In the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has won a majority of seats on around 45% of the votes.
As Thomas Lundberg, writing in the Herald Scotland, says, the result defies those who designed the system to thwart the SNP.
The electoral system is mixed-member proportional (MMP), but with relatively modest-sized compensation districts (rather than a single PR tier). The underlying issue, from a compensation perspective, is that the SNP performed extraordinarily well in the single-seat races.
It has been an interesting week for election-watchers, especially those of us interested in the dynamics of competition in single-seat districts. Canada had its election, with historic shifts in voting patterns, on Monday. Tomorrow the UK votes on whether to retain FPTP or move to the Alternative Vote (AV). And, just to make things even more interesting, voters in parts of the UK–Scotland and Wales–will be voting in MMP elections tomorrow as well. 1 Quite a week–and tomorrow is quite a day–for electoral systems!
Here I will offer some observations about why I do not like either FPTP or AV (except from a researcher’s standpoint, for which they are terrific!)
The problem with FPTP is that it is fundamentally a system to elect a local representative in a world in which–at least for Canada and the UK–a general election is mostly a contest among national parties. That’s fine if there are just two parties of any significance. You still get the tension between hundreds of local contests and the clash of national parties. But if most districts are two-party contests, notwithstanding some number of “safe” seats for one party or the other, the system works, on its own terms: A series of local playings of the national contest between government and alternative government.
However, decades ago in Canada and the UK, the voters (and the party elites) largely stopped playing this game. Third parties have become more and more significant, and not only regionally. There seems to be a widespread view, even in the academy, that national multipartism masks local two-partism–that most districts feature two “serious” candidates, just not necessarily the same two in all parts of the country. That may have been true at one time, but it ceased being so some time ago. Now many British and Canadian districts feature a strong third party, and can be won with barely a third of the vote. Or even less. Canada’s election could be a step back to a more two-party pattern, given the collapse of the Bloc and the poor performance of the Liberals, but the latter may well be back. So it is far too early to say.
Sometimes voters in a given district even “tacitly” coordinate to send a minor party to parliament, not because it is best positioned to represent the specifically local interests of the district’s voters, but because the small party has invested in winning this one district that happens to have a demographic base consisting of the type of voters the party appeals to. I am thinking especially of Elizabeth May’s move across Canada to Saanich and Gulf Islands, which she won for a Green party that invested everything there. Caroline Lucas and the UK Greens last year are another such case, although Lucas at least had represented the same locale in other offices previously. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with this strategy and outcome. Not at all! It just is another piece of evidence that voters and elites not playing the FPTP game.2 The contest in such a district becomes not about local representation, per se, nor about voting for the current or a potential governing party, but about voting for a fringe national party.
Then there is the whole micro-targeting strategy. To the extent that a party tailors its message to ever-smaller subsets of its constituency in swing districts, it, too, is not playing the FPTP game as we (used to) know it. It ceases to be a national campaign, speaking to broad swaths of citizens collectively, and becomes instead a disaggregated message to relatively small blocs of voters who just happen to live in swing districts. Again, not necessarily about local concerns, per se, but about ever-narrower demographic slices.
OK, so British voters can put a stop to all of this by voting for AV, right? Not so fast.
The best argument that the pro-AV camp in this referendum seems to have come up with is that your MP will “work harder” and will have to earn a majority of the district’s voters. I assume MPs tend to work pretty hard as it is, and to the extent that many of them already are pretty close to the median voter in their district (even when winning 40% or less), it is not clear that they have to work any harder under AV. Moreover, given that the proposed version of AV for the UK would allow voters to give only one or as few preferences as they wish,3it is simply not true that the system will guarantee endorsement of every MP by a majority of voters.
Fundamentally, it seems that the argument for AV in an existing FPTP system where two-party competition is no longer the norm is a reactionary one.4 It puts the emphasis back on who wins the district and by what share of the vote. Yet FPTP parliamentary democracies have mostly gone well beyond that, as I started out with in my overview of the problem with FPTP.5 If significant percentages of voters are routinely voting for parties that have little hope of winning their district, but instead will be a clear third or fourth place finisher, it says they don’t really care about who represents the district. They care about national politics. And the two Green examples mentioned above suggest voters are capable of coordinating when what they care about national politics is electing a nationally small party with what are perceived to be fresh ideas. In neither case is AV necessary, and in the main, it’s not helpful if it is trying to put the genie back in the bottle and return to the good old days of majority winners in each district (as a presumed ideal).
And I would think that AV would be a micro-targeters dream. (Is there evidence for that in Australia, or am I out of line here?)
My take on AV would be different if the system could make a large difference in the way national politics works. And in style maybe it would do so, although I suspect that claims about reducing negative campaigning are exaggerated. (Candidates still have an incentive to see that certain contenders are eliminated from the count before others.) Fundamentally, most UK elections would have had the same basic shape of partisan forces in parliament with AV as they had under FPTP. So you get a reactionary effect at the district level without a clear corresponding progressive effect at the national level.
I guess it is clear how I’d be voting tomorrow if I had the privilege. Not because I like the status quo. And not because the political scientist in me wouldn’t love to see how AV would work if adopted in the UK context. But because I am not convinced AV is a real improvement on FPTP.
If FPTP is broken, as I believe it is in the UK (and arguably Canada, even if less this week than it seemed before), the only solution worth the effort is MMP or STV or another proportional system. If only the voters could have the chance to plump for PR…
Plus voting for many English local councls; are these all FPTP? There could have also been STV races on tap, in Scottish municipalities, but these are no longer concurrent with the Scottish Parliament elections. [↩]
If enough of this sort of thing happens to subvert FPTP, it’s fine by me! [↩]
Which is fine; I do not like the Australian requirement to rank every candidate. [↩]
But not in the horrifically specious way that William Hague and Margaret Beckett claim in a cross-party no-on-AV article in The Telegraph: that it would take Britain back to the days of the rotten borough by undermining one person, one vote. [↩]
India, the largest FPTP parliamentary democracy by far, is at least partially an exception to this point. More to come on that, as Indian district patterns are an ongoing research topic of mine. [↩]
Just before the 2010 UK election, I noted that final polls put the leading party at around 36% of the vote, the second party just under 30%, and the third just over 20%.* I asked how uncommon such a distribution of the top three parties’ votes was in FPTP systems.
I counted five such cases out of 211 FPTP elections in a database I assembled for a project on reform (or its absence) in FPTP systems.
The campaign ahead of the UK referendum on the Alternative Vote is seeing some rather strange cross-party activity.
In one of the more curious pairings of the modern political era, David Cameron will today share a platform with the Labour former cabinet heavyweight John Reid as the battle over electoral reform escalates and cuts across party lines. [Independent, 18 April 2011]
The Labour leader, Ed Milliband, is formally supporting AV, but about 100 Labour MPs are against it, as is Cameron and most of his Conservative Party. The LibDems, partners in government with the Conservatives, are of course in favor of AV.
UK Polling Report has a fascinating account of a recent YouGov poll that attempts to answer the question of how the UK parties would fare under the Alternative Vote (which is being voted on in a referendum in less than a month), given current polling trends.
YouGov found that there would be no net change for the Conservatives, a slight decline for Labour, and a substantial boost for the Liberal Democrats. There would still be a Labour majority, but of only 34 seats instead of the 60 that the same poll projects under FPTP.
The poll involved giving respondents a picture of a ballot paper and allowed them to fill it out as much as they wanted with preferences. This is important because “Labour second preferences disproportionately go to the Green party, but given that the Green party will normally have already been eliminated in a count before Labour is, it’s actually their third or fourth preferences that count.”
Perhaps not at all surprisingly, fewer and fewer Labour voters will give the LibDems a preference at all now.
What this all boils down to is that in Con v Lab marginals the lower preferences of Lib Dems would help the Conservatives win seats from Labour, in Lab v LD seats Conservative lower preferences will help the Lib Dems win seats from Labour, in Con vs LD seats Labour lower preferences will help the Lib Dems… but Con losses there will be cancelled out by Con gains against Labour.
A column in The Independent by John Curtice (Professor of Politics at Strathclyde) suggests that the UK Conservative Party has good reason to oppose the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV). At every election in the past three decades, save one, the Conservatives would have won fewer seats under AV than they did under First Past the Post (FPTP). The conclusion is based on analysis of polls from these past elections that asked voters who their second choice would have been.
While the Liberal Democrats would have gained seats in most elections, they would not have gained enough in any election to result in neither big party holding a majority in parliament. Only 2010 would have been a no-majority situation, just as it was under FPTP in the election that produced the current Conservative-LibDem coalition.
While the government is going ahead with the referendum on AV for May of this year, as part of its coalition agreement, the two parties are opposing each other on the referendum question.
There is, of course, always the chance that changed voting patterns resulting from the very existence of the coalition itself could make Conservatives a beneficiary of AV in future elections–a possibility not addressed by Curtice’s study. There have been indications recently that at least some Conservatives were warming to AV. Yet based on past experience, Conservatives and AV do not mix.
Curtice’s columns provides some breakdowns of the voting patterns and likely effect at each of the elections analyzed.
There is also a companion article in The Independent on this theme.
The two houses of the British parliament played “ping pong” well into the night on the bill to convoke a referendum this May on whether to adopt the Alternative Vote system for future House of Commons elections. The bill finally cleared and has received Royal assent, according to the UK Press Association (in an item released about an hour ago, or 1:00 a.m. Thursday morning, London time). The referendum will go ahead on 5 May, the same day as English local and Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections.
Today was the deadline set by the Electoral Commission for having the referendum, a critical item in the government’s coalition agreement, ready to go. (Some sources said this week, but not specifically today; the Lords was to go into recess, increasing the urgency.)
The main matter of contention between the houses was over whether to mandate a minimum threshold of participation in order for a majority voting YES to prevail. The Lords had amended the original bill so as to require at least 40% voter turnout in the referendum. The Commons took this amendment out, by a vote of 317-247 earlier this week, which necessitated sending it back to the Lords for approval. Earlier Wednesday, reports Sky News, the Lords voted 277-215 to insist on their turnout amendment.
On another amendment, the Lords defeated by only one vote a proposal that “would have allowed the Boundary Commission extra flexibility when deciding the size of Parliamentary constituencies.” The bill is not only about the AV referendum, but also includes changes to the boundary-delimitation process and a related reduction in the total numbers of constituencies–measures demanded by some Conservatives as a price for swallowing the very idea of considering AV. Some Labour peers have alleged that the constituency changes amount to gerrymandering.
The Lords finally voted down the amendment on the turnout requirement by a vote of 221-153 (according to the UKPA item).
The bill to call a referendum on the Alternative Vote this May in the UK needs to pass by 16 February. With a long stream of amendments being debated in the House of Lords, the legislative process is coming down to the wire.
The dispute delaying the bill has been over provisions attached by the government that links the referendum to a review of the constituency boundary process and reduces the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Labour objects to these provisions.
This week it appears that the deadlock in the second chamber has been broken, and the bill will soon come to a vote.
Among the proposals thought to be on offer is the suggestion that public inquiries take place where boundary changes are contentious. There is also likely to be some sort of post-legislation scrutiny of the reduction to 600 seats and a greater variation of seat sizes – a key demand of Labour. (The Independent)
The government had threatened to use the “guillotine” on the bill–that is, to cut off debate and pass it without Lords consent.
The results of yesterday’s by-election in the UK parliamentary constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth (sometimes called, in reference to the depressed local economy, OldE and Sad) are interesting.
Quite clearly, the steady vote percentage was a product of strategic (or “tactical”) voting by Conservatives, who lent a helping hand to the junior partner in the governing coalition. The votes for the Conservative, Kashif Ali, fell from 26.4% at the general election to just 12.8% in the by election.
It was not nearly enough to prevent Labour’s holding the seat, as Debbie Abrahams will be the new MP, with about a 10 percentage point victory, on 42.1%. At the general election, incumbent Phil Woolas had held the seat with a 31.9-31.6 result, winning by 103 votes. The by election was necessitated by a High Court invalidating the result due to illegal campaign tactics by Woolas.
In the also-ran part of the contest, the UK Independence Party and British National Party exchanged positions, with the latter finishing fifth this time. I guess that counts as good news, although the BNP still managed 4.5% and the two combined had around 10%. Nick “The Flying Brick” Delves of the Monster Raving Loony Party managed 0.4% and Pirate Loz Kaye got 0.3% Finally, let’s not forget David Bishop, running under the Bus-Pass Elvis label, who polled 67 votes.
Turnout was about 48%, compared to 61% at the general election.
Today’s Independent reports that the biggest union in the UK, Unite, is preparing to join the campaign to oppose the referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote. Close to half of Labour MPs are also on record as opposing AV.
Unite’s possible move would create the “strange bedfellows” situation of the Labour Party’s biggest constituent interest group campaigning alongside traditional Conservative Party organizations that likewise prefer FPTP.
It also would put Unite, along with a large group of MPs, at odds with Labour Party leader Ed Milliband, and some other unions. 114 of the party’s 258 MPs have pledged to join the no side of the referendum.
It would not be a true pre-electoral coalition, as the Conservatives would keep their candidate in the race. However, it is possible that the larger party would quietly assist its smaller partner, out of fear that a LibDem defeat would increase the building consternation inside that party about the severe drubbing the party is receiving in opinion polls since entering coalition. Of course, any such tacit backing of their junior partner will cause dissent inside the Conservatives. Ah, the challenges of coalition politics under FPTP!
The by-election in question is necessary because of the retroactive disqualification of the Labour winner over campaign statements he made. He won the race by 103 votes over the LibDem, with the Conservative candidate 2,310 votes behind. So the most likely beneficiary of a failure of the coalition partners to coordinate would be a collective defeat at the hands of the Labour opposition.
If some degree of coordination occurs in the by-election, it could be the beginning of something deeper.
The Cabinet’s discussion will fuel speculation that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg may seek to prolong the Coalition beyond the next general election. At a press conference on Tuesday, the Prime Minister left the door open to an electoral pact or anti-Labour tactical voting.
That still strikes me as unlikely, unless the Alternative Vote has been adopted following the May, 2011, referendum. But it is being discussed a bit more openly than before.
These certainly are interesting times in UK politics!
The following is promoted from a comment at another thread by Wilf Day. This planting is not mine. Thanks, Wilf, for this information.
The binding coalition agreement says “We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”
“a slimmed down elected ‘senate’ containing just 300 members. The first elections would take place in 2015. . . David Cameron used to refer to overhauling the Lords as a ‘third term issue’ before the election, but has been persuaded the Government should press ahead as quickly as possible. Polls would be based on pure proportional representation, where votes cast precisely reflect the seats allocated.
“It is favoured far more highly by Lib Dems than the alternative vote, the subject of a referendum on reform of the electoral system for the Commons, which is due to take place next year.
“Attention has focused on what the Lib Dems will do if Commons reform is rejected. But sources say that focus is quietly shifting to Lords reform as the ‘glue’ that will keep the Coalition together.”
It sounds like regional list (either open list or flexible list which the UK calls “semi-open”) in the same regions used for the European Parliament. With 100 elected every five years for 15 year terms, that’s 12 regions with something like 14, 12, 11, 9, 9, 9, 9, 8, 7, 5, 4 and 3 senators. The two highest numbers are in the Southeast and London, the same regions that elect Green MEPs, and will presumably elect Green senators. Likely calculated by highest average, it might exclude parties like the BNP (6.2% last year) unless they have regional strongholds.
The Liberal Democrats are under fire for breaking various campaign commitments since joining the coalition with the Conservatives. This has put pressure on the party to begin putting greater emphasis on the “policy victories” it is achieving.
So, which is more relevant for judging a party’s record? The campaign or the coalition agreement? The latter, according to Business Secretary and LibDem Vince Cable, who argues that pre-election pledges are trumped by the coalition agreement which is “binding upon us.”
As a practical matter, that has to be correct. Besides, it is not as though the party would have a better record of fulfilling pledges had it remained in opposition.
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4