Brown the Blunt

Gordon Brown, in The Guardian, makes the case for his bill to mandate a referendum in 2011 on whether the UK should change to the Alternative Vote.

After extolling the constitutional reforms Labour has introduced since coming to power in 1997 (assemblies for Scotland and Wales, elected mayor for London, a Supreme Court, etc.) and calling these ” important changes of which progressives can be proud,” he says:

To be blunt, we need to give politics back to the people.

Two quick reactions:

1. How cynical can Brown really be? His party promised in 1997 to hold a referendum on electoral reform in its first term.

2. If only a “progressive” leader and party in the USA would have such a “blunt” agenda of structural reform.

34 thoughts on “Brown the Blunt

  1. Antony Green’s essay is highly recommended for its overview of British electoral-reform history.

    I especially like this nugget:

    In an odd irony, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party opposed devolution, opposed the electoral system, but only managed to elect MSP’s to the Scottish Parliament it opposed courtesy of the electoral system it also opposed.

    But, please, not “Additional Member System” for MMP. It makes it seem as if those list MPs are an afterthought.

  2. Guy Rundle, Australian journalist (no, not the Governor of Tasmania), is attacking AV in Spiked (4 February 2010): ” How to ensure a lizard always gets in: As the Australian experience shows, so-called [sic] Alternative Voting obscures rather than expresses the democratic will”.

    His objection is not the well-established ground that AV is no more proportional than FPP, but the rather spurious ground – frequently debunked on this site – that AV ensures a two-party duopoly by enabling the major parties to gang up against independents and third-party challengers:

    “… [AV] depoliticises [sic] the process entirely, turning the major parties into quasi-state apparatuses, legally mandated ultimately to receive every vote…. With a major party guaranteed a flow of votes in any given seat, local members become far more interchangeable and replaceable than first-past-the-post electorates, where a popular individual candidate can hold a seat that would otherwise be lost to their opponents…. single member AV is simply a form of manufactured consent for major and established parties, a procedural and juridical ‘solution’ to a political problem. Its presentation as a solution to the disengagement of politics and the public only makes sense when the public is seen as a necessary resource for the maintenance of the system within its current, contentless settings. It is the one electoral system which obscures rather than expresses any form of general will or political formation within a populace.”

    Oblivious to the sound of Messrs Greiner, Goss, Kennett, Henderson and Menzies (Mark I) ringing their offices, Rundle does mention that compulsory turnout and the “Langer Law” (a ban on advocating plumping) reinforce these problems, which is rather like blaming turnout quorums for Eastern Europe’s Stalinist one-party systems and then adding in passing that, true, having secret police and political prisoners made elections less competitive, but the real problem was that ghastly “candidates must be supported by 50% of the electorate” hurdle.

    Empiricially, Australia’s Big Two-and-a-Half usually resist the temptation to preference each other ahead of challengers (which is how the Steve Fieldings get elected). The exception is when a minor party is viewed not as centrist, or even centre-left/ centre-right, but as far beyond the pale, as “anti-system” in Domenico Fisichella’s sense – Pauline Hanson’s One Nation being the recent Exhibit A. I could be wrong, but I would be surprised if Mr Rundle had, in 1996-98, been among those urging the Liberals to preference PHONP ahead of Labor so as to ensure a wider diversity of parliamentary voices on such issues as immigration and economic rationalism.

  3. The AMS/MMP and STV/AV/IRV things are quite interesting. There seems to be a whole lot of reinventing the wheel in electoral reform.

  4. I am curious how Australia got the second most extreme two party system among large countries, after the US, while the UK, India, and Canada got multiparty systems with FTPT.

    In the US there are a number of explanations for the extreme two party dominance: the two parties actually do cooperate with each other to keep out outsiders, partisan dual party control of local election boards and election laws, the presidential (and gubernatorial) nature of the system, and the campaign finance system that keeps outsiders out generally. But none of these factors apply in Australia.

    In fact the main differences I see between the Australian political system and the Canadian one is the use of AV for lower house elections and STV for upper house elections in Australia. Quebec isn’t a factor because dual party dominance has historically been weaker in the English speaking part of the Canadian polity than in the French speaking part.

  5. The 538 blog has a couple of good discussions on Brown’s proposal (today) and also why the US doesn’t have some version of question time for the President (February 4th, I think the answer to that one is that you don’t do question time with heads of state).

  6. @Ed

    Contrary to the tourist brochures, Australia is one of the most urbanised societies on the planet. Until quite recently only in Queensland did a majority of electors not live in the capital city. Queensland is also the only state where the Nationals were historically the majority party in the Coalition. It follows that there is just not the variation between states or provinces that you find in Canada or India. Moreover, while the states have been known to mutter about their alleged rights now and then, the states themselves are extraordinarily centralised.

    The Nationals have been fairly energetic in the past in promoting the formation of new states. Their proposed state of New England, in northern New South Wales, would have been a second National stronghold, but the state government blocked the move by rigging the boundaries and adding the industrial city of Newcastle to the proposed state. There was actually a new state majority within the area the New Englanders suggested, but they were outvoted by the Labor electorates in Newcastle. Two academics, one fairly notable, discussed the issue in 2003:

    In a paper he has written about the future of Australian federalism, Pape argues Australia’s states are too big geographically and demographically: NSW, with a population of 6.7 million, is more populous than 39 of America’s 50 states, and while California has a population of 34 million, it is home to only one in eight Americans whereas NSW is home to one in three Australians. He also quotes the eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey: “The sad fact is that the newest state in Australia is Queensland, created more than 140 years ago. Australia has created no new state since 1859. The United States in contrast has created close to 20. For a land of this size we do not have enough states. We thus miss one of the advantages of federalism.”

    Local government is the weakest tier of the federation in both political and constitutional terms. Labor is the only major party that regularly contests local elections across all states. There is relatively little movement from local councils into state parliaments, or for that matter from state parliaments into federal parliaments. For example no former premier or mayor has become the prime minister since the 1940s and the vast majority of cases were immediately after Federation. (Sidebar, Ben Chifley, the third WWII prime minster remained the shire president in his home town throughout his tenure as prime minister, driving himself up from Canberra to chair council meetings)

    Third parties (including the Nationals) thus have very little chance of ‘proving’ their viability by governing a state or local government area and urban electors tend to have more in common with each other than with rural electors. The political cleavages end up being Labor versus Coalition, and state and local cleavages are almost unknown.

  7. @Ed @538

    There are examples. The President of South Africa not only faces question time in the National Assembly but takes part in debates. Moreover, when the president is advocating a domestic program that is clearly a head of government rather than head of state function. If the US presidency enjoyed less deference there would be a huge increase in accountability. Human rights and press freedom groups are bitterly critical of insult laws which insulate presidents from personal criticism. It’s quite hard to see why an informal (but more pervasive) ‘insult protocol’ is any better than an insult law.

  8. I completely agree that combining the functions of head of state and head of government is a bad idea and results in too much deferrence paid to the head of government. So I favor the heads of the US executive agencies being responsible to the House of Representatives, which would shift the US in the direction of being a parliamentary system.

    Absent that, I’m sceptical that anything like PMQ can exist in the US system. Once you set up a presidential, separation of powers system, features will flow from it that will make it different from other democracies. And the difference between the US and South African president is that the US president is separate from Congress and for practical purposes can’t be removed from Congress (the presidential party would have to be reduced to less than a third of the seats in the Senate, or agree to get rid of him, neither of which is likely).

    If there is a workaround, I think presidential and vice presidential debates should be held periodically throughout the president’s turn. The non-presidential party can nominate a presidential candidate four years early, then review their decision the year of the election. Or the president can simply debate his opponent from the last election, who would become the de facto leader of the opposition. This would gell better with the system because it would be making use of an institution that already exists and is in a sense part of the modern presidency.

  9. If one steps back a minute from what we ‘know’ about the separation of powers, is there any substantive reason the US constitution could not be altered to have the president and cabinet face a question time?

  10. Ed, having the heads of cabinet departments be responsible to congress would shift the US to being a semi-presidential system, which is still very far from parliamentary. (It would be a decent idea nonetheless.)

    We have discussed the issue of legislators’ questioning the US president before.* As the South African case shows, the key distinction here is not whether the head of government is also the head of state, but whether the head of government (and not just the heads of departments) is responsible to the legislative majority. The South African President is a prime minister who also serves as head of state.

    * Two examples:

    “Lie!” (10 September 2009)

    Down with the State of the Union (various Januaries)

  11. To make things clear, I made a comment on the 538 discussion, which was about how to introduce a version of PMQ while not making any constitutional changes in the US. I think this is impossible, or at least very difficult. PMQ flows naturally from a situation where the legislature can recall the government, so government ministers (who may be members of the legislature themselves) have to go to the legislature to try to justify their program.

    Imagine George III appearing before Parliament, even the House of Lords, to answer questions and you get some sense of the problem with the US adopting PMQ. The President very roughly has the powers of an eighteenth century British monarch, with the key difference is that he appoints ministers directly and chairs cabinet meetings.

    Now if you move the US to a parliamentary or semi-presidential system, then a version of PMQ will evolve naturally. With the sort of elected monarchy the US actually has, its hard to jerry-rig something like this. Actually just having reporters ask hard questions at presidential press conferences (and holding these more often) would be a big improvement.

    However, I did suggest that if you can’t create a Prime Minister with the current US constitution, you might be able to create a Leader of the Opposition through the non-constitutional device of selecting presidential nominees at the start, instead of the end, of the presidential term. The more I think about this, the more advantages and fewer disadvantages I see. A party might choose a dud presidential candidate, but this has happened a number of times already and at least under my proposal the party has more time to see that it has nominated a dud and could put in some sort of review process closer to the presidential election.

  12. George III did occasionally chair cabinets and invariably chaired the privy council, which is the formal organ that translates cabinet decisions into law. He was also the last monarch to appoint and dismiss ministers at pleasure. Monarchs before George III regularly addressed both houses, and not only in the formal speech from the throne that unhappily survives as the state of the union deification.

    Early presidents and cabinet members did appear before Congress, although the practice died as ideas about the separation of powers hardened. On the other hand early vice-presidents were rigidly excluded from cabinet meetings because they were thought not to be part of the executive. There is at least one American precedent for cabinet members to address congress, although it’s pretty unhappy. It follows that early 21st century ideas about the separation of powers does or does not require can be quite different from previous versions of those ideas.

    I suspect the concern is that congress might start voting on whether answers were or were not acceptable. Most parliamentary questions do not lead to a vote of any kind. Almost all parliaments that have a question time empower ministers to refuse to answer questions, although there can a political cost to doing so.

    I do not think a question time requires a parliamentary or semi-parliamentary system. All that is needed is a duty for the president and their cabinet to turn up at stated intervals and give to the Congress information of the state of the union by answering questions put by senators and representatives.

    On a separate issue, there are parliamentary systems without a leader of the opposition. I can see no reason why a presidential system cannot have one. The obvious candidate would be the defeated presidential candidate with an option for their party to replace them in the course of the presidential term.

  13. A question I should know the answer to, but do not: Are there formal “question times” for premiers in semi-presidential systems? I think not, but I might very well have missed some examples. (And I mean semi-presidential systems where the president really is a major political player; i.e., I would be unimpressed if someone said “Ireland” or “Austria.”)

  14. On having a “leader of the opposition” in a presidential system, the notion runs totally against the grain of presidentialization.

    Parties are, de-facto, led by their presidential candidates, who cease to be of much use to their parties if they lose.

    I suppose parties could pick their presidential candidates early, as Ed suggested. But the earlier this process is done, for the party that currently has the presidency, the more it creates the dyarchy/lame-duck problem for the incumbent. And there must be some limit to how early a non-incumbent party would want to define itself for the next election. And make no mistake, a party in a presidential system is defined by its president or presidential candidate.

    There really is an “iron law of presidentialization,” and all attempts to graft (informal) institutions of parliamentarism, such as question time and leader of the Opposition (with a capital ‘o’), on to presidential stock are about as likely to prove fruitful as grafting an orange scion on to an apple rootstock.

  15. France perhaps? I understand that the Council of Ministers has to face questions from parliament at stated intervals.

    Oh yes, and they did recently introduce the practice of the President addressing parliament in its form as “Congress” sitting at Versailles Palace. In former times, the President sent written messages to Parliament, invariably read by a commissioner from the rostrum.

  16. > “Parties are, de-facto, led by their presidential candidates, who cease to be of much use to their parties if they lose”

    And if we accept France as more presidential than parliamentary (using Round’s Litmus, ie, “is it a change in Head of State or an election for the Lower House that usually leads to a new Cabinet being appointed?”), I note that Francois Mitterrand was the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1965 and 1974 before he finally won in 1981 and 1988. (Admittedly, he sat out 1969, apparently because of a feud with Guy Mollet).

  17. When you asked the question ‘Are there formal “question times” for premiers in semi-presidential systems?’, my knee jerk reaction was ‘surely lots’ because of my knowledge of the French case and because the government is accountable to the legislature. But, as usual, I think you are right. In France, there is a regular session of questions to the government and the PM is involved. Elsewhere, while the PM can attend and answer questions, there is not, to my knowledge, a set ‘PM question time’ format. In Poland, the PM answers questions but only intermittently. In Croatia, the standing orders of the parliament say that “The Prime Minister… shall respond to questions posed to the Government”, but there is no mention of regular PM-only sessions. I’m not sure of the actual practice there. In Lithuania, the PM’s agenda (available online) records times when the PM attends “Government Hour in the Seimas”, but it is unclear to me whether there is a specific PM question time. In any case, perhaps the president is not a powerful political player in any of these countries. Actually, may I turn the question around? In how many parliamentary democracies, other than the usual UK, Canada, Australia, NZ suspects, is there a set and regular PM-only question time? Sweden is one, I think. Perhaps they are not that common and intermittent PM questions are the norm?

  18. Who is the current leader of the opposition in France? Is it the floor leader for the Socialists in the National Assembly, or is it Segolene Royale, or does France have a leader of the opposition at all?

  19. Ed #20, that’s my question exactly, yet Tom at #18 reminds us that sometimes parties in presidential or semi-presidential system do keep their defeated presidential candidates around for a few cycles. I am actually not sure what the most common practice is. It seems a piece of low-hanging fruit ripe for at least a research note.

    I was thinking of US, Mexican, and Colombian experience. With some exceptions, major parties tend not to have the same candidate in the subsequent election after a loss, suggesting there is no clear “leader of the opposition.” But then there are cases like Brazil’s PT, where Lula was the founder and has been the party’s only presidential candidate (till 2010, when he can’t run again).

  20. Robert at #19, thanks for the survey of ‘question time’ in semi-presidential systems. I certainly think that all of the cases you list have presidents that are sufficiently important players that I might expect their “presidential” features to trump their “parliamentary” features in terms of rules such as when the head of government must answer to parliament (outside of investiture proceedings and no-confidence debates).

    You ask a good question about parliamentary systems. I actually have wondered myself how common something like a question period is in parliamentary systems outside of those that are British-influenced and/or characterized mainly by two-party or two-bloc competition.

  21. #20 There is not exact equivalent of a Leader of the Opposition in the French system. The various parliamentary parties have group leaders but they have similar functions to American congressional party leaders-they organise the Deputies and Senators, but are in no sense speaking for the party as a whole.

    Even though the Prime Minister is responsible to the National Assembly, Ministers are not members of parliament and if they are on appointment, they have to resign their seats-though after the recent constitutional changes they can take their seats back from their replacement if they cease to be a Minister. Ministers are however subject to questioning by Parliament and have the right to speak on legislation. There is no equivalent of a “shadow cabinet” in France, though members of the executive committee of the Socialist Party, for example, might be given responsibility for certain areas in the formulation of party policy.

    The First Secretary (chief executive) of the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, who is Mayor of Lille in the north of France but not a member of parliament, would be the go-to person for the media for reaction to presidential announcements, and would be regarded as a strong (though not automatic) contender for the party presidential nomination. Indeed, if the opinion polls are to be believed, Aubry is only the second-most popular possible candidate, after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF.

  22. Re-reading Rundle’s grumble, trying to decipher what on earth he is talking about, I understand one of his points to be (my paraphrase) “Aust govts introduced AV to artificially impose political unity on the conservative side of politics, which does not naturally unite into a single party with one candidate per electorate.” (correct me if I have misstated this).

    Well, possibly, although the degree of top-down dirigisme involved is minimal compared to the heavy “fines” that FPTP levies on parties that don’t unite. One could say that AV doesn’t compel unity so much as remove a hefty (and unnecessary) penalty for disunity – or, more accurately, it removes the incentive that FPTP gives for dishonest, hidden, behind-the-scenes vote aggregation (ie, tactical voting and the “invisible runoff” with opinion polls as de facto “first ballot”) by allowing open, publicly-accountable vote aggregation (ie, by preference swaps – at least when there’s no Senate-style ticket-voting).

    As noted, most of GR’s other criticisms have what force they have because of the combination of AV with compulsory turnout and compulsory full-preference marking. It is possible that UK Labour might adopt the first (as one part of what Hain et al call the “Australian Rules” package – the other two being AV for the lower house and a PR-elected upper chamber), but I can’t imagine the UK copying exhaustive preferences. (Bogdanor made this point in his 1981 book. Requiring more than 1 preference in an STV or AV system seems an Australian peculiarity).

    I am not a fan of unnecessarily dividing a polity into single-seat districts and using AV. But when a single office needs to be filled, or a decision needs to be made by majority (electing a president; voting in a referendum; a by-election under PR because none of the original candidates are still available), AV is far better than FPTP or even runoff, and is (IMHO) about tied with Condorcet.

  23. > the incentive that FPTP gives for dishonest, hidden, behind-the-scenes vote aggregation (ie, tactical voting and the “invisible runoff” with opinion polls as de facto “first ballot”…

    Or bribing/ inducing stalking-horse candidates to stand in the hope they’ll split your opponents’ vote. I understand that Canadian politicians have been prosecuted for allegedly doing this. I cannot imagine this being made a criminal offence in Australia.

  24. … I mean, unthinkable that it would be a criminal offence to recruit or persuade someone to stand as a candidate, with culpability depending on whether the court thought the recruiter/persuader wanted to split another party’s vote. It is, of course, a criminal offence to bribe someone to be a candidate.

  25. Interesting point: the Commons is less strictly [absolute-]majoritarian than the US Electoral College…

    ‘[…] it is worth noting that you don’t actually need 324 MPs to have a majority in the Commons. […] Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats as they refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the Westminster parliament. (Although […] they are still allowed to have offices in the Commons and claim a salary and expenses). […] So, the Tories could well be a few seats short of a Commons majority in theory but have one in practice.

    ‘[However,] Obviously, if the Tories were in this position governing for them would be a very hard slog. No Cabinet Minister would be able to take a foreign trip with any confidence that he wouldn’t have to suddenly rush back for a vote and the party could not afford to lose even a handful of MPs on any vote.”

    – James Forsyth, “The Tories won’t need a majority to have a majority in the House,” The Spectator (12 Friday, March 2010).

    As some of the linked columnists have noted, although only one election (1974a) in the past seven decades has “elected” a hung parliament, the last two changes of govt (1979 and 1997) were preceded by PMs Callaghan and Major losing their majorities (by defections or by-elections) towards the end of the parliamentary term. It is therefore 40 years since one party had a Commons majority immediately before the election and a different party had a Commons majority immediately after it.

    I am surprised that the Sinn Fein MPs get away with permanent abstention. Australian MHRs and Senators forfeit their seats if they miss Parliament for 3 months, and the US Houses of Congress can “compel the attendance of absent members”. Thatcher amended the Representation of the People Act to disqualify prison inmates from being elected to the Commons (to prevent future Bobby Sands-es) so I am curious why neither Labor nor Tory has introduced an attendance requirement so the Republicans have to show up or ship out. I’m guessing either (a) if abstention is long-standing party policy, and not a Stonehouse-/Sanford-style individual office-bearer’s quirk, there is no point forcing by-elections that would just be won by the ousted candidates (or, if disqualified from re-election, by their clones); and/or (b) Irish Nationalist MPs a century ago did vote, and exploited the Commons’ rules to make the body unworkable (one reason the major parties agreed to change the standing orders to introduce the guillotine and other anti-deliberative, majoritarian weapons). So maybe Labour and Tories are secretly relieved to pay the Shinners to stay away…

  26. Surveying the media and blogosphere discussions of the prospects of hung Parliaments in Britain and Tasmania, I feel I am missing something… Basically, in both cases, the leaders of the Big Two each say that, while of course the best of all possible worlds would be for Our Team to win an absolute majority, the worst outcome imaginable would be for the (sizeable) third party to hold the balance of power. Worse, even, then the Other Blokes winning control.

    So… if they really believe this, why not act on it? You don’t need them to form a Schmidt-Kiesinger or Peres-Begin style Grand Coalition and share Cabinet seats with each other. You just need an agreement by both that whichever wins a plurality of seats gets to form the government, and that the second-largest party will instruct its MPs to abstain, at least on budget and other confidence matters.

    So if Gordon Gray and Richard Cameron make this sort of mutual non-aggression pact, Nick McKegg’s parliamentary leverage is nullified. Admittedly it would mean the Opposition would have to resist the temptation to take the premier’s scalp if the opportunity for a mid-term alliance with the independents (eg, NSW 1991) presented itself. Am I being cynical in supposing this is the reason why they don’t, and resort to rigging the electoral system and/or frightening the voters instead?

  27. Hasn’t something like what Tom Round is suggesting happened in Canada? Harper’s government has survived several times through the Liberals abstaining on votes, in this case done not so much to keep Harper from having to make a deal with a third party, but to keep him from having to call another election.

  28. I’m thinking of a situation where the opposition refrains from helping the third party bring down the premier even in situations where the opposition is not flat broke and fears an early election. In other words, political self-restraint and looking at long-term self-interest over short-term gain.

    Because the major parties are the responsible ones who care about the big picture and the public good. – Right?

  29. I think electoral reform is supreme. I’d like to see Approval Voting (Yes/No Voting), where a voter can vote for, against or not vote for any candidate at all. In 2000, under Approval Voting, a liberal voter could’ve voted for Nader and Gore and a conservative could’ve voted for Buchanan(Browne) and Bush.

  30. I may have been too harsh on Guy Grundle. This comment by him wins the thread for “Australia Decides – 2010” punditry:

    “The difficulty for the business as usual crowd, is that they spend so much time celebrating the virtues of the single member electorate system, that when it throws up a number of actual single members, they can’t damn it out of hand.”

    – Guy Rundle, “We’re entering a new dimension here, people,” i /i (26 August 2010) (quoted at ).

    Also, my reference above to “Menzies (Mark I)” should read “Arthur Fadden (who deposed Menzies (Mark I) in a coalition party-room coup in 1941…”

    Australia has already rerun 1929 (the 2007 election – incumbent PM tries to deregulatre industrial relations, loses electoion and own seat) and now 1931 (the 2010 – global economy nosedives, first-time ALP govt loses its majority) so we should be up to 1941 repeating itself as farce any day now… Abbott as Menzies? Hockey as Fadden? I suppose Fadden was (to paraphrase one of Whitlam’s less-forgettable inbterjections on the huistings) a Country Member, so maybe Warrant Trust will have to take a break from his Lost! camoeos and sharpen his knife…

  31. As to Brazil’s PT, where you note above that its founder Lula has been the party’s only presidential candidate til this year, when he can’t run again — his successor (and former Chief of Staff) Dilma Rousseff is projected to win on the first ballot Oct. 3, becoming Brazil’s first female president. She is supported by the PT, PMDB, PCdoB, PDT, PRB, PR, PSB, PSC, PTC, and PTN. In the last Congress, those nine parties held 297 of the 513 seats. But electoral alliances in Brazil shift between different offices; will Dilma Rousseff get support for her program from Congress? And why doesn’t Fruits and Votes have a Brazil thread?

  32. Although off topic, because it came up…

    Brazilian law no longer allows parties to have different alliances for different elected institutions. That was a very big change instituted by an electoral court ruling some years ago.

    Wilf is the second person to note that absence of a “Brazil” block. I was surprised when this was pointed out, but I guess I’ve never put up anything about Brazil. Strange but true.

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