So the Oldham East and Saddleworth bye-election results are in and representatives from each party are trying to persuade us, and themselves, that it was an okay result for their party. I think the result has some interesting things to tell us about how different electoral systems affect voter apathy.
A seat held by Labour’s Phil Woolas by about 100 votes in controversial circumstances has been re-contested with Labour’s Debbie Abrahams being suffered to represent the electors of Oldham East and Saddleworth.
The Labour vote increased slightly in absolute terms and quite significantly in percentage terms. The Liberal Democrat vote is down by more than three thousand but up very slightly in percentage terms.
The Conservative vote fell sharply in absolute terms, down from nearly twelve thousand to four and a half thousand.
Under First Past the Post the seat returned a Labour member at both the General Election and the bye-election. At the General Election it was a highly marginal seat, arguably a three way marginal. The Conservative candidate was within two and half thousand votes of the winning Labour candidate.
At the bye-election the election was less close but still a two-way marginal.
Using the Alternative Vote things might well have been different.*
At the General Election Oldham East and Saddleworth would have returned a Liberal Democrat MP after the Conservative third placed candidate dropped out and Conservative second preferences were redistributed mainly to the Liberal Democrats (54% of Conservative 2nd Preferences go to the Liberal Democrat, 27% to UKIP and only 7% to the Labour Party.)
The final tally of redistributed votes would be 23,817 to the Liberal Democrat’s Elywin Watkins and 15,662 to Labour’s Phil Woolas. A margin of victory of more than eight thousand. A reasonably comfortable win for the Liberal Democrats in the end but they beat the Conservatives into 3rd place by fewer than a thousand votes. The Conservatives could well have entered the final round in second place and in with a good chance of being elected. Oldham East and Saddleworth remains a two-way, possibly a three-way marginal seat.
At the bye-election Debbie Abrahams would have snuck home by just over 200 votes. Well within the margin of error for my methodology.
There has been a lot of ill-informed speculation on what the Oldham East and Saddleworth bye-election tells us about the views of the voters. Here is some more. Rather than being a resounding rejection of the Conservative Party I suggest that the much reduced Conservative vote is a symptom of First Past the Post voting systems. Conservative voters, with other things to do, thought to themselves “Our chap isn’t going to get in, isn’t going to finish second or fourth so why bother turning out? It’s a waste of my time. I’ll put the kids’ dinner on and watch Corrie.”
Under First Past the Post 500 extra Conservative voters would have no impact on the result of the election. Under the Alternative Vote 500 votes distributed mainly to the Liberal Democrats could have changed the result from a Labour MP to a Liberal Democrat MP.
I would argue that this result shows that thousands of Conservative voters thought it was not worth turning out.
Had this bye-election been contested using the Alternative Vote it would have been worth Conservative voters’ time going down to the polling station and voting. Their votes would have had a crucial impact on the final result.
Put another way. It would have paid the Conservative Party to work hard to get their own vote out as they would have been rewarded with a Coalition held seat rather than a seat held by the opposition.
For thousands of Conservative voters it paid to be apathetic. For the Conservative Party in Oldham East and Saddleworth it a paid to apathetic. It was a better use of voters’ time to spend time with their families than it was to vote and yet have no impact on the election result. It was a better use of Conservative Party money campaigning somewhere else. The Alternative Vote goes some way to solving this tendency to apathy. By making more seats more marginal and by giving some influence over the final result to more voters it pays more voters to go and vote. It pays political parties to campaign in every seat for every election.
Isn’t it what we should want from an electoral system? That it encourages more and more people to turn out and vote and the most people possible have an influence on the result?
‘* The usual source, the LSE 2nd preference survey has been used and the usual caveats of extrapolating actual votes using AV from voting intentions displayed under FPTP apply.