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In United Kingdom’s voting system, winner can take it all

Britain's Conservative party leader David Cameron walks around and talks to party officials and workers at his Witney constituency count in Witney, England Friday, May 8, 2015. Cameron's Conservative Party fared much better than expected in parliamentary elections Thursday, an exit poll projected, suggesting it is within touching distance of forming a new government. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The Scottish National Party got 4.7 percent of the vote, giving it 56 seats in Parliament. The U.K. Independence Party got 12.6 percent of the vote, giving it one.

Confused?

It can seem counterintuitive that parties with sizable support end up as also-rans. That’s because unlike most parliamentary democracies across Europe, the British taste for “first past the post” contests permits only one winner in each of its 650 constituencies, meaning a party that finishes a consistent second has nothing to show for it.

Britain’s voting rules share more in common with U.S. congressional and presidential races, where the culture also promotes winner-takes-all contests between two rival camps. But in today’s Britain, where a swarm of nontraditional parties have risen to prominence, it can create unusual outcomes.

The most important result is that the biggest parties have oversize representation. David Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party got 36.9 percent of the popular vote and emerged Friday with more than half of all seats in Parliament. Just 6.5 percentage points behind in popular support, the Labour Party finished a distant second in Parliament, prompting its crushed leader, Ed Miliband, to resign as party chief.

The financial markets love the typical outcome of first-past-the-post contests, with their greater chance for single-party governments running a full term with majorities to pursue clear agendas. Many voters express alienation with a system that perennially produces ruling politicians who represent a minority of votes cast.

In most of Europe, a vote like Thursday’s, which involved more than half a dozen regional and national parties, would have produced a multi-headed coalition with a far wider representation of opinion — and with that, the potential for sudden breakdowns and early elections.

Britain’s system eschews European norms of multi-seat districts and rules that allow second-preference votes to be transferred to less popular candidates. UK citizens who want to vote for smaller parties are encouraged instead to vote tactically for a big party, lest they’re seen to “waste” their votes on a mathematically doomed soul.

The system produced its most lopsided rewards north of the English border in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish nationalists won 2.9 million votes — a full 50 percent of all Scottish ballots cast, but just 4.7 percent of the U.K. total — and all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats. The Scottish Nationalists contested no seats outside Scotland.

The traditional big three battalions of British politics — Labour, Cameron’s Tories and the Liberal Democrats — managed solitary seats in Scotland, despite winning Scotland-wide vote shares of 24 percent, 15 percent and 7.5 percent respectively. Those percentages would have translated into significant representation in much of continental Europe or Ireland, but proved insultingly small in Britain.

This election, the pollsters agreed, was supposed to be different. This time, the polls painted a persistent portrait of a hung Parliament with no party in solitary control. Britain was heading for the European norm despite its small-party-punishing rules, so a popular refrain went. Analysts based this conclusion on the reality that, for the past month, poll after poll placed the dominant Conservatives and Labour within 3 percentage points of each other, a typical survey’s margin of error and a statistical dead heat.

But in first-past-the-post elections, the goal is to allow even a modest advantage in national support to translate into a commanding majority.

As results were announced in seat after seat Friday, the ruthless efficiency of that policy played out over and over again, with Labourites narrowly beating Conservatives in the poorest quarters with minority popular support, and the reverse happening in more affluent districts. Less than half of Friday’s winners won more than half of the votes in their district.

In England, home to more than four-fifths of the British population and 533 of the 650 seats, Conservatives won 60 percent of seats with 41 percent of votes. Labour won all but eight of the rest despite competing in a field with a baker’s dozen of other parties, among them Quixotic ventures titled Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol and Britain’s heartiest perennial, the Monster Raving Loony Party.

The biggest loser, calculated on the basis of media attention received versus victories achieved, was Nigel Farage’s anti-European UKIP. It more than quadrupled its support from the 2010 election to nearly 3.9 million votes, or 12.6 percent of all cast.

Its reward: one seat, won by a recent defector from the Conservatives.

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