Letter to an English Friend
These are copies of real email messages to an English colleague around the recent and thrilling election in the United Kingdom, focusing on the possibility of electoral reform in favor of proportional representation.
The British two party system
I suppose you may be rather hectic with Thursday elections, aren’t you? Seems to be pretty exciting indeed. A hung parliament? the Libdems second? I mention this case almost everyday in my classes, you know, the classic example of parliamentary regime, of two-party system, of so many things... "but then yet in a few days this may change".
Well, if only two parties can form government, once at a time, there are always single-party governments, always based on a minority of popular votes, significant instability of major public policy in the long term due to single-party alternations without an intermediate balance, I call this a two party system...
just WOW !!! what a mess!
Welcome to Europe!
Germany: always coalitions since 1949; just now: christiandemocrats and liberals (like Cameron-Clegg), but this is only since the election one year ago, for the previous four years it was christians-socialdemocrats (the two larger parties), and before: socialdemocratic-greens, and before that socialdemocrats-liberals; in total, always governments with majority support in popular votes, something has not happened in the UK for a century, and of course consensus policies, which means stable policies and, well, if you look at Germany in the last sixty years, what a big success, no?
Don’t need to look so far, just Ireland has a three-party government right now (FF, progressive and Green) and two-party governments most of the time before. Other interesting countries perhaps from a British point of view: Holland, always coalitions of 2 or 3 parties, now christians & socialdemocrats; Denmark: now conservative, center & agrarian, 3 parties in govmt, just before: socialdemocrats with liberals. Finland: conservative, agrarian, green plus swedish (regional), 4 parties, typically 3 or 4 party coalitions. Norway: now labour, left & agrarian-3 parties. Sweden now: conservative, christian, liberal & agrarian, 4 parties. Switzerland: always 4-party government for the last 50 years. Also: Austria, many christian-socialdemocratic coalitions over time; France: up to five-party left coalition government a few years ago, the current right in government is a merge of two parties; Italy typically coalitions including now Freedom party (which is a merge of two parties) plus Northern League (kind of Scots, less kind).
In sum, very accurate factual statement: most European countries for most of the time at least since WWII have multiparty coalition governments. That's normal politics.
Otherwise, how one can pretend to rule healthy a country with only 35 or 36% popular support (Blair & Brown since 2005, Cameron now): shame!
Happy that you are enjoying !
I was teaching coalition formation yesterday, that's why so, and the basics is that there are two possible motivations for parties at choosing coalition partners: policy-ideology and power. If the Labour wants power, it has to accept concessions in policy, obviously. If, on the contrary, they want ideology above all, they will have to renounce power, obviously again. Adapting from what Tony Blair said after winning power in 1997, speaking to party members at the party annual conference: “The choice is not between the government you (can) have (say rainbow coalition) and the government you would like. The choice is between the government you (can) have and a Tory government.” Precisely.
It's wonderful !!
A real majority-vote coalition! Most British people will have voted for the government for first time in a century!
I watched the ceremony at Downing Street, moving out and in, and got emotional; I am back to my admiration for the quality and style of British politicians
(even more when they do majority-vote politics!).
There have been several attempts at establishing precise conditions in the party system to predict the likelihood of electoral system change from plurality rule to proportional representation, as expected in Britain.
Rein Taagepera’s “seat product” is formulated as (SM)1/6 = N
Where S: size or number of seats of the assembly, which are 650 in the UK; M: district magnitude or number of seats, which equals 1; N: effective number of parties in seats, which is 2.6 (according to my calculation).
The formula can be manipulated to obtain M, the main variable in the electoral district, as derived from the other two, so: M = N6/S.
Well, according to the current numbers in the House of Commons, the predicted M is still lower than 1.
(For a variant taking not the effective but the absolute number of parties, if we consider only those elected in single member districts, so without the Northern Irish ones, the result is also M <1).
Finally, in an interesting doctoral dissertation by Selim J. Ergun at the CSIC and Autonomous University of Barcelona (2008, forthcoming), he argued that while a necessary condition for electoral reform is that the first party has not an absolute majority of seats, the crucial point is the difference in votes between the second and the third party, that is the fear of the second party to become the third and be heavily hurt by the existing electoral system. This was somehow expected during the recent electoral campaign, but finally the Labour got a consistent advantage of six percentage points over the Liberal-Democrats, which seems to have moved them not to commit seriously on proportional representation (but on the alternative vote, which is still majority rule).
In other words, even if there were a referendum on electoral reform, what would be the proposal of the Conservatives and the Labour to vote for?
Rein Taagepera said...
If PR were introduced, the Liberals would be assured of becoming a secure third party and a likely junior partner in the cabinet.
But if Alternative Vote were introduced (keeping the M=1), then the Liberals would be assured a single-party govt. --few districts will have absolute Con or Lab majorities, and in the rest 2nd preferences of both Con and Lab voters will bring Liberals to 50+ %.
I can't believe the Conservatives are so dumb as to consider AV a compromise between FPTP and PR, without perceiving this centrist-party advantage. Most likely, they will accept a referendum between FPTP and AV, and then campaign as hell in favor of keeping FPTP -- and so will Labor
Richard Rose said...
The alternative vote is NOT PR. In current UK circumstances, it is a crap shoot what it would produce at the next UK election, since past generalizations about second preferences can hardly hold in the new situation created.
There will be lots to enjoy as England joins the rest of the world. Wales & Scotland do have a top up PR. And N. Ireland not only has PR but also a threshold designed to give a seat to a Protestant gunman. And a requirement that a party that loses the election is guaranteed a place in government!!
Professor Richard Rose FBA
Director, Centre for the Study of Public Policy
U. of Aberdeen
ADDENDUM by this BLOG
Just to help discussion:
Simulations of seats allocation with the votes of May 6:
------------------ M=1, plurality -- M=1, ----------------- M>1, Single ------ % votes
------------------ rule, as it is ------ Alternative V. -- Transferable V. - = % seats
Conservatives -- 306 ------------------ 270 --------------------- 254 ------------ 235
Labour ------------ 258 ------------------- 253 -------------------- 205 ------------ 188
Liberal Dem. ----- 57 ---------------------- 99 --------------------- 163 ------------ 150
Robe Richie said...
Wise thoughts - thank you!
"Respect for Every Vote and Every Voice"
Takoma Park, MD
Taagepera wrote: "few districts will have absolute Con or Lab majorities, and in the rest 2nd preferences of both Con and Lab voters will bring Liberals to 50+ %. "
One condition is missing:
Assuming like Taagepera (no-one has >50% and Lab and Con have 2nd pref for LD), LD will win under AV ... BUT ONLY if they survive till the last counting round to receive 2nd pref from 3rd placed Lab or Con.
If the last counting round is Lab versus Con, 3rd placed LD will be forced to choose among them, and not the other way round. (example of Condorcet-winner losing under AV?)