The beginning of May was a good time for election junkies. One election, in Alberta, led to the province’s first ever NDP majority government. Two days later, the British election produced an un-expected Conservative majority for David Cameron. Both elections also saw the collapse of parties that had been important in the previous election. In Alberta the Progressive Conservatives fell to third place after spending 44 years in government. In the United Kingdom the Liberal Democrats went from 56 seats (and membership in a coalition government) to 8 seats a fourth place in parliament. The success of party leaders is often measured by their electoral results. In the UK David Cameron was praised for winning the Conservatives a majority while Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg resigned losing significant numbers of seats for their party. In Alberta the NDP’s Rachel Notley and the Wildrose Alliance’s Brian Jean were praised while Jim Prentice took the blame for significant PC losses. Pundits should be careful about judging leaders by the seats they win in first past the post electoral systems. Just as seat shares can distort electoral outcomes, they can also distort the way that people view leaders. Leaders can pick up votes, successfully convincing voters to move over to their party, but appear to be failures because those votes do not translate into an increased number of seats. Conversely, leaders who lose voters between elections can have those losses masked by seat gains. In Alberta and the UK, increases in seats shares made Wildrose Alliance leader Brian Jean and British Conservative leader David Cameron look more successful than they actually were, while Labour leader Ed Miliband’s drop in seats hides the fact that he actually increased Labour’s overall share of the vote.
One of the key purposes of a party’s election campaign is to convince voters to move their support over to the party. While there are certainly many factors that influence voters’ decision, party leaders’ tours play an important role in the success of parties’ campaigns. As the most visible members of their party, leaders are often the focus of news coverage, election advertising, and have a unique opportunity to engage with voters across the country (instead of just in their constituency) throughout the campaign. While leaders might be able to convince voters to switch their support over to their party, the ability to convince voters in the right places to switch their support is a much more difficult task. Parties can certainly target particular districts, spending a greater number of resources in districts that are likely to be close as opposed to those that party will is either almost certain to win or almost certain to lose. Many aspects of a party’s campaign, though, are received equally by people across the country. Even if advertising campaigns can be concentrated on particular cities, they can rarely be focused on just those districts that are likely to be swing districts. National media coverage of leaders will be received with as equal frequency in districts that are highly supportive of one party as it will be in districts that are likely to swing between parties. Beyond focusing more spending in certain ridings and making an extra appearances in particular ridings, the best that leaders can try to do in to increase their seat share is convince voters across the country to support their party. The ability of leaders to control the distribution of their vote share is much weaker than their ability to control the size of their vote share.
The difficulty that parties have translating votes into seats is compounded by the lack of control that parties often have over the success of their rivals. Both the emergence and the collapse of parties can have significant consequences for the number of seats that a party wins even if their overall share of the vote does not change. The collapse of a key rival can mean that seats that were close races in a previous election become clear wins for the party. The rise of a new rival party can make seats that were once safe for a party hotly contested. Both the Alberta and the UK election featured these effects. The collapse of the Conservative vote in Alberta meant that Wildrose Alliance candidates were often competing against much weaker candidates than they were in the previous election in 2012. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom had similar effects, while the rise of the Scottish National Party meant that the Labour party ended up fighting close races (and indeed losing) in seats that had previously been Labour strongholds.
The success of David Cameron’s Conservative party in the United Kingdom is a prime example of how parties can increase their share of the seats without any change in their popular vote. Cameron’s Conservatives managed to move from a coalition government (reliant on the Liberal Democrats for support) to a majority government. They gained a total of 28 seats, despite increasing their overall share of the vote by less than 1 percentage point. Cameron was able to win a majority because of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. 36 seats switched to the Conservatives between in the 2015 election (8 Conservative seats switched from the Conservatives to other parties in order to result in a net gain of 28 seats). Of these 36 seats that switched, 27 came from the Liberal Democrats and only 9 from the Labour party. In only one of two of these seats (including those the Conservatives won from the Labour party) did the Liberal Democrats lose less than 10 percentage points of the vote compared to their 2010 total. In eight of those seats the Liberal Democrat vote losses exceeded 20 percentage points. The average Conservative gain over all of the seats they won was just 4 percentage points while Labour lost only an average of 0.5 of a percentage point in the seats they lost to the Conservatives (the Conservative gain in seats they took from Labour was an average of 3.7 percentage points). The Labour party actually gained votes in all but one of the seats that the Conservatives took from the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives won their majority not because they were able to convince voters to abandon Labour, but because they were running against severely weakened Liberal Democrat candidates. In only one seat that Labour lost did their losses exceed Conservative gains, suggesting that even in those seats the Conservatives were able to benefit from taking votes from the Liberal Democrats in addition to any support they may have won from Labour. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats played a larger role in the Conservative victory in the UK than the increases in vote share that the Conservatives managed during the campaign.
If David Cameron gaining a majority government without gaining much in the way of additional vote support seems odd, Brian Jean’s success in the Alberta election is even stranger. Jean’s Wildrose Alliance dropped 10 percentage points compared to the 2012 election. Despite this, they managed to gain 4 seats, holding on to their position as leader of the official opposition (despite finishing third in popular vote share). Like the British Conservatives, the Wildrose Alliance benefited from the collapse of a major rival. The Progressive Conservative share fell by 16.2 percentage points. Of the 7 seats that went PC in 2012 but Wildrose Alliance in 2015 (Wildrose Alliance losses account for the net gain of only 4), in only 2 did they exceed their 2012 vote share. 5 Wildrose Alliance candidates managed to pick up seats previously won by the PCs despite winning less support than the Wildrose Alliance won in their riding in 2012. Those results are not evidence of a successful campaign. Rather they suggest that the Wildrose Alliance benefited from against weakened Progressive Conservatives. Had the Progressive Conservatives been as strong as they were in 2012, the Wildrose Alliance likely would have lost a substantial number of seats.
Where the British Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance were benefited from the collapse of their competitors and the way those collapses interacted with the electoral system, the British Labour party was hurt by the rise of a rival. Labour suffered a net loss of 24 seats in 2015, and did particularly poorly in Scotland. There, Labour lost 40 seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP). Labour’s losses in Scotland were not just significant with respect to seats, they also dropped 18 percentage point there (while the SNP picked up 30). Popular vote wise, though, Labour was able to make up for their losses in Scotland by increasing their support in the rest of the UK. Across the entire United Kingdom, the Labour vote share actually increased by 1.5 percentage points, a gain greater than the Conservatives’. Despite increasing their vote by more percentage points than the Conservatives, Miliband’s Labour party actually lost seats. This is because, while the Conservatives were fighting a weaker rival than they were in 2012 in the Liberal Democrats, in many seats Labour was fighting a stronger rival in the SNP. When it comes to convincing the public to support Labour, Miliband did a better job than previous Labour leader Gordon Brown did in 2012. Yet, because the Liberal Democrats were weaker and the SNP was stronger, Miliband ended up losing seats. This is not to suggest that Miliband’s campaign was a success. He failed to win over the voters that abandoned the Liberal Democrats and failed to stop the rise of the SNP in Scotland. An increase in of 1.5 percentage points is not the kind of popular vote increase that can be expected to take one from opposition to government. At the same time, Miliband should not be seen as doing worse for Labour than they did in 2012.
None of this is to argue that leaders should be judged entirely by their ability to increase or decrease their share of the popular vote. The circumstances in which leaders fight elections are often different. Leaders in opposition facing an unpopular government might rightly be criticized for failing to win government even if they manage to increase their party’s share of the popular vote. Leaders of governing parties might be rewarded for maintaining their share of the popular vote if the polls in the years preceding an election show a sharp decline in support for the governing party. Finally, election results should not be fully attributed to the success or failure of party leaders. Economic success or failure, the rise of new issues and political cleavages (such as Scottish Nationalism), and the good or poor performance of a government can affect public opinion in ways that leaders are unable to compensate for over the course of an election campaign. To the extent that leaders are judged on their results though, in first past the post systems it is important to look beyond the number of seats that the leader’s party wins or loses. The way that the electoral systems translates seats into votes in different elections, depending on changes in strength of a party’s rivals, can make their campaign look either more or less successful that it actually was.