Britvote ’10: anyone and anything

It’s almost as if Britain is more afraid of a ‘hanging’ than it is of having Random Niceguy MP take power

by Colby Cosh

On the eve of the most exciting British general election in decades, it turns out to be surprisingly hard for a foreign observer to pin down precisely what sort of government might emerge from the maelstrom of a hung parliament. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has ostentatiously been keeping his negotiating options open. The one thing resembling a categorical condition he has advanced is that he will not cooperate to keep Labour in power under current PM Gordon Brown if Labour finishes third in vote share.

Clegg hasn’t, however, ruled out a Brownless Lib-Lab pact (or a Lib-Con one). It almost seems to me, after much striving for information in the best transatlantic newspapers, that the British press is superstitiously avoiding any attention to the fact that the next PM may be some compromise figure not now currently at the head of any party.

This is, frankly, a little weird. So much is being made in the UK of the traumatic, obstructive effects of a “hung parliament”, even though Canada has learned to accept a chronically “hung” House of Commons. We weathered the recent economic storm rather nicely with a minority in charge and no immediate prospect of that changing. Canada, however, has not yet been in a position in which a Prime Minister might be chosen from a totally unbounded, undefinable set of individuals. I believe that is how Britain stands today. The next PM could conceivably be David Miliband or Jack Straw or Bob the Builder.

It’s almost as if Britain is more afraid of a “hanging” than it is of having Random Niceguy MP take power as a direct consequence. Britain faces tough fiscal choices after years of majority Labour rule, and its financial markets are often said to desire a “clear election outcome” above all. Though it is hard to see how one would distinguish that from simply preferring Conservative power, since the Conservatives the only party that has been within reach of a majority within the last couple of years. As an amateur who occasionally looks at bond yields and exchange rates with near-bovine incomprehension, it has also been hard for me to find solid evidence of the markets actually fearing a divided House.

What strikes me is that the Governor of the Bank of England is said to have observed privately (like the Sovereign, he is not supposed to shoot his mouth off publicly) that any party forced to take sole responsibility for the imminent tax hikes and spending cuts would be accepting a “poisoned chalice”. Assuming that this is correct—a lot depends on the mix of policy choices and the way in which they’re framed, and if you don’t believe me you can ask Ralph Klein—then wouldn’t a coalition be helpful in diluting this poison? Hell, if Britain’s in that much trouble, maybe the political elite should be thinking outside the box about a short-lived, Lib-Lab-Con Government of National Cruelty that executes a list of unpopular, unspeakably savage fiscal measures, disbands, and agrees never again to speak of its sordid ménage à trois.

And what of electoral reform? This is often regarded as a sine qua non for Lib-Dem support, but as Doug Saunders observes today in the Globe, Nick Clegg has been slightly more forceful about saying non to the Tories, who are unapologetic backers of the first-past-the-post system even though Labour has been the prime beneficiary in recent times. To the degree that Clegg and his small caucus demand a veto over the identity of a Labour PM, they might have less leverage left over in negotiations with Labour for more proportional representation and MP recall.

The official Lib Dem plank on electoral reform is brief and vague. The party has lobbied in the past for a single transferable vote with multi-member ridings; Labour’s manifesto contains official support for the “alternative vote”, or what amounts to single-member STV. But in another somewhat underreported development, Clegg is said to have come out in March for a mixed system of the only sort that can satisfy hardcore “proportionality” purists: using Labour’s single-member STV in individual ridings, with extra MPs chosen on a regional basis from ordered party slates to polish off the proportional-ness of the national result.

In other words, most or all of the major paradoxes of proportional representation may soon be on display here:

1) PR is in the interest of small marginal and fringe parties. As a party like the Lib Dems grows more popular, and approaches the vote-share band within which the logic of a less-proportional system may work in its favour, its vested interest in the imagined cosmic justice of PR diminishes.

2) The democratic logic of PR requires that it be passed by voter referendum, which makes it easy for parties that are in power or close to power under less-proportional representation to thwart it. (This is something else we know about here in Canada.) PR proponents have a multitude of schemes to offer, making it hard for any one particular scheme to win a referendum; and the more truly proportional any scheme is, the less easy it is to explain to voters.

3) All voting systems involve ethical tradeoffs. A more proportional election scheme must inevitably involve less geographic fine-grainedness; that’s what you get with large multi-member ridings. And a fully proportional election scheme requires the use of ordered party slates, and the election of deputies who are answerable to no geographic base, no particular group of voters, at all.

The Lib Dem position on election reform almost seems to tack on a 3b) here, since the party is also in favour of voter recall of MPs. How can, say, multi-member constituencies be reconciled with such a thing? By design, STV in ridings with x members would produce some members with support from only about 1/x of the riding’s voters. Giving minority and fringe candidates the benefit of proportionality implies that you’re ultimately letting some of them in, somehow. But as soon as Udolpho Hilter of the Kill-the-Immigrants Party is sworn in with one-sixth or one-eighth of a regional vote, wouldn’t he be vulnerable to recall by the overwhelming majority of the region that doesn’t want him? And don’t you then need to have a by-election for the vacated single seat, inevitably re-introducing national-scale disproportionality to your precious perfect wedding cake of democracy?

Britvote ’10: anyone and anything

  1. " Hell, if Britain's in that much trouble, maybe the political elite should be thinking outside the box about a short-lived, Lib-Lab-Con Government of National Cruelty that executes a list of unpopular, unspeakably savage fiscal measures, disbands, and agrees never again to speak of its sordid ménage à trois."

    You are assuming that such measures would not redound to the credit of the party that enacts them. With an articulate, clear-thinking, and courageous leader who can lay out how Britain got into this mess (sparing none of his predecessors) and how she must act to get out of it, I think one party can enact the fiscal measures required and take credit for the ensuing recovery.

    Then again, I am an inveterately naive optimist… or at least so I'm told.

    • Alas, G, he is assuming correctly. Anyone remember how beloved Madam Thatcher was when she gracefully reti– oh, wait, she was knifed by her own team

        • Well this is timely. As the National Review, of all outlets, just pointed out (http://article.nationalreview.com/431886/goodbye-supply-side/kevin-williamson?page=1), Regan didn't never got around to the cruelty. Oh he made the tax cuts. He just never cut any spending.

          Blame Tip O'Neill if you like but the point is, Reagan got to stay popular because no one felt the pain until Bush.

          Klein and Chretien are another story and I really don't have any idea why, in light of spending cuts, voters kept returning them to power. Folksy images unchallenged by a weak opposition, I guess.

    • Spot on. Now is the time for another Reagan/Thatcher to come along and sort out Western economies. Slash and burn bureaucracy/spending and reduce taxes and in a few years the economy will be on its way to recovery. And you have a legacy for the history books.

      Western world/economies are basically bankrupt and it's time we started to fix the situation.

  2. I found it interesting how Colby's post mutated from speculation on the possible outcomes of the British election into a discussion of the much more engaging topic (to me, anyway) of electoral reform. By presenting it in this context, Colby was able to avoid taking a position on the electoral reform issue.

    • I'm generally pro statu quo, though not uncomfortable with single-member STV, and I'm specifically and violently opposed to party slates. I do not regard "one man, one vote, and make as many votes as possible count so that everybody feels nice" as a universally applicable ethical imperative.

      • Single-member STV has the important advantage of simplicity and minimal change from the current system from the point of view of the voter.

        Party slates compound the current problem of member dependency on the party leader/hierarchy, leading to our current set of puppets.

        So I suppose we're on the same page, if not in the same paragraph.

        • I'd welcome a move to true STV, but I would settle for a single member STV (which, from below, I shall from now on call Instant Runoff Voting).

          True STV isn't that hard: Say you're a lifelong Conservative voter in the new 7 member riding called Calgary – mark your favourite CPC candidate with a 1, if you have some other CPC candidates in other parts of Calgary that you also like, mark them with 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 and then stop there. The good news is that CPC supporters who currently have to hold their nose to vote for Rob Anders will no longer have to do that; they can vote for the other 6 CPC candidates and mark Rob Anders as their 7th choice.

          And really, is the party list bogeyman really any different from the current system, with the party leader approving nominations and parachute candidates and so on?

      • Colby, allow me to second A_logician's comments that your exegesis on electoral reform was the most interesting part of the blog.

        I hope you'll let me make a few comments on the substance of the article. First, I think the Coshism "single-member STV" should be banished from the lexicon. As you correctly note, voting systems are a relatively complex topic so it always helps to use language accurately. "Single-member STV" is a particularly poor expression because it associates STV, a proportional voting system defined by the use of a ranked ballot in a multi-member district, with a non-proportional, or majoritarian, voting system, "single member STV", or as it is called by Americans "Instant Runoff Voting" or in the academic literature, the "Alternative Vote".

        In my view, this is particularly problematic, because the most important distinction we can make with voting systems is between proportional and majoritarian ones.

        I'll address your points 1-3b in a separate comment.

      • Colby, on a totally unrelated topic; you must change this picture. Sorry, but it looks to beetlejuice or something. Kinda creepy. Sincerely no offense whatsoever to you Colby.

        • Seconded, sort of…it is a bit creepy, but if that was the look you were going for, SUCCESS!

  3. Thanks for the effort; I'll try to be more accurate with the technical language in future. I'll leave most of the polemic to Hoosier and say that I agree that activists in Canada overwhelmingly prefer forms of PR without party slates. But the proportionality in these systems is compromised (they are "somewhat more proportional" systems), and my perennial question is, if compromises are acceptable to meet other goals of election design, what's really so objectionable about the compromises implicitly incorporated in first-past-the-post?

    • Thanks for the reply. I appreciate your considered my response. I just felt compelled to make the point because as I said the most important distinction we can make with voting systems is between proportional and majoritarian ones.

      Like any group of generally intelligent and well-informed people, Canadian electoral reformers are not of one mind on any question. This one doesn't really care to quibble too much about the details, because I think Canada needs a PR system, any kind. Certainly, I'd prefer one that allows for very good proportionality (and likely as a result, diversity of opinion and background). I think once Canadians got used to it, they'd like it and want to keep it.

      And I don't know what you mean by compromises incorporated in first-past-the-post. I see that system a historical relic that prioritizes geographic representation to the detriment of fairness and justice (see wrong winner elections in BC and NB, Lib Dems possible getting more votes & less seats than Labour). You could MAYBE justify the single-member district in horse-and-buggy days, but in the 21st Century, I think there's less justification for geography as the primary basis of representation in Canada.

  4. Calling our House of Commons "chronically hung" sounds so negative, might affect tourism and balance of trade etc. Maybe we could refer to it as well hung?

    • That would lead to an altogether different tourist demographic looking for the souvenir shop at the base of the Peace Tower.

      • I'm not sure it's a good idea to phall into analogies like this. There's a vas deferens between "chronically hung" and "well hung" w.r.t. the House of Commons.

        • I see someone came by and stripped all three of us of our +1 Intense Debate comment ratings.

          I'm taking that as the groan I was going for, and what's more, I agree, so I'm going to mark myself down another . I suggest you follow suit MYL and Gaunilon. ;-)

          • Good luck marking yourself down. It's impossible.

          • I had to log out, vote as a guest and then log back in. Interesting that you or anyone has tried to do it, though. Maybe there is something inherently masochistic about an interest in Canadian politics?

            I see it's all for naught, and I've been thwarted by subsequent votes, though. Can't lose for winning, LOL

          • "Maybe there is something inherently masochistic about an interest in Canadian politics? "

            So that's what they mean by "the Party Whip".

          • I systematically upped everyone who set foot in this nest, so you're out of luck. Erect signifiers for all!

        • Hey, G, why must you prostate yourself before all assembled with such quips? I really can't condom it, you know. You are erecting barriers between yourself and your audience with such low humour, and it is leaving your credibility dangling. If you're not careful, the moderators might submit your comment to premature eradication.

          • Boner.

          • Now that's hitting below the belt…

    • Interesting point, except that the South Australian Legislative Assembly is NOT elected using STV. It is elected using a ranked-ballot in SINGLE member districts, while STV uses MULTI member districts.

      Of course, considering the confusing of terms used in the media on the issue of voting systems (and that Australia uses STV for its Senate elections), it's understandable.

  5. Interesting position taken by Clegg on no coalition with Brown as leader if Brown position weak i.e. third place!
    Makes sense – but – heavens – transposing to Canada and extrapolating – what if Jack Layton were to say – I'm open to a coalition with Liberals – in certain circumstances – but not with Michael Ignatieff as leader!

    • "…he will not cooperate to keep Labour in power under current PM Gordon Brown if Labour finishes third in vote share…

      That part I don't get. Wouldn't Clegg be the PM if Labour finishes in third and they formed a coalition? Did Colby mean if Labour finished in second?

      • Coalitions can pick whatever prime minister they like; there's no binding procedural rule. The issue is that Labour is certain to finish 2nd in seat count but might finish 3rd in vote share, behind the Lib Dems. If that happens, Clegg does not want to lend his party's Commons strength (3rd in seat count, 2nd or better in vote share in this scenario) to a Brown-led coalition with a majority of Labour members.

  6. This is all remarkably well informed and balanced, so I'll settle for a quibble:

    "A fully proportional election scheme requires the use of ordered party slates, and the election of deputies who are answerable to no geographic base, no particular group of voters, at all."

    A province is a geographic base, and so is a country, and the people who live there are a particular group of voters. A deputy elected on a national list is accountable to every voter in the country.

    In practice, everybody comes from somewhere, and people tend to vote for the local guy. List systems create remarkably good geographical representation. List members in mixed systems tend to have constituency offices and deal with constituency concerns. The government still goes to the party that wins the most ridings (because the party with the most votes will win more than their share of ridings), and the list seats are consolation prizes for the losers. And the riding seats are the safe seats, so list members are always working to establish a constituency base and become a riding member.

    • "The government still goes to the party that wins the most ridings (because the party with the most votes will win more than their share of ridings)"

      This is not necessarily true. The government is determined by whichever coalition of parties is able to form a majority. Single party majorities are almost impossible, and unsustainable (because there is no real cost for some set of interests to break off from another party, so long as it can muster enough votes to pass the minimum vote threshold for representation in parliament).

      Ultimately this is the main source of problems for a PR system. It means that governments are the result of negotiation between parties – negotiations that happen after the election (so much for voters having input on policies). It reduces the accountability of government by diffusing responsibility, and it results in less coherent policies.

      Only a profound degree of regionalism makes it possible for Canada to experience similar problems, and even then, Canada has not experienced constant minority governments. If we do reform our system, we should look down under for a model that maintains local MPs and strong majority governments, while also enabling voters to express more complex preferences. For instance, in Quebec, the federalist majority of voters would no longer have to pick just one federalist party.

      • "Single party majorities are almost impossible, and unsustainable"

        This kind of categorical statement is plainly false. It's just not supported by evidence from proportional representation systems. To use an example, Germany's PR-elected Bundestag has had less elections since WWII than Canada. Since New Zealand starting using PR, their Parliaments have all run to full-term, even WITH slight changes in government (well,l one got called 90ish% into the mandate).

        It's too nice a day out to go drag out comparative research, but rest assured, if you looked into it, you would see that PR governments are just as stable as any other.

      • You are correct that it is not "necessarily" true that the largest party is part of a government coalition. It is just what usually happens. Under a mixed system, there are still usually two large centrist parties, and one or both of them is almost inevitably the core of the government coalition. This is true under any voting system.

        It is not a problem that parties negotiate after the election. That is what we choose our representatives to do for us, and it is what Parliament is supposed to be all about. Imagine, we could have a Parliament where real debate happens and real decisions are made!

        The suggestion that coalition governments produce less coherent policies will not stand up to scrutiny in the real world. Most developed countries have proportional voting and minority/coalition government, and have had for most of the last century. They tend to have lower inflation and unemployment than we do, better social services, greater satisfaction with politics and politicians, and higher voter turnout.

  7. Colby's argument goes: it's hard to have perfect proportionality, so we should not try to have better proportionality than we do now. I don't think this is a good argument. Most of the problems he notes are not deal-breakers. One could easily imagine a solution to the by-election problem by running it as a run-off election of candidates from the same party as the departed member.

    I agree that recall would not be compatible with multi-member districts.

    STV doesn't require fixed party lists. Voters can select individuals independent of party affiliation.

    • "Colby's argument goes: it's hard to have perfect proportionality, so we should not try to have better proportionality than we do now. I don't think this is a good argument." Sorry, but my argument is that there are several goals to meet in designing an electoral system other than party proportionality. (And your "solution" to the by-election problem rather hamstrings voter recall of deputies by keeping the seat as the private preserve of the same party between general elections no matter what, doesn't it?)

    • "Colby's argument goes: it's hard to have perfect proportionality, so we should not try to have better proportionality than we do now. I don't think this is a good argument." Sorry, but my argument is that there are several goals to meet in designing an electoral system other than party proportionality. (And your "solution" to the by-election problem rather hamstrings voter recall of deputies by keeping the seat as the private preserve of the same party between general elections no matter what, doesn't it?)

      • Colby,
        I agree that party proportionality is but one of several goals in designing an electoral system. But if you see party proportionality as a good at all, I find it hard to see how you justify a majoritarian voting system. Balancing party proportionality with other electoral goods might lead you to make different design choices, but choosing something other than PR will always leave the system open to perverse results like second-place-in-votes parties winning majority control, parties with significant but evenly spread geographic support left un(der)represented, and (could happen in the UK) first-place-in-votes parties coming third in seats.

        Finally, with STV voting systems, I have always liked the idea of appointing the next-to-be-elected-candidate from the previous election in the case of a vacancy/resignation/death/incarceration. It creates an incentive for parties to run more candidates (more voter choice) and encourages members to serve out terms if the seat were to go to another party.

  8. Political hacks will enjoy all the speculation, but the most likely outcome tomorrow is a narrow Conservative majority, or a Conservative minority effectively propped up by nine or ten seats from Northern Ireland. Clegg's demands will be such that any prospective new Labour leader would not want to saddle themselves with them. Labour also won't want to validate the LibDems by having a formal coalition with them. Labour would be better served by choosing a new leader, and hoping that the tough decisions facing Cameron in his first year make him highly unpopular very quickly.

  9. Just wanted to make a quick comment – while Clegg's new system (alternative vote + extra votes based on party vote by region) sounds really odd to those of us on this side of the Atlantic, it's not as novel in the UK. This is the electoral system currently used by the Scottish Parliament (and maybe the Welsh Assembly, but I'm not 100% sure on that). It has worked relatively well in Scotland, where smaller parties have some representation, but there are still two large parties able to form government (Labour and the SNP; the Lib Dems are a mid-sized party that has been part of Labour coalitions). With that recent experience, it's not surprising that Clegg has modified his proposal, though he would have the best chance of getting it through if he just stuck with the alternative vote.

    • Yes, used by the Wales Assembly, and also by the London Assembly.

  10. "Extra MPs chosen on a regional basis from ordered party slates . . . answerable to no geographic base, no particular group of voters." Go back and look at Lord Jenkins' Report again. The ballot for the regional MPs lets voters vote for the regional candidate they prefer, and there are only 1 or 2 regional MPs from each small region wuth an average of only 8 MPs per region. A very modestly proportional plan, with very local and accountable regional MPs.

  11. Thanks again for the detailed response, hosertohoosier. There's lots of food for thought in the second part and I'll be checking for some of those references.

    But I've got to say that I've got no clue what you're trying to say in the first part. I'll comment on saying that it might be fun speculation to talk about the parties that might exist, but it's important to say that we don't KNOW anything.

    In fact, I would argue (and I think the NZ case proves this) that the increase in the number of parliamentary parties would be much more modest. It could become a constitutional issue to use a national threshold, so I think that provincial thresholds would be used, but I still think the maximum increase in parliamentary parties would be four (some combination of the Greens and a new left-of-centre, right-of-centre and ideological split from the Bloc).

    And we'd have the not inconsiderate benefit of the parliamentary parties' legislative bargaining power reflecting their levels of popular support.

    I'll conclude my comments by saying that I admire your audacity in calling a professor emeritus and former APSA President among the "worst offenders" in a "depressingly terrible" literature. But call me old fashioned, I'm still going to tend to trust the considered opinions of the distinguished professor, not the anonymous Internet commentator. Maybe those references will change my mind.

  12. Another interesting reply, so I'll try to hold serve. Although I'm almost tempted not to with the (condescending?) discussion of "the nature of academia".

    Now my academic background is political science, and while I've got a grad degree, I've never done comps. But if I ever do, they'll probably be in comparative politics.

    Now, here's how I read the essentials of Lijphart's arguments (which seems to jibe with my observations and readings on democracies):
    - There are two broad types of electoral systems (majoritarian and proportional)
    - The electoral system impacts the political system
    - The conventional wisdom that majoritarian systems are good at governing and proportional ones are good at representing is not borne out by the governing experiences of those countries.

    You seem to be a smart, so I'm open to specific references that might disabuse me of those notions, when I tend to think are spot on.

    Finally, on your specific criticism #2, how do you propose drafting the list of countries for comparison? You realize those the are only three developed countries that use FPTP? Could there be a reason for that?

  13. We clearly have different readings of Lijphart, because my reading is that PR is a much more significant part of Lijphart's conception of consensus democracy than an independent central bank.

    That Roller book looks really interesting, I'll see if I can find it.

    On your final comment, I really don't see much "scope for collective action among parties" in Ottawa or Westminster? Do you? Really?

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