This election, a very special birthday will be celebrated. The swingometer turns 60. First appearing in the BBC’s coverage of the 1955 general election, the swingometer has become an integral part of representing voter swing on British television ever since. The mathematics of the swingometer can provide a prediction of how a percentage swing in favour of a particular party translates into seats in parliament.
Over the years, the swingometer has evolved. It has needed to, as the cracks in our electoral system begin to show. Throughout its life, the swingometer has been modified to represent the possibility of a hung parliament, and the involvement of a third party, and, in its latest incarnation, it has become 3D. The father of the swingometer, Professor Sir David Butler, is “rather amused” that it is still in use, given the shifting electoral landscape.
The coming general election is one of the least predictable ever. The polls are all over the place, with seemingly different results coming out almost every day. With four weeks to go, nobody can predict who our next government will be, and the swingometer is hardly going to provide much assistance.
There is a possibility, for example, that overall, across the country, the Liberal Democrats could get a smaller vote share than UKIP but gain more seats in parliament. Likewise, the Green Party could get a larger share of the vote than the SNP but fewer seats because SNP supporters are concentrated in Scotland while Green voters are more diffusely spread. These possible scenarios cannot be fully plotted with swingometer arithmetic, since there are so many variables.
The inadequacies of the swingometer reflect the inadequacies of our electoral system. Bluntly put, the system is not able to deal with our political environment. And while the swingometer may be evolving to deal with multiple parties, the electoral system is not. It remains stagnant, and with each election looks a little more dated.
Anything could happen with this election, but one thing is clear: the way we’re doing elections isn’t working.