Posted by: Chris | May 6, 2010

The Coming British Electoral Upheaval, Part I

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention (hey CF), today is election day in Britain and the results promise to be extraordinary. The Liberal Democrats, traditionally a minor influence in British politics, have been given a huge polling boost thanks to largely the performance of Nick Clegg, their leader, in the three “party leaders debates” (again, the first of their kind).  Since then, the three major parties have all hovered around each other at close to 30% of the popular vote (though the Conservatives have pulled ahead at the expense of the other two parties as of late), which can translate into all manner of seating outcomes.  However, it is likely that no party will be able to capture a majority of seats and parliament will be “hung.”  Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report has a good description of British parliamentary procedure when no one party can capture a majority, but the most likely outcome will be a coalition between the LibDems and one of the two other major parties or a minority Conservative government.

Either outcome will give the Liberal Democrats the opportunity to force through some measure of electoral reform, with full proportionate representation being their preferred system.  Like the man who wishes for three more wishes, this makes a lot of strategic sense for the Liberal Democrats as it translates what is in reality a freak electoral occurence into the state of things for the foreseeable future.  They will also have a popular mandate for changing the voting system, as they will likely either tie or beat Labour but receive roughly half as many seats.  Thus one hung parliament will likely lead to hundreds more like it in the Britain of tomorrow.

Many commentators have fretted about the inevitable death of Britain’s majoritarian first past the post system (where, just like in our own elections, candidates need only a plurality of votes to win a seat), and some, including Andrew, have argued that the LibDems would be better off just trying to leverage Duverger’s Law (where FPTP favors two-party systems and a third-party cannot come to power unless at the expense of another) to oust Labour as the other major party in British politics, just as Labour did to them one hundred years prior.  However, I think that will be an unreasonable expectation.  The United Kingdom’s two-and-a-half party system has been incredibly stable over the past thirty years and has always been considered the exception to Duverger’s Law.  Instead of finishing off one party or another, FPTP has continually produced perverse results in Britain and elevated parties to power when they are opposed by a sizable majority of Britons.  The major issue is not so much that FPTP has to go but that it would be quite miserable for PR to take its place.  Further, to better understand why both of these propositions is true, one need only look at the recent political history of the putative homeland of two-party majoritarian politics, the United States of America.

First and foremost, Britain’s 2+ party system should be seen as an equilibrium state, rather than a transitionary point between two separate two-party arrangements.  In the past fifty years, rather than diminishing into the margins, like Duverger would predict, in the wake of Labour’s ascent, the Liberal party clung onto a few fringe seats thanks to localist traditions, repositioned themselves, and steadily began gaining, rather than losing, both votes and seats from the late 1960’s on.  They have posted increasingly strong showings (especially after alliance then merger with a moderate Labour break off party) in both seats and votes, and as a result no party has received over 45% of the popular vote since 1970 and, during the late 70’s (when Labour and the Tories were close), parliament was frequently hung.  Thus it is unlikely, as many commentators suggest, that Britain is gravitating towards a true two-party system, with either the LibDems or Labour (for whom the same factors that have promoted the LibDems also hold) petering out.*

Thus, if we can assume that all three of Labour, the Conservatives, and the LibDems will exist as at least major players for the public’s vote if not a sizable share of the seats of parliament, then it is imperative that the country reform FPTP to some extent.  The nice thing, in theory, about FPTP is it creates two-party systems and is incredibly well-suited for two-party systems.  As Jonathan Bernstein notes, it is often preferential to have a majoritarian system that distorts public support in exchange for decisive and responsive governance.  This works great when there are only two major parties or a handful of minor third-party contenders.  Slim majorities receive decisive mandates for their positions and parties that just miss the 50% cutoff can be foisted over the top without much backroom dealing.  Freak third-party showings (like the 1992 US presidential election) do occur, but Duverger’s Law ensures that they are both rare and short-lived. 

However, in party-systems resist to Duverger’s predictions and three quasi-equal parties persist in equilibrium, then the majoritarian system breaks down.  In Britain, results like Clinton’s 1992 “win” are not considered aberrations, they are considered landslides.  FPTP here creates majorities where they simply do not exist and hands the reigns of government to leaders who have been just rejected by a sounding majority of the public.  It also produces unpredictable and perverse results, like the possibility that Labour can emerge tonight with the fewest votes and the most seats.  The positive elements of democracy (like responsive and consensual rule) become undone, and rule by a virtually random and largely distasteful minority sets in. 

The American political system has a similar set of majoritarian elections where several roughly equal contenders vie for positions with similarly unfortunate results: the party primaries.  Look at the Republican 2008 presidential primaries, to take a recent example.  The Republican’s system has most states giving all their delegates to the candidate who receives the plurality of the votes in that state, very similar to how FPTP works in US and British legislative elections.  In 2008, there were roughly 4 candidates who hovered between 20 and 30 percent of the vote in most early states come election time: Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain, with fringier candidates like Fred Thompson and Ron Paul hanging out in the single digits absorbing votes.  McCain was able to win 3 of the 7 early states (NH, SC, and FL) with low vote totals and incredibly slim margins (37%-32%, 30%-27%, 30.7%-30.1%, respectively).  Romney and Huckabee won the other 4 states by huge margins and performed admirably in the states where McCain won, leaving all three men with roughly equivalent vote counts.  But McCain, having squeaked by in states with huge delegate counts, had a prohibitive delegate lead on his rivals and, thanks to a stellar showing on Super Tuesday, became the presumptive nominee with only a small minority of the party actually voting for him.

McCain’s victory was not simply a miscarriage of democracy, it had sizable practical consequences as well.  McCain’s platform, especially on domestic issues, diverged strongly from the party’s mainstream.  Having captured his party’s nomination without having convinced either its leaders or its supporters of the correctness of his policies, he was trapped between a rock and a hard place.  He couldn’t run on the platform he supported in the primaries without facing a revolt from party stalwarts and he couldn’t run on the boilerplate Republican message without betraying his supporters and his conscience.  Thus his general election campaign was built on the few areas of convergence (like earmarks and foreign policy) and a whole lot of empty rhetoric and gimmicks, leading, in part, to his poor showing in the polls.  The primary outcome also harmed the Republican party.  It was (and still is) facing a large set of difficult ideological choices and is beset with divergent views about the proper ranking of priorities, many of which were personified by the various candidates seeking the nomination.  The party and the conservative movement needed a long, contentious election to weigh their options, hash out their differences and forge necessary compromises to stay competitive and current ideologically.  Instead, the majoritarian process provided decision where there was none, closure before the real discussion began.

Like McCain, whoever “wins” the British elections will receive a smaller share of the popular vote than Alf Landon, Barry Goldwater, or George McGovern.  The schemes with which they stuffed their manifestoes will have just lost landslide election.  But the electoral system will thrust them into power nonetheless, simply because the other guys did worse, Further, just ike McCain, whoever controls Parliament will be forced to choose between popular revolt and a betrayal of principle.  However, the stakes for Britain are far higher than for the Republican party.  The national budget is unsustainable and the country is in dire need of a rearrangement of governmental priorities and likely sizable cuts.  Hollow populism and gimmickry will only worsen the fiscal predicament.  Britain needs majority governments who can actual claim something resembling majority support.  One hopes the hobbled party that claims the Cabinet tomorrow can at minimum muster the support to allow such an event to transpire.

[Part II forthcoming.  Things just got way too long to do the argument justice in one post.  A teaser: the Democratic 2008 primaries, the problems with PR, why a mixed member system works well for primaries but not for parties, and some suggestions for a way forward.]

*In addition to regionalist explanations, Duverger’s law supposes a necessary duality in political philosophy, so at least 2 parties in a 3 party system are assumed to be competing for a similar ideological niche.  However, this is not necessarily the case and in Britain the three major parties have managed to build sufficiently distinct that their supporters are not wholly co-extensive.  So, as opposed to say a Nader voter, the average LibDem supporter does not overwhelmingly support one or another party and their voting habits are not interpreted to hurt “their side” in a broad sense.

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