The UK general election is almost here. At this point, it seems quite unlikely that the result will be anything other than a good old fashioned FPTP manufactured majority. Boris Johnson and his Conservatives will win a majority of seats, barring a surprise, despite under 45% of the votes, and will be able to pass their Brexit deal.
If one looks at the polling aggregate graph by the Economist, one might be tempted to conclude it was also a good old fashioned “Duvergerian” pattern at work. As recently as early October, before the election was legislated, the Conservatives were leading on about 33% of the votes, and three other parties ranged from 12% to 25%. Go back further, to June, and all for were in the 18–25% range (with Labour then on top, and the Brexit Party ahead of the Conservatives). Since the latter part of October, and especially since the campaign formally got underway, Conservatives and Labour have both taken off, at the expense of the LibDem and Brexit parties. Notably, the gap between the top two has been quite steady, at 8-10 percentage points. Unlike 2017, there is no evidence at all that Labour is closing the gap. Labour simply are hoovering up the non-Tory (and Remain or second-referendum) votes at the same time as Leave voters have realized there’s no point in voting for a single-issue Brexit Party when the Tories have a pretty “hard” Brexit deal already to go, if only they win a majority of seats.
So, on the one hand, a far more “normal” election for a FPTP-parliamentary system than seemed possible during the long parliamentary deadlock of the past year or more. Just like Duverger’s “law” predicts, right? Desertion of the third and fourth parties for the top two.
Only sort of. Let’s take the current polling estimates for the parties (and not forgetting to include the current 5% “other”, which I will treat as one party, given most of it is one party–the Scottish National Party). It results in an effective number of vote-earning parties of 3.05. That’s a little high for a supposedly classic two-party system! It is, however, lower than seen at any election from 1997 through 2015. In 2017, however, it was 2.89, which was the lowest since 1979. The top two would be combining for 78% of the votes, which is a little higher than most elections from 1974 (February, in a two-election year) through 2001. Even in 2017, hailed by many at the time as the return to two-party politics–albeit dubiously–had a combined top-two of just 82.4%. (It looks like a high figure only compared to 2005-2015, when it ranged from 65.1% to 67.6%.)
Of course, it is the seats that really matter. Seat projections based on election polls under FPTP are never easy. There are various ones out there, but I will go with YouGov‘s.* It has the Conservatives with a projected 359 seats, which is 55.2%, with Labour on 211 (32.5%). Taking all the parties (and here breaking the “Northern Ireland” bloc down a bit, as we know it will consist of more than one such party), we get an effective number of seat-winning parties around 2.4. That is even lower than 2015, driven mainly by the presence of an expected single-party majority.
[*Note: just after I posted this, YouGov posted an update of their projections. I am not going to revise the numbers here. The differences are small, though potentially politically significant. See my first comment below this post.]
The problem with the standard Duvergerian claims about FPTP is that they ignore assembly size: In a larger assembly, we should expect more parties, other things (like district magnitude and formula) equal. While we could argue over how much the expected results of the 2019 election correspond to the so-called law, I’d rather not. What is of interest to me is that the UK case continues its long-term defiance of the Seat Product Model (SPM), and that’s something that I can’t take lying down.
While the conventional wisdom would see 2017 and 2019 as some sort of return to normalcy, it’s actually a challenging case for me. From the SPM (which explains over 60% of the variation in party-system outcomes worldwide, including FPTP systems), we should expect:
Effective number of seat-winning parties: 2.95.
Seat share of the largest party: 0.445.
Effective number of vote-earning parties: 3.33.
The seat outcomes actually never have come very close to the expectations. As for votes, the 1987 election got it right, but was a terrible performer in terms of seats (effective N=2.17!). Taking all the indicators together, the 2010 election is about the closest to what should be “normal” for a FPTP system with such a large assembly: effective N on votes 3.72, seats 2.57, and largest seat share of 0.47. So why was that not finally the start of the kind of party system the country “should” have? I guess we need to blame Nick Clegg. Or David Cameron. (I’d rather blame the latter; he was the one, after all, who thought a Brexit referendum was a good enough idea to go ahead with it.) More to the point, voters’ reaction to Clegg and the LibDems entering a coalition and–gasp–making policy compromises. After which, voters reverted to supporting the big two in greater shares than they are supposed to. In other words, contingency and path dependency overcome the SPM in this case. I hate to admit it, but it’s the best I’ve got!
Speaking of the LibDems, they should have had an opportunity here. Labour has the most unpopular opposition leader in decades. (Deservedly so, but I digress.) And the best hope for stopping Brexit would be tactical voting to increase their chances to win seats where Labour is not best positioned to defeat a Tory. Yet, despite lots of constituency-level tactical voting advice being offered in this campaign, there’s little evidence the message is getting though.
There is tactical voting happening, but as Rob Johns points out in a short video, it is happening based on the national outcome and not on district level. Under the Duvergerian conventional wisdom, voters are alleged to think of their constituency, and vote tactically (strategically) to effect the local outcome. Yet in real life, only a relatively small minority of voters behave that way. That voters use a strategy based on who is best placed to defeat a party they do not like on the national level, instead of at the constituency level, is a point made forcefully by Richard Johnston in his book, The Canadian Party System. It is also the underlying logic of the SPM itself.
So from the standpoint of the SPM, what is surprising is not that there isn’t more tactical voting at the constituency level. It is that there does not remain (so to speak) a strong enough third party, such as the Liberal Democrats, to appear viable nationally so that voters would be willing to vote for its district candidates. Quite apart from the legacy of the coalition that I referred to above, the case for the LibDems as a viable counterweight probably was not helped by a tactical decision it made in this campaign. Its leader, Jo Swinson, declared that a LibDem government would revoke the Article 50 notification and cancel Brexit. Put aside the ridiculous idea that there would have been a LibDem government. If one had resulted from this election, it would have been on far less than 50% of the votes. So you have a government resting on a minority promising to go back on the majority voice of the 2016 referendum without even bothering with a second referendum. That seemed at the time like a dumb position for the party to take. Only recently has Swinson offered the message of what the LibDems could accomplish in a no-majority parliament. But it’s too late. There almost certainly won’t be such a parliament.
The UK really needs a national third party (and fourth…). Contrary to the Duvergerian conventional wisdom, the electoral system actually could sustain it; we would expect the party system to look more like Canada’s (which conforms to the SPM very well, both over time and, in terms of seats, in 2019). Given the larger assembly, the British party system should be even less two-party dominated than Canada’s actually is. It is by now rather apparent that the LibDems are not the third party the system needs to realize its full potential. Will one emerge? Alas, not soon enough to stop a hard Brexit from being implemented by a manufactured majority (for a leader who is pretty unpopular himself) while Labour gobbles up most of the opposition, but falls well short.