It has been an interesting week for election-watchers, especially those of us interested in the dynamics of competition in single-seat districts. Canada had its election, with historic shifts in voting patterns, on Monday. Tomorrow the UK votes on whether to retain FPTP or move to the Alternative Vote (AV). And, just to make things even more interesting, voters in parts of the UK–Scotland and Wales–will be voting in MMP elections tomorrow as well.1 Quite a week–and tomorrow is quite a day–for electoral systems!
Here I will offer some observations about why I do not like either FPTP or AV (except from a researcher’s standpoint, for which they are terrific!)
The problem with FPTP is that it is fundamentally a system to elect a local representative in a world in which–at least for Canada and the UK–a general election is mostly a contest among national parties. That’s fine if there are just two parties of any significance. You still get the tension between hundreds of local contests and the clash of national parties. But if most districts are two-party contests, notwithstanding some number of “safe” seats for one party or the other, the system works, on its own terms: A series of local playings of the national contest between government and alternative government.
However, decades ago in Canada and the UK, the voters (and the party elites) largely stopped playing this game. Third parties have become more and more significant, and not only regionally. There seems to be a widespread view, even in the academy, that national multipartism masks local two-partism–that most districts feature two “serious” candidates, just not necessarily the same two in all parts of the country. That may have been true at one time, but it ceased being so some time ago. Now many British and Canadian districts feature a strong third party, and can be won with barely a third of the vote. Or even less. Canada’s election could be a step back to a more two-party pattern, given the collapse of the Bloc and the poor performance of the Liberals, but the latter may well be back. So it is far too early to say.
Sometimes voters in a given district even “tacitly” coordinate to send a minor party to parliament, not because it is best positioned to represent the specifically local interests of the district’s voters, but because the small party has invested in winning this one district that happens to have a demographic base consisting of the type of voters the party appeals to. I am thinking especially of Elizabeth May’s move across Canada to Saanich and Gulf Islands, which she won for a Green party that invested everything there. Caroline Lucas and the UK Greens last year are another such case, although Lucas at least had represented the same locale in other offices previously. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with this strategy and outcome. Not at all! It just is another piece of evidence that voters and elites not playing the FPTP game.2 The contest in such a district becomes not about local representation, per se, nor about voting for the current or a potential governing party, but about voting for a fringe national party.
Then there is the whole micro-targeting strategy. To the extent that a party tailors its message to ever-smaller subsets of its constituency in swing districts, it, too, is not playing the FPTP game as we (used to) know it. It ceases to be a national campaign, speaking to broad swaths of citizens collectively, and becomes instead a disaggregated message to relatively small blocs of voters who just happen to live in swing districts. Again, not necessarily about local concerns, per se, but about ever-narrower demographic slices.
OK, so British voters can put a stop to all of this by voting for AV, right? Not so fast.
The best argument that the pro-AV camp in this referendum seems to have come up with is that your MP will “work harder” and will have to earn a majority of the district’s voters. I assume MPs tend to work pretty hard as it is, and to the extent that many of them already are pretty close to the median voter in their district (even when winning 40% or less), it is not clear that they have to work any harder under AV. Moreover, given that the proposed version of AV for the UK would allow voters to give only one or as few preferences as they wish,3 it is simply not true that the system will guarantee endorsement of every MP by a majority of voters.
Fundamentally, it seems that the argument for AV in an existing FPTP system where two-party competition is no longer the norm is a reactionary one.4 It puts the emphasis back on who wins the district and by what share of the vote. Yet FPTP parliamentary democracies have mostly gone well beyond that, as I started out with in my overview of the problem with FPTP.5 If significant percentages of voters are routinely voting for parties that have little hope of winning their district, but instead will be a clear third or fourth place finisher, it says they don’t really care about who represents the district. They care about national politics. And the two Green examples mentioned above suggest voters are capable of coordinating when what they care about national politics is electing a nationally small party with what are perceived to be fresh ideas. In neither case is AV necessary, and in the main, it’s not helpful if it is trying to put the genie back in the bottle and return to the good old days of majority winners in each district (as a presumed ideal).
And I would think that AV would be a micro-targeters dream. (Is there evidence for that in Australia, or am I out of line here?)
My take on AV would be different if the system could make a large difference in the way national politics works. And in style maybe it would do so, although I suspect that claims about reducing negative campaigning are exaggerated. (Candidates still have an incentive to see that certain contenders are eliminated from the count before others.) Fundamentally, most UK elections would have had the same basic shape of partisan forces in parliament with AV as they had under FPTP. So you get a reactionary effect at the district level without a clear corresponding progressive effect at the national level.
If FPTP is broken, as I believe it is in the UK (and arguably Canada, even if less this week than it seemed before), the only solution worth the effort is MMP or STV or another proportional system. If only the voters could have the chance to plump for PR…
1. Plus voting for many English local councls; are these all plurality of some form (often, I believe, in multi-seat districts)? There could have also been STV races on tap, in Scottish municipalities, but these are no longer concurrent with the Scottish Parliament elections.
2. If enough of this sort of thing happens to subvert FPTP, it’s fine by me!
3. Which is fine; I do not like the Australian requirement to rank every candidate.
4. But not in the horrifically specious way that William Hague and Margaret Beckett claim in a cross-party no-on-AV article in The Telegraph: that it would take Britain back to the days of the rotten borough by undermining one person, one vote.
5. India, the largest FPTP parliamentary democracy by far, is at least partially an exception to this point. More to come on that, as Indian district patterns are an ongoing research topic of mine.