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January 5, 2010
The Economist opens the year with an article on the de facto opening of the electoral campaign in the UK. The illustrations are revealing in what they say about the electoral system. A cartoon shows David Cameron (big) and Gordon Brown (small) at the starting line, with an audience asleep. What I found most interesting about the cartoon is what is not there: the about 30% of voters who vote for others than the two establishment parties, and the 40% of the electorate who didn't vote last time, and who are likely not to vote this time either. This is typical of the discussions in the British media, which give rather little voice to those 30% other parties, and those 40% non-voters (though noone can really speak for them).
The second illustration shows polling of voting intentions: most recently, roughly 40% Conservative, 30% Labour and 20% Liberal Democrats. In the British winner-takes-all constituency based system, this would translate into a solid Conservative majority in parliament. Thus, we can expect a Conservative government even though the majority of voters voted for policies of the centre left - the Liberal Democrats are nowadays on many issues to the left of Labour (as positioned by Tony Blair). For a non-British observer it is hard to see such a result reflecting the idea of democracy, even if it was reached by democratic rules.
In 2005 the result was Labour 35.3%, Conservative 32.3% and Liberal Democrats 22.1% and Others 10.3%. Most observers not familiar with the electoral system would probably expect either a coalition government, or run-off election as for example in France. Yet, Tony Blair was hailed as the big winner, as his party obtained 356 seats in parliament, compared to 198 for the Conservatives and 62 for the Liberal Democrats and 30 Others. A lead of three percentage points gave five year of almost unrestricted power to Labour. Not really satisfactory.
The first-past-the-post system of course influences how people vote. For example, everyone knows that the Labour party won't get a feet on the ground in the constituency where I live, and hence they would vote for one of the bigger parties (locally, that's the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats). How would the results look like if there was no such tactical voting? The only indication we have comes from the European election (though many voters stayed at home). The result was: Conservatives 27.7%, UKIP 16.5%, Labour 15.7%, Liberal Democrats 13.7%, Green Party 8.6%, BNP 6.2%, Scottish Nationalists 2.1%, English Democrats 1.8%, Christian Party 1.6%, Socialist Labour Party 1.1%, No2EU 1.0%, Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) 0.8%, Others 2.7%.
What kind of government should Britain be getting based on that sort of results? For purpose of analysis let's assume that a) somewhat fewer voters desert the mainstream parties in favor of fringe parties and b) Labour gets not quite as big a drumming. With a French system we would see a run-off election between the Conservatives and probably Labour (or, possibly, UKIP or Lib-Dem). With an Australian single-transferable-vote system, the result would be similar as in the French system. With a German-style system with proportional representation and a 5% hurdle we would see four to five parties in parliament (Conservatives, Labour, Lib-Dem, UKIP and Greens), which means either Conservative-UKIP coalition, or a Labour-Lib-Dem coalition (with or without Greens). [under the specific rules of Germany the nationalists would get a few seats]. Under pure proportional representation without hurdle, as in Italy, we would have loads of parties in parliament - and very lively debates.
Of course all this is not going to happen. It is fair prediction that sometime between now and May, about 60% of the British electorate are going to vote, of which 40% vote Conservative (that's 24% of those eligible), and for the next five years we get a Conservative government. Thus, The Economist's cartoon gets right to the essence.
The question that the media really ought to discuss is whether 24% gives a government the democratic legitimacy to make huge budget cuts, or decide on war and peace in the land. For ordinary citizens, the best advice is to advice is to participate in the process - even if the result in your constituency, like in mine, appears a foregone conclusion with the reelection of the same bloke who did the job the last 30 years. At least, you may be able to set a signal for the next election.
British media has in recent week seen something of a revolution on how they discuss their election. Rather than discussing the likely "swing" between Labour and Conservatives, the debate is focusing on the actual percentages of votes that parties are likely to get. And with this Pandora box being opened, it becomes obvious to all but some stubborn politicians that the current system does a poor job in translating the voters will into power in the parliament. Thus, the debate on electoral reform is gaining pace (also see January 5). To the arguments raised in the media, I would like to add four points. These concerns the question who represents the respective parties in parliament:
How would the UK Parliament look like under proportional representation? Using the numbers of actual votes on May 6 provided by the BBC for each region, I calculated the seats for each party.
Figure 1 shows the total number of seats for each of the main parties. For ease of presentation I did not separate out the Northern Ireland seats, and I aggregated Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (PC).
Figure 2 shows the pattern of seats across the regions of the UK using PR.
Figure 3 shows, for comparison, the pattern of actual seats.
How I calculated these numbers:
In a follow-up investigation, I looked at the claim by the Conservatives that they need more votes on average per seat. It turns out this is true, but not by a huge margin. Two issues are at play:
I made some further adjustment by allocating seats to region proportionately (again using Hare-Niemeyer). Thus, Scotland (-4), Wales (-8), West Midlands (-2), Northern Ireland (-1) and Northeast (-1) loose seats, while seats are gained by Southeast (+6), East Midlands (+3), Eastern (+3), Southwest (+2) and London (+2). It results in a small change in the overall result for the main parties as the Conservatives gain 4 seats:
Following up on my blog on May 8, questions arose with respect to the minimum threshold. In my simulations, I assumed a 5% "hurdle" that parties have to clear to be represented in parliament. The reason for this hurdle is that otherwise a parliament would become fragmented and unworkable - past experiences in Italy and Israel are indicative (or think of Germany in the 1930s).
In practice this hurdle varies across countries. Turkey has a 10% hurdle, which keeps out quite a lot of voters - most notably the party of the Kurdish minority. Few outside Turkey would consider a 10% hurdle as fair. On the other extreme, Denmark has a hurdle of 2%, which results in eight parties in parliament. This works fine in Denmark: governments typically are minority coalition governments which agreements with other 'support parties'. Yet, I don't think this experience is transferable to other countries because Denmark has a rare cooperative political culture. Thus, most countries use 5%, while Sweden uses 4% - and this usually works well with three to five parties in parliament.
I had assumed in my simulation that a 5% hurdle be used in the UK, and it be applied separately for each region because of the peculiarities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To prevent fragmentation of the parliament, it may be appropriate that the 5% hurdle applies to England as a whole. In the May 6th election, UKIP came closest to this hurdle with 3.1% across the UK.
If a 5% hurdle was applied for each of the eight regions within England separately, nothing would change. If the hurdle was lowered to 4% and applied separately for each region within England, then UKIP would jump
over the hurdle in four regions and attain 10 seats, whereas the BNP jumps the hurdle in two regions and gets 4 seats. Obviously, an increase in small groups in parliament would make stable government more difficult, and an appropriate hurdle is necessary, preferably applied to the country as a whole.
In practice, voters are likely to vote differently under PR. The results from the European elections last June suggest that UKIP may well get more votes and pass the 5% hurdle, mainly at the expense of the Conservatives - and if they do they should also be in parliament. Also, the Greens are likely to gain more votes, mainly at the expense of the LibDems, though they would struggle to get over 5%. The BNP with their tiny but highly concentrated pockets of support are actually less likely get anywhere near parliament.
What IF? Alternative Preference Voting System
An alternative to the current first-past-the-post and proportional representation is an 'alternative preference system', as it is applied currently in Australia and for the election for the Mayor of London. The idea is similar to a run-off election as used in France, but rolled in with the original election. Hence, each voter has to rank the candidates, and the votes then are counted as if there are multiple run-off elections until one candidate gets more than 50% of the votes cast.
I tried to do a simulation for this one, but it is really a lot of work, and it requires a lot of assumptions. So, I assumed for example, 3/4 of Labour voters go LibDem in the run-off, 2/3 of LibDem voters vote Labour in the run-off, and so on. I choose the London region for this simulation because it has a wide variety of election results. Of 73 constituencies in London, in 32 the winning candidate had over 50% of the votes (14 Cons, 17 Labour, and 1 LibDem). Of the hypothetical run-off elections, 25 are between Cons and Labour, 5 between Cons and LibDem, and 11 between Labour and LibDem. Simulating the likely outcomes of these run-offs, I obtained only 4 differences to the actual results: 3 turned from Cons to Labour, while 1 went the opposite way. No changes affected the LibDems. I had expected more changes, but alas there were not.
The problem with this simulation, is that the actual votes may already reflect voters second preferences - so in practice we may see a wider spread of first preferences in the alternative preferences system. Another consequence is likely to be that even in 'safe' seats parties would be reluctant to put up a candidate holding polarizing views, because that would allow a centrist candidate from any of the other parties to make it in the run off, and win on second preferences. Thus, within the parties, more central candidates may gain influence vis-ŕ-vis the 'hawks'. But more importantly, a candidate with over 50% of votes could claim greater legitimacy than a candidate who is elected with 30-something percent, as is not uncommon in the UK at present. (In London, last week, 5 of the new MPs went through on less than 40%, the lowest being 32.8% for the Labour MP in Hampstead).
Electoral Reform in California?
Not only the British discuss the flaws of the first-past-the-post electoral system, so do Californians. In fact, they get to vote this Tuesday on "Proposition 14", which suggests that primary elections (when the parties select their candidates) be substituted by an open election where everyone can vote for all candidates. The first two candidates would then go forward to the actual election.
The primary elections are a critical difference between the US and British electoral systems: It gives voters associated with either of the main parties the chance to select whom the want to send into the actual election. Thus, voters have power than in the UK where the candidates are selected from a shortlist vetted by the national party leadership.
Californian politics has become highly "partisan". Most constituencies are 'safe seats' where either party can be practically sure to win. This is because the socio-demographic structure is so different between the coastal areas and the farming areas inland. In consequence, for many state senators winning the primary in the own party is more challenging than winning the actual election. Hence, most of them are more concerned with pleasing their own local party than working with others to make compromises that the state needs. Hence, paralysis is normal in Californian politics.
Supporters of Proposition 14 expect that "open primaries" with the first two candidates going through - even if they belong to the same party - will strengthen moderate candidates relative to hardliners, and hence create a parliament that actually works. The system would resemble a little the French system of run-off elections between the leading candidates, and have similar effects as the 'alternative preference' system currently being discussed in the UK (see May 11). If Californians pull through with this reform, it could have dramatic effects on the political culture not only in California, but throughout the USA. The adversarial nature of US politics could be - just a bit - mellowed.
Given my interest in election systems, it is fortuitous to observe the Australian elections first hand. For the election of the lower house of parliament, Australians use an 'alternative preference' voting system in which voters rank the candidates; the votes are then counted like in multiple run-off elections. Hence, to be elected, a candidate needs to obtain more than 50% of the votes including secondary preferences of candidates that did not make it into the top-2. Does this make any difference in practice?
Following the news in the run-off to the election, it is hard to notice much difference to the UK: Most of the media coverage was focused on just two candidates representing the two major parties: Labour and the 'Coalition', which consists of two parties (Liberals and Nationals) that do not actually compete against each other in the constituencies. Only paying careful attention, news-listeners or readers will actually note that, firstly, the Green party regularly gets double-digit shares of the (first-preference) votes, and that independents are important in a number of rural constituencies. The media give the impression that neither of the top candidates are very popular (not to mention charismatic) and the parties are very close to each other on many key issues. The media just love battles between two heroic individuals rather than deep discussions on issues - no election system will be able to change that.
The AP system, however, induces candidates to court voters whose first love is one of the smaller parties. In the UK, the message might be 'don't waste your vote on the Greens', in Australia the message is, 'if you want to vote Green give me your second preference vote'. Moreover, it avoids outcomes where MPs are legitimized only by a third of the electorate because the vote is split between several candidates. The political dynamics within each constituency thus are somewhat different, reducing the chance of a candidate with polar views being elected due to split opposition - which is good.
The election outcome suggests that the media may have paid too much attention to the big two parties: Out of 150 MPs, 5 are independent or Green (with 3 constituencies still not declared), and they hold the balance of power as the big parties have almost equal numbers of votes. In fact - like the UK - in 2010 Australia has the first parliament without overall control, and the first Green MP elected in a southern coastal city. Thus, voters around the world seem to be fed-up with two party systems, where two elites essentially shuffling power between them. However, both sides declare victory and try to convince the media that they deserve to govern (again, similar to the UK). Yet, it will be up to the majority in parliament to decide....
So, what can we learn for the UK? Nothing much, I am afraid. Australia has in most parts a two party system with the third party (Greens) being much weaker than the third party in UK politics (LibDems), not to mention, Plaid Cymru, Scottish Nationals and UKIP all of which received strong support in regional or European elections. Thus, the dynamics of second preferences in the UK would likely be much more complex. However, I have earlier predicted that the overall shares of seats in parliament is unlikely to change substantially if AP is introduced in the UK (May). Based on my observations in Australia, I stick to this prediction - apart from noting that we might have a handful of independents. Thus, I would not expect AP to boost the LibDems number of seats in Westminster!
Alternative Vote System (1): Changing Dynamics
April 3, 2011
On May 5, Britain goes to vote on a referendum on (small) changes in the electoral system. The proposal is for an Australian style 'alternative vote' (AV) system, where voters rank their preferences rather than simply select only their most preferred local candidate. Why do many think this change is necessary, and how is it going to change elections?
The basic problem is that for the last three decades, including the eras of Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair, Britain has been governed by parties that had received less than 40% of the popular vote. While they had a more or less solid majority in parliament, they did not have a majority of the people behind them. The current coalition government is an exception. In the 1950s, over 90% of voters voted for one of the two big parties; in the last couple of elections, only about 70% did. In consequence, governments lacked legitimacy.
An obvious solution to this problem would be to shift to some form of proportional representation. Yet, this would radically alter the power structures in the country (see May 8, 2010), and the vested interests of those in power in the country (not just the political parties) make such a radical change politically infeasible.
The proposed AV system is simulating a run-off election: The votes for the least successful candidate are redistributed to the candidate with most votes until one candidate achieved at least 50% of the votes. Hence, any MP would have support by at least 50% of the voters - even if this is only a second-best sort of support. Situations of candidates representing a constituency with less than a third of the votes could not happen. In areas of Britain with strong regional parties, notably Scotland and Wales, such situations are quite common. In London, the MPs from Hampstead was elected with 32.8% of the votes - so two third of voters were against their representative...
What are the consequences of the AV system? I believe the main changes are in the dynamics on the local level.
In conclusion, I do not expect AV to change the majorities in parliament. Yet, it will change what sort of individuals will be representing these parties. And, it will make it easier to throw out sitting MPs. These dynamics of course threaten the interests of some of those currently in power. As with any proposed form of electoral rules, those who benefited from the old system are opposed to it. The question is whether the British people want the preserve those power structures, or give voters from options to trigger change.
Alternative Vote System (2): Qui Bono?
April 4, 2011
In the run-up to the referendum, there has been quite a lot of speculation as to which party would gain. In particular, the Conservatives seem to be running scared that any system other than the current one would undermine their ability to run the country. Well, most of what is being said in the media on this topic is, in my humble opinion, nonsense.
The essence is that candidates that appeal to more than their core supporters have a chance of overtaking candidates on the basis of second preferences. While this may impact on the kinds of candidates that the parties put forward, I believe this will only have a small impact on the distribution of seats in parliament.
Based on this analysis, I suggest that the shift to AV is really about local dynamics, not about majorities in parliament. So, it hard to see why the Conservative party is so opposed to giving voters more power. In Scotland and Wales they should actually be able to pick up a few seats. Perhaps they really think that the "everyone-but-Conservatives" vote is very powerful.
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