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Study suggests coalition alliances should be declared before general election

New research offers insight into how electorate can maximise influence of their vote

Political leaders should be forced into declaring which coalitions their parties are willing to form in the event of a hung parliament before the general election takes place, according to an economist from the University of Warwick.

Dr Niall Hughes, who has recently released a new study into the UK’s ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) system, claims the current ambiguity over the likely process of a coalition bargain makes it difficult for the electorate to use their ballot in the most effective way.

His working paper, available online, backs up the current thinking that people should vote for one of the two frontrunners in their local constituency – and adds to the debate by concluding that to know which frontrunner would be better for them, voters need to look at the likely national outcome.

He said: “Under the FPTP system, each constituency elects one MP and your vote will matter only when it makes or breaks a tie for first place - there are no prizes for coming second. This means a vote for a candidate who is expected to come third, fourth, fifth etc will be wasted – that is, it will have virtually zero chance of affecting who wins the district.

“The problem, when it comes to UK elections, is that a lack of constituency level polling means voters don’t generally know which candidates are the local frontrunners. It’s this uncertainty which leads many voters to cast ballots for candidates who have no realistic chance of winning. There has been some improvement in the run to the 2015 election, however, as Lord Ashcroft has been publishing a number of constituency level polls which let voters know who the frontrunners are in their constituency.

“With greater access to this type of local information, voters can make better decisions over how to most effectively use their ballot. But what my latest research shows is that what’s equally important as this constituency knowledge is understanding the national picture.”

For a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, you might have to vote Labour

Dr Hughes explained: “Suppose I am a voter who identifies as centre-right and I want the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition re-elected. The current frontrunners in my constituency are Labour and Tory candidates. You might think I’d be best served by voting for the Tory candidate. However, in order to know how best to cast my vote I need information about the likely national outcome.

“In the 2010 election the two most likely outcomes were seen as either an overall Tory majority or a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. How does this help me to decide how to cast my vote? Well, if I vote for the Tories and they win my constituency, the extra seat they have in parliament makes an overall majority for them more likely. However, if I vote for Labour and they win my constituency then this will make an overall Tory majority less likely.

“By reducing the probability of an overall Tory majority, I increase the probability of the other most likely national outcome: a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. So even though I like centre-right policies it is in my best interest to vote Labour in this instance.”

Most national polls are meaningless

Dr Hughes says that voters need to have a good idea of which coalition government is the most likely and second most likely outcome. Once voters have good information on both who the two frontrunners in own their constituency are and which are the two most likely governments, he claims they have all the information they need to make sure their vote has the most impact on government policy.

“The problem is that polls reported in the media are useless. A poll which tells me the percentage of national support each party has - as most of them do - tells me nothing about how many seats each party will have. What’s more, a poll which tries to predict how many seats each party will win - such as or The Guardian - is of no use unless we know which parties will be willing to govern together.

“The quick solution for this election is that party leaders should be forced by the public and the media to declare which coalitions their party will be willing to govern with and which they would rule out. This way voters have all the information when casting their ballots and won’t be surprised by back room deals after the election.”

Coalitions are the future, but the system needs formalising

“In the longer term we need more formal rules on how coalition formation should occur,” added Dr Hughes. “As the UK has traditionally had single party majority governments, there are very few formal rules on how coalition formation happens. Going forward it looks as if coalition governments will be a more permanent feature of the UK political landscape, so knowing what are the institutional rules of coalition bargaining will be important. Who gets the first chance to form a government, what happens if no government can be agreed upon - these details matter as they can determine who ultimately ends up in Downing Street.”

He concluded: “The bottom line of my research is that it’s naive to simply compare party labels. When deciding how to vote in your constituency, you need to consider the two local frontrunners whilst also taking into account the most likely party coalitions. Only by doing this can you be sure that your ballot will have the greatest impact on the formation of the next government.”


25 February 2015

Notes for Editors:


Tom Frew – International Press Officer, University of Warwick

Email: a dot t dot frew at warwick dot ac dot uk

Tel: +44(0)2476575910

Dr Niall Hughes - Department of Economics, University of Warwick

Email: N dot E dot Hughes at warwick dot ac dot uk

Tel: +44(0)2476575749