The Race for Third Place in the Commons

by Prof Richard Rose, 1 March 2024

While opinion polls are showing little doubt about the two parties winning the gold and silver medals at the general election, the race for the third-place bronze medal is open, and the prize worth having. The second largest opposition party can move a number of motions that the Speaker should put to a vote or else land in trouble, as Lindsay Hoyle did last week. In addition, it gets £21k for each MP. The SNP won the bronze medal in this parliament, taking 48 seats in the 2019 general election compared to 8 for the Liberal Democrats.

When the new parliament meets, there is likely to be a big shake up in the position of parties. There is a 99 percent probability of the Labour Party coming first in seats. The Tories are odds on to have their fewest MPs since the introduction of universal suffrage. There is even a one in ten chance that the splits in the party will leave the Conservatives with fewer MPs than Labour held in 1931 when the Labour Party was split.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes March 2024

The Liberal Democrats are a big beneficiary of the collapse of the Conservative vote. Current polls indicate it will win at least 40 seats, five times the total it took at the last election. There is even a one in ten chance of the Liberal Democrats winning as many as 57 seats. If that happened and was combined with the Tories surpassing Labour's worst result almost a century ago, it would make the Liberal Democrats the second biggest party in the Commons and the Official Opposition.

The Scottish National Party is odds on to lose more than half the seats it now holds at Westminster, a reflection of the troubles it is having in the Scottish Parliament. The central prediction is that Labour will take 28 Scottish seats and the SNP 18. The Conservatives are reckoned to hold their 6 seats and the Liberal Democrats to see their total rise to 5 Scottish MPs. The SNP will remain in control of the Scottish government, though it may well get a new leader to prepare for the election of a new Scottish Parliament in 2026.

The Reform Party is the big loser from the fact that the first-past-the-post electoral system gives no silver or bronze medals for total votes: it only awards a seat to the party that gets the most votes in a constituency. Thus, even though it currently comes third in opinion polls, it is likely to finish eleventh in a list of MPs elected, tied with all the other parties that do not win a single seat. That does not mean its vote is wasted. By drawing almost all its support from people who voted Tory at the last election, it is helping Labour win an overwhelming majority at the forthcoming general election.

Richard Rose is Britain's senior psephologist and an expert on party government. His most recent book Welfare Goes Global is published by OUP.