conservative support both higher and lower than the actual election result (and ditto for Labour). Selectively pointing out the arguments for putting support for your own favoured party higher, while ignoring the arguments for putting it lower, really doesn’t do one’s case credit 🙁

  • anweald

    The main point, to me, is the electoral system didn’t confer legitimacy by showing your assumptions you’ve made to be true. So we have a weak Gov where only 9 rebels reverses 100% of the power, when we could have had a strong one based on a proper vote base (except the Tories ate most of their natural allies, who will never trust them again, duh).

    Another assumption, equally as valid as yours, is that people voted for specific things, not just a general left-right sympathy. E.g. given Dave’s EU Referendum promise why didn’t all those Kippers vote Tory so as to make it likely it would actually happen? They can’t all have been Labour originally (and if they were your assumption they’re basically happy with a Tory gov is wrong). Not everything, by a long way, fits on a left-right spectrum. Ken Clarke makes the same blithely sweeping generalization.

    Entirely agree that abstentions are don’t care/mind/know or NOTA, meaning that any result is OK or none is. I’ve made that mistake before now, and wish the activistas would desist from undermining their own case.

  • This ignores people who voted conservative out of fear of a UKIP candidate winning – again a small, but very real, number.

    Anyway, given this analysis, I look forward to seeing you condemn the Trade Union Bill’s requirements on turnout when balloting for industrial action.