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What the runners-up tell us about Britain's election

- May 10, 2015

A “teller” wearing a U.K. Independence Party rosette waits to take note of voters’ registration numbers at the entrance to a polling station in Broadstairs, Britain, on May 7, 2015. (Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg News)
Britain’s election results are being digested by the chattering classes. So, I thought I’d see if I could grab the election data to make some pictures. Here are two maps. The first is a version of the one you’ve seen showing the winning party in every constituency in Britain (*sic*: excluding Northern Ireland).

Constituencies by Winning Candidate.

Constituencies by Winning Candidate. Based on BBC data scraped with ‘rvest’ by Hadley Wickham

The Scottish National Party sweep in Scotland; the solid Conservative south; Labor strongholds in parts of London, Liverpool, and the coal-mining regions of England and Wales — if you’ve been paying attention to the British elections, you’ve seen this one already.
Now here’s an alternative map. It shows the results with constituencies colored by the *second*-place candidate.
Constituencies by Runner-Up Candidate.

Constituencies by Runner-Up Candidate. Based on BBC data scraped with ‘rvest’ by Hadley Wickham

It’s eye-opening. Like the United States, Britain has a first-past-the-post (FPTP) election system. Those of us (like me) who grew up in countries with some kind of proportional representation system, whether by list or single transferable vote, are generally made a bit queasy by FPTP. Proportional representation aims to have the composition of parliaments accurately reflect the range of support for parties. FPTP just wants to select a winner as quickly as possible. This means that in these systems there’s often a fairly substantial discrepancy between vote share and seats. A few percentage points more in total vote share can create a parliamentary landslide. This can be an advantage, of course, if what you want is certainty about who will form a government, or if you want to avoid small parties holding the balance of power. But apart from that, a consequence of FPTP systems is that the *electoral base* of smaller parties — as opposed to their effective political strength — is easy to underestimate just from a winner’s map.
In many British constituencies, of course, the race was straightforwardly between the two largest parties. It was Conservatives vs. Labor, with one winning and the other coming in second. But that’s by no means the only story. In the runners-up map, you can see that Scotland looks much more varied than before. With 50 percent of the vote, the SNP won 56 of the 59 available seats. The second-place map shows a bit of the heterogeneity among the other half of voters. In Wales, in addition to the nationalist Plaid Cymru, you can see the memory of early 20-century Welsh Liberal prime minister Lloyd George in the support for Liberals. And it’s the south coast, Thames Estuary and the east of England that are perhaps the most striking. There, outside of London, the uniform sea of Tory blue gives way to Liberal Democrats and strong UKIP support — just with no members of Parliament to show for it. One wonders whether the short-term certainties of FPTP might not propel either larger and less-predictable long-term shifts, given what amounts to substantial disenfranchisement, or more competition at the level of local government.
Kieran Healy is an associate professor of sociology at Duke University.