Campaign focus narrows to key ‘swing seats’

With two days to go before the UK election, the result in most constituencies is a foregone conclusion. All eyes are on the scattered areas where the decision still hangs in the balance.

Perhaps, in a parallel universe, 22 more people changed their minds in Hampstead and Kilburn on 6 May 2010. Perhaps Conservative Chris Philp edged ahead of Labour rival Glenda Jackson to become the constituency’s MP and, with a small number of voters in other tiny pockets of the country also won over, his party got the 323 seats they needed to form an effective majority government. But in the reality we know, Jackson held on by 42 out of 52,822 votes. The Tories won 307 seats and the country was governed by a coalition for five years.

Stories like this could be crucial in determining who runs Britain after Thursday’s election. As the campaign enters its final days, polls continue to indicate that Labour and the Conservatives will each secure around 35% of the electorate’s support and struggle to get more than 300 seats. The battles likely to make a difference are taking place in marginal seats, where more than one party has a realistic chance of securing victory locally. Winning seats, rather than votes, is the key aim. Winning a constituency by 42 votes is as valuable as winning one by 4,200; under the first-past-the-post system, David Cameron or Ed Miliband simply need to be able to command the confidence of a majority of MPs to become Prime Minister.

It makes campaigning curiously varied in different parts of the country. In parts of the south-west, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats bombard voters with campaign literature. Scottish National Party and Labour activists furiously knock on doorsteps in many Scottish areas. And there are rare examples of constituencies, such as South Thanet, where several parties think they can win. But across large swathes of the country, voters’ choices will be taken for granted. Tory candidates in affluent parts of south-east England or Labour ones in working-class northern areas will be returned with minimal fuss.

Edge of your seat

Campaign groups such as the Electoral Reform Society say that this is absurd. Why should one person’s vote matter more than anyone else’s? Obsessing over marginal seats means the votes of the majority of the population are taken for granted and when MPs get comfortable, they forget that the people are their bosses. We should change our undemocratic system to force politicians to earn every vote.

But others point out that 68% of people voted against changing the electoral system in 2011. We should make sure governments are strong so that they can get on with the job. MPs should be given the chance to do what’s right, rather than always worry about what’s popular. And the local battles not only make elections exciting – they give people their own representative in parliament.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather vote for a party or a local MP?
  2. Should we change the voting system to make it more proportional?

Activities

  1. Make a campaign poster for a party or candidate you support. As a challenge, use the expert links to find a constituency where your party / candidate would benefit from it most and work out what message would work best there.
  2. Research the candidates in your local constituency. Create top trumps cards for each candidate to show their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Some People Say...

“A strong government is better than a popular one.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do some seats seem to matter more than others?
Mainly because of demographics. In so-called safe seats, people’s backgrounds tend to give away their likely voting intentions. Incumbent MPs there will usually have won with votes to spare in the past and be confident of doing so again. The Electoral Reform Society say that they were sure they knew the result in 368 of the 650 constituencies four weeks before polling day.
Is there any prospect of this changing?
After the 2011 AV referendum, some said that the question of electoral reform had been settled for a generation. It’s not in the bigger parties’ interests to change the way we vote, but if smaller parties such as the Greens or UKIP make gains on Thursday, they are likely to press for a more proportional voting system.

Word Watch

Effective majority government
A government needs to be able to carry over 50% of MPs in crucial votes in order to function. A Prime Minister therefore technically needs 326 of the 650 seats to get in to power. That number was in 2010, and is likely to remain in 2015, slightly lower than that because Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, whose members refuse to swear loyalty to the Queen, does not take up the seats they win. In 2010, they won five seats.
Forget that the people are their bosses
The MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, when it emerged that MPs were claiming money from taxpayers in dubious circumstances, was attributed by some to complacency among MPs. There have also been complaints that politicians do not feel the need to keep their promises to the electorate if they are secure in their positions.
Voted against changing the electoral system
In a referendum in 2011, the public were given the option of voting for the use of AV (Alternative Vote) in general elections. This would have allowed voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than merely voting for one.

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