Tory arguments against electoral reform

Writing at LSE’s Election Experts blog, Françoise Boucek takes on the arguments made by the UK Conservatives against electoral reform and “hung” (balanced) parliaments. She expresses surprise that a mixed-member proportional model–already used in Scotland, Wales, and London–is not more prominent in the discussions.

24 thoughts on “Tory arguments against electoral reform

  1. “… If you look away from Westminster, single-party governments are the exception. Apart from Britain, there are only three in the EU: France, Malta and that paragon of good governance, Greece. Many countries most highly rated for good government, such as Germany, New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations have multi-party rule. Many have proportional electoral systems which ensure that no single party wins a majority…’

    – Peter Riddell, “Who’s afraid of a big bad hung Parliament? Only in Britain are coalition or minority governments seen as dangerous. Look abroad to see how they can work,” The Times (23 April 2010),

    Uh, thanks. Not wanting to sound ungrateful to an anti-“winner take all or the skies will fall” journo, but did anyone else spot an inconsistency in the passage quoted…?

    Reminds me of William Maley’s anti-PR article in 1980-81 (a very negative review of Jack Wright’s Mirror of the Nation’s Mind) where barely one whole paragraph separated his attack on PR for guaranteeing inevitable multi-party hung parliaments from his attack on STV-PR for letting the Malta Labour Party win 51% of seats with only 49% of votes.

  2. Many have proportional electoral systems which ensure that no single party wins a majority

    Polls in NZ since the election have fairly consistently put National as having an absolute majority of seats, complete with other party’s overhangs. It hasn’t happened yet obviously, but it is certainly plausible.

  3. Janet Albrechtsen, The Australian‘s resident conservative columnist, attacks PR here. (Hat tip to Larvatus Prodeo blog here). The comments are doozies, highlights being F&V’s own Chris Curtis calling out Planet for labeling PR a left-wing hobbyhorse/ Trojan horse (“The parliamentary party that first advocated PR was that well-known creature of the ‘progressive’ ‘Left’ – the Democratic Labor Party. All those DLP lefties…’ – ouch!), versus the usual crew of forehead-smackers who think that “proportional representation” inevitably means “closed party lists” while “single-member electorates” means “hard-working local MPs with marginal seats”.

    • This has nothing to do with electoral reform but follows nicely from Tom’s comment regarding Janet Albrechtsen and PR.

      She wrote in regard to the new Victorian government’s threat to tear up a contract for road tunnel signed before the election (paying only expenses, not the compensation in a side letter that comes into effect if the court rules the contract invalid):
      “If the contract won’t be completed before the election, the contract can be torn up by a new government without compensation. Has Andrews considered the full consequences of his ill-conceived doctrine? It may mean that long-term contracts, including a collective agreement signed by a Labor government with public servants, can be duly torn up when a Liberal government takes the reins.”
      (“Shallow Shorten endorses dangerous doctrine”, The Australian, 25/3/2015 – behind a paywall)

      I submitted a letter to the editor, in which I said, “Janet Albrechtsen is 23 years behind the facts. When the Coalition came to power in 1992, it passed the Public Sector Management Act to enable it to tear up collective agreements signed by the previous Labor government with public employees so that it could worsen their working conditions and further legislation that allowed it to tear up legally binding commercial contracts on the collection of union dues so that it could undermine opposition to its rule. The sort of people now blathering about sovereign risk cheered that retrospective legislation back then.”

  4. I’m of the view that one should not rule out a majority Conservative government enacting electoral reform…to replace PR with FPTP in elections to the European Parliament and/or the devolved legislatures of Scotland, Wales and London (even though an all-FPTP Scottish Parliament could very well become a Tory-free zone).

    And just so we be clear, I don’t think that would be a good thing, but given the Conservative Party’s staunch advocacy of FPTP, it’s a prospect I can’t quite get out of my mind.

  5. Manuel, PR is mandatory for the European Parliament (since the Amsterdam treaty, I believe). So you can relax about that at least.

    Politically, they would be well advised to leave the other things in place too. Perhaps they can tinker with London without terrible blowback, but its Assembly is mostly in place to scrutinise the strong mayor, not to decide policy. It may for example only reject the mayor’s budget by a two thirds majority. Why then bother?

  6. First, to the extent that minority government in Canada can be used as a guide to predict what might happen in the UK after May 6th my Canadian contacts tell me that they are getting along very well with a hung parliament. One said ‘it let’s the Tories run a sensible government without giving in to the crazies on the right wing of their party’.
    Second, a caveat should be made regarding the reference to France as a single-party government. This is true in the legislature but not the executive where President Sarkozy appointed several cabinet members from outside his UMP party after the last election.

  7. Indeed, Françoise. If one counts the Presidency as “the” executive of France (and I’m using the definite article there in the specific English, rather than the general French, sense), it becomes pretty much impossible for France to ever have anything but a “single-party” government. No VP to be a sop to the coalition junior partner, like Hannibal Hamlin or Andrew Johnson, for example. Unless perhaps a Presidential candidate was jointly endorsed by two or more parties on the first ballot, maybe.

    The much-repeated cliché that “England does not love coalitions” has some truth if we mean unhappy alliances between two parties that both want to contest all or most seats across the realm. Eg, Labour and Liberals in the early 20th century (a situation replicated in Australia) – initially Labour granted “electoral immunity” to left-wing Liberal candidates and PMs (Lloyd George, Deakin) but eventually realised it had more first-choice support than they did and so went all-out to supplant them as the main party of the Left.

    However, when two British parties are competing in different, geographically segregated districts then they can get along as harmoniously (or at least as non-aggressively) as the Saskatchewan Party and the Wildrose Alliance do in Canada. Thus, Tories and Unionists in the UK have a very long-established, tight coalition. Indeed, I have heard that in India, many small parties oppose PR because their territorial concentration means they already do well out of FPTP – doing better than 1 Lok Sabha seat per every 0.2% of the nationwide vote.

    Likewise, a coalition will survive and thrive if the two parties have well-established mechanisms for preselecting a single joint candidate without rancour, as do the Labour and Cooperative Parties in the UK. Of course, one can say that both UK cases I mentioned are really de facto mergers, much like the Liberals + Social Democrats since 1982. But clearly there is a spectrum with, say, Canadian Liberal/ NDP cooperation (such as it is, since Pearson’s day) at the “loose” end and Conservative & Unionist at the other extreme.

    What the cliché does get right is that a coalition is unlikely to last past (or even to) the expiry of the current Parliament if the member parties fought each other in the same districts at the last election; quite possibly blame each other for splitting the joint vote and costing the seats of colleagues from your own party; and have reason to believe that dissolving parliament and calling a new election early will give the larger party an absolute majority to govern in its own “right” [sic].

    Of course, when the electoral system allows different coalition parties to compete in the same districts without splitting their joint vote, coalitions can be very harmonious. (Even if in many cases the parties still insist on territorial monopolies which reduce the voters’ choice, eg Liberal/ National in Australia and CDU/ CSU in Germany).

    This may also be of interest: “Does Cameron Understand How PR Works?” by Alex Massie. I have posted a comment but it’s still at the moderator’s.

  8. Tom, some good points and interesting read from Alex Massie and comments about STV. There is a lot of confusion over here about electoral systems in the media and political elites and consequently in the public as the campaign reaches its end. As Hugo Rifkind in this week’s Speccie argues ‘You can say just about anything during this election and sound brilliantly informed’.

    Not clear about your parallel with France semi-presidential system and reference to Hamlin. To my mind, France has a dual executive – a head of state and a head of government, the Prime Minister who appoints cabinet (and is not a Vice-President) – sometimes from different majorities (multiple co-habitations since the first in 1986-88). To my mind, not so different from the American presidential system with regular non-concurrent majorities in the presidency and the two houses of Congress? Hence, the need for coalitions and bargaining.

  9. Sorry, Francoise, I misread what you meant about France having a single-party government. You are correct on that point, I was wrong.

  10. I had thought that Labour and Cooperative had actually merged, the same way the Tories eventually wound up merging with the various Liberal and Labour splinter movements they allied with pre-World War II.

    Is the relationship between the Tories and the NI Unionists similar to that between the CDU and the CSU in Bavaria?

  11. Uicipaedia locuta est:

    ‘The Co-operative Party is a centre-left political party in the United Kingdom committed to supporting and representing co-operative principles. The party does not put up separate candidates for any UK election itself. Instead, Co-operative candidates stand jointly with the Labour Party as “Labour and Co-operative Party” candidates. As long-standing allies of the larger and more prominent Labour Party, it is regarded by some as a faction within Labour, although the Co-operative Party is legally a separate political organisation…’

    Oh, and the sometime co-author of Proportional Misrepresentation?, Peter Hain, has decided that “live by single-party majority governments, die by single-party majority governments” is not as appealing, after all, as he thought back in 1982.

  12. Entertaining blogpost by Colby Cosh:

    ‘… The Lib Dem position on election reform almost seems [inconsistent] 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 Hitler 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?…’

  13. The recall of MPs is a dumb idea, because if the electoral system actually works to reflect the wishes of the voters, they should be able to “recall” the MPs in the normal election. If the electoral system is broken and its difficult to do that, than there are other things that should be fixed.

    I think the recall of Gray Davis is justified to some extent by the way he gamed the earlier normal election that he won. The share of the vote Davis got in losing the recall was not much lower than the share he got in winning the normal election, and I think Californians got through the recall the centrist-liberal Republican governor that they seem to have wanted in the earlier election, but didn’t get.

    Recalls and term limits may have to be used as patches on broken electoral systems, that can’t be fixed more systematically for some reason. But they are more of a symptom of a problem than a solution.

  14. Agreed, Ed. Various analyses of California 2002-03 seem to concur that the normal, general election system (top-two primary, ie basically “party-list runoff” (-;) meant the Golden State’s voters faced a choice between a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican, each with majority (or plurality) support among only 30-40% of the electorate. Ironically, a simple plurality, one-round, all-comers recall ballot allowed the centrist plurality (close to exactly 50%) to break free of its “corralling” into separate Dem and GOP electorates and to assert its dominance statewide. And of course, not even the Orange County Republicans want to lightly dump sitting Governor Schwarzenegger for Riordan or someone equally ideologically pure.

  15. … On second thought, quaere whether the 2003 recall election really was pure “simple plurality” given there was a concurrent yes/no referendum on whether to remove Gray Davis first. This meant the Dems had less fear of losing the Governorship through a split vote – although it was a double-edged sword, since an incumbent is out for good if his/her Question 1 support fell below 50.00%, even if his/her (say) 45% “retain” vote might have translated into a clear plurality on Question 2.

    Respect to Colby Cosh, who is always very sensible (has anyone ever seen him and Alex Massie in the same room? They even have the same blog colours…), but it is possible to combine recall and PR, even if arguably it is not a good idea. For example, a Constitution could say that if, say, 40% of voters demand a fresh election, one follows within 8 months; if 60% demand, one follows within 2 months, with all seats falling vacant and being filled at once by PR.

    Incidentally, while I favour countback to fill STV vacancies, if a polity did insist on by-elections, its Constitution could provide that each voter could vote at a by-election for only one seat during the term of each legislature. So, if O’Higgins resigns as TD for Dublin West, and you vote in the by-election to replace her, you can’t then vote in a by-election for the same constituency the next year triggered by MacNamara’s death (although you can vote if the person elected to replace O’Higgins later vacates in turn). Like the “slot system” used for some US MNTV multi-seat elections – candidates nominate separately for Seat A, Seat B, etc, even though all seats are filled by the same voters on the same day.

    Yes, there would be some derogation from a pure secret ballot – you might guess that neighbours who voted in the by-election to replace MacNamara were supporters of his party – although time-preference might also explain why they voted on this occasion; better to vote in this by-election right now and take a seat off the opposing party, than to gamble on getting your turn next year or later if “your” party’s MP happens to vacate. (The chance of this happening would be greater in, say, a 5-year Dail term than a 2-year US state legislative term). But it would still reinforce, at least symbolically the “single” part of Single Transferable Vote.

  16. Tom,

    The Janet Albrechtsen blog to which you refer often closes pretty quickly. Here is my unpublished contribution:


    ‘Under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation used in Australia, electors may vote for individual candidates in any order they like; e.g., a No. 1 vote to the No. 2 ALP candidate, a No. 2 vote to the No. 3 DLP candidate and a No. 3 vote to the No. 1 Greens candidate. That must choose not to so and vote above the line is their own fault. Tasmanians well understand this and vote to defeat cabinet ministers and put in other candidates from the same.’

    It used to be the case in Australia that ALP supporters whinged about preferential voting and demanded first past the (moveable) post because DLP preferences helped keep the Liberals in power. Now, Liberal supporters whinge and demand first past the (moveable) post because Greens preferences help keep the ALP in power. (The Andrew Bolt Forum provides quite a few examples.) The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Even the normally sensible Greg Sheridan of The Australian has condemned the idea of PR in the UK as an invitation for extremist parties like the BNP to get representation (“It’s make or break time in Lib Dems’ identity crisis”, 13/5).

    As I said on an unpublished letter to the editor in response, we have had PR in Australian Senate elections for 60 years, during which time the third party representation has come from mainstream democratic parties – the Democratic Labor Party from the fifties to the seventies, the Democrats from the seventies to the noughties and the Greens thereafter.

    If the UK were to be foolish enough to adopt the Israeli system of the country as one electorate all sorts of instability would follow, but if it adopted five-member constituencies, the quota would be a respectable 16.7 per cent and see a House of Commons which properly represented the 23 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters and which would prevent the farce of Labour’s huge 2005 win on only 35 per cent of the vote being repeated. There would be no room for tiny extremists like the British National Party.

    In fact the extremist parties from Northern Ireland might be cut back in numbers if they were elected by PR.

  17. ”There is a fundamental problem with elections in many parliamentary systems. Most elections usually require voters to make two judgements, about who they want to represent them, and about which party they want to govern them. Yet, most voting systems, by permitting people to cast just one ballot, force voters to conflate these two judgements. The advantage of AMS is that it gives people two votes and allows them to separate these judgements in their own minds. It allows people to choose both a representative and, quite separately, a party of government.”

    AMS/MMP is an excellent electoral system, but does use a party list in part, and for this reason has its critics. Not all MPs are directly elected as constituency MPs

    Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting) is a new PR system which is similar to AMS, but does not employ a party list. All MPs are elected as constituency MPs. Proportionality is achieved by a weighted vote. For this reason it works with the existing UK constituency system, and keeps and strengthens the MP constituency link.

    Please can someone advise me as to how I should get an authoritative academic assessment of this system?
    It is different and has advantages over other existing systems, and so should not be left out of the current debate in the UK on electoral systems for want of proper scrutiny.

  18. Stephen (#17), DPR is not the only scheme that attempts to achieve proportionality by giving different weights to the votes of different members of the legislature. Others have names like “asset voting” and “delegable proxy”. These proposals essentially ignore the internal structure and process of the legislature after the elected members have taken their seats. Legislators don’t just cast votes on proposed legislation. They also sit on committees, negotiate with each other and with interest groups, etc., etc. In my opinion, none of that could work properly with unequally weighted votes.

  19. One concept I’d like to see used more is that votes require a double majority -a majority of the individual legislatures, and the legislators voting for the measure must represent a majority of the population. This still overweights the influence of legislators from low population areas (it effectively gives them a veto), but you could require either type of single majority for certain votes. The advantage is that you could conceivably just start electing people from administrative units and not have to worry about boundary drawing. I think this would work better for weak legislatures than strong ones.

  20. I do not have a problem with the idea of recall. I do have a problem with the idea that a candidate who receives more support in the electorate is beaten by a candidate who says less. I do not think whether a particular candidate gamed an election is a citerion that can rationally be incorporated into an electoral system.

    A more elegant way to combine STV with recall (floating majority rules raise the problem of Matt Lauer discussing whether a candidate is a member of the Smith set in terms of the Floyd–Warshall algorithm without resorting to fuzzy math) is to use the idea of circuitsM/a> within STV multiple member districts.

    The electors within a circuit can then recall their MP, hopefully by some more rational process than the California recall.

  21. Recall might be a good idea in the kind of one-party dominant systems like the post-Civil War American states the system was first enacted.

    However in a genuinely competitive political system, a politician whose ethical lapses have not warranted his expulsion from the legislature should get beaten at the next election, if voters really are dissatisfied with him.

  22. Bob #18, Thanks for your post. I have two points which I hope you can comment on.
    1 You suggest that the legislature would not work properly. The representatives elected in a DPR voting election are constituency representatives more than party representatives. DPR voting might select (it would be up to the voters) a group of MPs similar to the set currently elected under FPTP. I would expect committees to operate from a structural point of view as they do at present. Therefore from a practical point of view, would the operation of the legislature be any more stressed than it is at present? I don’t understand why this should be affected by the use of weighted votes for determining the outcome of votes on Government bills. I would appreciate if you could explain why the legislature could not function properly after a DPR election.
    Even if you feel that the working of the legislature would not be ideal, but you agree that it could function, do you agree that the DPR voting system has advantages compared with other forms of PR.
    1 Every party vote affects the result (Incentive for voters to use their vote, no tactical voting)
    2 The votes for party and representative are not conflated.
    3 PR is precise (rather than approximate and dependent on other variables.) and fair to all.
    4 The results are insensitive to boundary changes.
    5 It is very simple for voters and administrators.
    6 The whole electoral process is very similar to the present FPTP, and thus easy to introduce.

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