UK opinion on proportionality

I highly recommend a post by Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Stephen Crone of Democratic Audit, writing at the LSE blog, on trends in British opinion regarding proportionality.

A short summary would be that public support for the principles of proportionality or “fairness” vs. “effective government” has been quite stable over the past three decades. However, results of polls that specifically reference a possible shift to a PR system have been more volatile. There was a sharp, but temporary, uptick in support for a PR system according to polling in 2009, yet in 2010 there was a sharp increase in opposition to PR.

In other words, while underlying democratic values may not have changed, the public has become more polarized about the issue of adopting of a proportional representation system.

17 thoughts on “UK opinion on proportionality

  1. I think Nick Clegg’s mistake on PR was accepting the AV Referendum which was a farce now that one looks back on it. That reform was a minimax reform.

    It would have been better if he demanded STV for local government elections for England as a trial run for PR later to the House of Commons maybe PR to an elected Senate.

    Eventually someday, a reverse plurality will happen, and it won’t be pretty.

  2. The Liberals pushed for AV unsuccessfully in 1929-30, so this is a longstanding Liberal goal in a sense. At least this time they got it past the House of Lords. In another 80 years they might get it past the referendum too.

    The push for STV in local elections to get people used to it is the backup plan.

  3. Will STV in local elections really help the cause of AV nationally? I note that even Northern Ireland (which uses STV in the Home Rule assembly) and Scotland (which uses STV for local councils) voted against AV in the referendum.

  4. Clegg had few choices. The Conservatives were not about to give him a referendum on STV or MMP, or a Citizens Assembly or some sort of commission to weigh options.

    A coalition with Labour was never realistic, and as we have seen, that party is somewhat less than a reliable source of support for electoral reform in any case.

  5. Maybe the problem with the referendum was that the voters would have voted Yes, if all the parties were viciously opposed to the change to AV.

    The fact that the Liberal Democrats were for the change did not help the cause because everyone voted No because they were angry at Nick Clegg.

    In NZ, from what I heard. Both Labour and the Nationals were opposed to MMP, and fought against it with all it’s might only that the voters voted Yes to spite them. The parties that were for the change were the ones that were not in government.

    In the UK, the party that was for the change to AV is in government, and that might reduce voters support for AV.

    We also seen referendums in Canada to change to PR being defeated simply because all the parties are indifferent toward the proposal.

    I think when one looks back. NZ’s change to MMP is extremely rare change of electoral reform in a very strong democracy. It seems to me that the Labour party made a mistake on offering a referendum on the issue, then retracted it.

    Then the National Party said that we will offer a referendum even though we will oppose the change, just to prove that people love FPTP. The people vote overwhelmingly for the change. They decided to increase the size of Parliament, keep the Maori seats, and have close party list seats just to scare the people in voting for FPTP.

    The only problem for the UK that one forsees in the future is what would happen if the Conservatives win 36% and the Labour Party wins 35% and Labour forms a majority government despite the reverse plurality. That would be a failure of the FPTP system. AV would not have been an improvement. Can AV lead to reverse pluralities/majorities?

    Look at the British Columbia’s 1996 election http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Columbia_general_election,_1996

  6. AV has led to reverse pluralities several times in Australia.

    The UK had reverse pluralities twice recently, in 1951 and 1974. Neither turned out to be a big deal, but there were mitigating factors. The 1951 result seems to have been due to some sort of arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberals, and it seems that if AV had been used the Tories would have picked up most of the second preferences. The 1974 result was followed by a minority government and another election several months later.

    I suspect that in cases where elections are conducted fairly cleanly -districts drawn by independent commissions, no suspicion of ballot stuffing or vote suppression -even political partisans will take a reverse plurality or two in stride.

    A bigger problem with single member plurality occurs when there are three or two and a half major parties, and two of the parties are perceived as closer together on the issues than the third. The third is opposed by a majority of the voters, but has enough support that it can “come up the middle” and benefit from vote splitting among the other two parties.

    However, under single member plurality the voters seem to be able fix this problem themselves through widespread tactical voting and movement away from the weaker of the two opposition parties. At least this seems to be what happened in the UK and in Canada in the 1990s.

    This isn’t the best solution, because you still get a term or two of the unpopular government, and the phenomenon of party’s votes inflating or deflating drastically more due to tactical considerations, rather than their underlying support in the electorate. Looking France and Australia, this doesn’t seem to happen in single member majority systems. Instead what seems to happen is that the smaller parties and their voters wind up more or less permanently aligning with one of the two big parties, into what become de facto two party systems.

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  8. AV leads to a two-bloc system. Is this true?

    What would happen if Australia’s party system turned multi-party? I heard that mandatory ranking of all candidates leads to perverse results. Is this true?

    Would there be a difference between mandatory ranking of all candidates (Australia), minimum ranking of candidates (Papua New Guinea 1,2,3), optional ranking of candidates (Queensland, NSW), and maximum ranking of candidates (San Francisco, Oakland, you can rank fewer than three, but no more than three)?

    I get the general impression from Papua New Guinea that voters can’t ranked a 4th candidate, but are required to ranked 1, 2, 3. I am confused about Papua New Guinea Limited Preferential Voting.

    http://epress.anu.edu.au/ssgm/global_gov/mobile…/ch22s05.html

    http://www.pngec.gov.pg/home/voting/limited_preferential_voting.php

  9. There is no way to give a definitive answer to the AV=two blocs without looking at the states as well as the commonwealth. You’d exclude Tasmania and the ACT because they do not use AV. That leaves 5 states and the Northern Territory. The research has just not yet been done.

    Everywhere except NSW and the NT have been through periods with three competing parties and NSW has a record of electing independents and hung parliaments. The Commonwealth itself has gone through periods of three party competition since the introduction of exhaustive preferential voting, mainly in the 20s and 30s.

  10. Indeed, although of course you would also need to look at FPTP nations for comparison. After all if the single case of Australia proves that AV creates a system of two blocs then we can be reassured that all those FPTP countries have a multiplicity of parties with no sign of being organised into two blocs.

  11. Too few countries use AV to make comparisons. Australia is the only Western Democracy to use it widely, and comparisons can be made between it’s states.

    No other countries uses it besides Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Only if the British would have voted yes on AV. We could have seen how it worked in another country with a different circumstances.

    What would be the disadvantages of AV? It is similar to FPTP, actually AV has more similarity to the Two Round system.

    Of course optional preferential voting is some what like a plurality 2 round system. The supplementary vote is like the top two round system where all candidates but the top two are eliminated.

    The Australian mandatory ranking of all candidates is an exhaustive ballot similar to reality shows only that they have 16 episodes to eliminate 16 candidates one episode at a time.

    One wishes that they would use the Australian system and have one episode just to get it over with. That analogy would be a great way to describe to people the AV system.

  12. AV, as discussed above, is quite dissimilar to TRS. AV allows the electors to accumulate their votes into coherent political tendencies. In a TRS election that has 3 or more candidates with close levels of support, the final 2 candidates are picked almost at random. The Chirac/Le Pen election tells us that almost 60% of the electorate, the difference between Chirac’s first and second round votes, wished to elect some other candidate but had no way to make that choice effective. Under AV they would have.

  13. The problem with trying to use FPTP to force a two-party system on the UK (and true, it did work… for a whole three decades, 1945-74, but that was when many classic pol.sci tomes were written meditating upon the naturalness and inevitability of a two-party system) is that all four of the UK’s largest parties see themselves, in some way, as viable competitors for top place in a national legislature.

    That is, not only do Labour and Conservatives see themselves as contenders for Govt and Opposition, but the Liberals were once a majority party for most of a century, and were only definitively pushed into third place after WW2: the Social Democrats had been former Labour Ministers; ergo the Alliance and then the Lib Dems have plausible reasons for thinking that one day they can deal themselves back into the game. And with voting support in the 15-25% range (coming within 2% of overtaking Labour in 1983), one would not call this delusional. They also control a number of large city councils. By contrast, minor parties in Australia have rarely come close to pushing into second place, even when they were founded or led by former Ministers or leaders who broke away from a major party (eg Vince Gair and the DLP, Don Chipp/ Steele Hall and the Liberal Movement/ Democrats). Caveat that the jury is still out on the Greens, with Labor support in seeming freefall: we could seean antipodean Jack Layton yet.

    And while the SNP have, of course, no hope of coming second or third across the UK as a whole, that’s not their goal. If they can get an independent Scotland, which again is not a delusional dream, then they can – as 2011 showed – win a majority of seats (and nearly of votes) on their own.

    As a result, this limits the effectiveness of Duverger’s Incentive (not Law) and helsp explain why the UK stubbornly persists with a multi-party system despite its electoral system. There are no fewer than four parties who each consider themselves a plausible prospect to govern a nation.

  14. I certainly agree, Tom, that “Duverger’s Law” needs some serious rethinking, and that much received wisdom on these matters was received before the 1970s. In fact, I agree so much that themes such as this are likely to occupy a considerable part of my research time in the near future.

  15. What was Duverger’s sample size? Just the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (white) South Africa in the 1950s? Did he include India as well?

    Its true that the 1950s seem to have been the golden age of the two party system. During that decade, Canada and the U.K. could be analyzed in those terms, but both countries developed multiparty systems in the 1960s. It turns out that Duverger was correct, but it was the decade that made a difference in terms of two party vs multiparty, not the electoral system.

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