The single party majority limbo


Chris Hanretty


July 7, 2024

In last week’s UK election, the Labour party managed to win 412 of 650 seats (63.4%) on 33.7% of the vote.

This is the lowest share of the vote to win a majority in British electoral history.

It made me wonder whether any other elections have seen a single party win a majority on such a low share of the vote.

Answering this question is more difficult than it may seem, for two reasons.

First, “share of the vote” is not altogether simple. In two round systems, or in systems which use multiple tiers, there are two sets of vote shares. In the 2014 Japanese general election, the LDP won 291/475 (61% of seats) – but was its vote share 33.11%, the proportion of votes it received in the proportional tier, or 48.1%, the proportion of votes it received in the constituency tier?

Second, although we have good coverage of consolidated parliamentary democracies with populations of greater than a million, we often lack information on elections to legislatures in micro-states. Often these elections are ones where we see high levels of disproportionality.

In what follows, I’ll be using data from ElectionsGlobal, which covers the period up to 2015, and I’ll be focusing on “simple” electoral systems, where voters express a single preference which determines party seat shares. I’ve manually pruned the list to the three genuine cases where a party has won a majority on a vote share less than that won by the Labour party.

With that said, let’s make our way down the list.

Somalia 1969

Between independence in 1960 and Siad Barre’s coup in 1969, Somalia held two elections which were genuine multiparty contests, and which might have been free and fair if you don’t look too closely at some of the reported vote totals. In both of these elections, the Somali Youth League won a majority of seats. In the 1964 election, it won a majority of seats with a majority of votes. Five years later, it won a 73/127 = 57% of seats on a third of the vote (33.24%). It was only able to do this due to the remarkable fragmentation of the vote: per Wikipedia, 26 parties won election to the legislature.

Norway 1915

The 1915 election was the penultimate Norwegian election held under first-past-the-post, and looking at the result it’s not hard to see why. The Liberal party won 74/123 = 60% of seats on a third of the vote (33.07%). Following the election

“all parties acknowledged that the situation was such that this could no longer continue, and a better electoral rule should be found, a more just electoral rule” (Gunnard Knudsen, quoted in Cox, Fiva and Smith )

In fact it would take the perverse results of the 1918 election, where Labour came first in terms of votes but third in terms of seats, before electoral reform could be approved.

Grenada 1995

I don’t know a lot about Grenada. I would have expected that a small micro-state with an assembly size of just 15 would have a two-party system. But here comes the New National Party, winning 8/15 = 53% of seats on 32.4% of the vote, with the two remaining parties splitting most of the remainder of the vote between them, whilst still leaving space for the “Good Old Democratic Party”, who surely must be the least successful political party to have its own Wikipedia page.

Honourable mentions

The Fijian election of 1999 would have made the list, but for the use of the Alternative Vote in constituencies of two types, meaning that the vote share of the Fiji Labour party (33.26%) is based on first preferences in the “open constituencies” rather than communal constituencies.

The South African election of 1910 would have made the list if I were included contested elections in non-democratic systems; if it were included, it would be at the top of the list, with Botha’s National Party winning a majority despite winning fewer votes than the Unionist Party (28.5% versus 37.7%).