Coalition vs. minority

The next UK general election is just over a year away, and the three biggest (as of now) parties are clearly positioning themselves for the likelihood that there will be no party with a majority of seats.

In such a situation, there would be two basic options: a single-party minority government of either Labour or the Conservatives, or a coalition of one of the big parties and a smaller one, which in this case means the Liberal Democrats.* The usual pattern in the UK, and also Canada, has been the former: a minority government that serves until it either is defeated by the combined opposition, or calls an early election (which results in either its defeat or its becoming a majority government). Until 2010, that is, when Conservative leader David Cameron opted to bring in the LibDems as a formal governing partner.

Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, a large union with deep influence within the Labour Party, left no doubt as to where he stands. He said that, in the event Labour is the largest party but short of a majority, it should be “bold enough to form a minority government, set out its programme and dare MPs from the failed coalition parties to vote it down”.

That is, of course, the classic adversarial strategy expected in a fundamentally majoritarian system: treat the minority as an aberration, a temporary inconvenience that will be overcome as soon as swing voters see that the opposition is “obstructing” the largest party’s “right” to put its policies in place. It also is a majoritarian attitude in the sense of saying it is better to have absolute power for a while than to have shared power for a potentially longer time.

But what if minority situations are no longer an aberration? If voters do not trust either party with full power, McCluskey’s preferred strategy could be a dead end–ensuring frequent elections and alternating minorities. Or at least increased uncertainty about whether an early election would result in a majority. Not surprisingly, Nick Clegg, LibDem leader and Deputy PM, offers an alternative norm in a video interview. In it, he decries the “preposterous assertion” that each of the two big parties–including his current coalition partner, the Conservatives–feels it has a right to govern alone, even if it does not win a majority. He further calls the attitude of the big parties so “tribal” that they’d deprive the British people of the more “stable government” of a coalition.

Is Britain ready for this norm shift? Clegg’s message seems like the right one in light of ongoing trends in British politics–away from the near-certainty of single-party majorities. But Clegg may no longer be the right messenger for this alternative norm to the majoritarian, adversarial one.

Partly, the answer may come down to how the upcoming campaign shapes the voters’ verdict on how this first experience with coalition government has worked. A recent example of framing from the Labour side is offered by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor. He argues, essentially, that coalition government has failed because the smaller party has not been a an important enough player in the cabinet.

I look at what the Liberal Democrats have done the last two or three years – these guys have not restrained the Conservatives; they have in many ways amplified and encouraged the Conservatives in things that they’ve done.

None of us want to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, partly because it’s hard to know what’s more unpopular at the moment – the Liberal Democrats or the idea of a coalition government.

Will the 2010-15 experience prove to have set back the development of a coalition-friendly norm of how British politics works, or will it prove to be just growing pains of a new model?

* This does not exhaust the options. For example, a minority coalition is also possible. This is what the mooted Labour-LibDem coalition after the last election would have been. These two parties did not have a majority combined, and would have needed support from the Green MP, Scottish Nationalists, a Northern Ireland party or two, etc. None of these smaller parties was, to my knowledge, proposed to obtain ministerial portfolios, so they would not have been partners in the cabinet coalition.

BC-STV, take 2

British Columbia is now just over a week away from its (second) referendum on the proposal to change to single transferable vote for future provincial legislative assembly elections. The referendum will be concurrent with the election to the next provincial assembly, by FPTP, at which the Liberals will be seeking a third term. The voting takes place on 12 May.

The election race could be tightening, with a recent poll putting the Liberals on only 42%, the NDP at 39%, and the Greens 13%.

If the race is (at least) that tight between the top two parties, and the Greens are that strong, just about any outcome is possible, given the past history of this province’s FPTP but multiparty elections–the history that initially put electoral reform on the map over the past decade. In fact, the item just linked includes a section about how the poll is an “echo [of the] B.C. Liberals’ 1996 defeat.” In that year the NDP won its most recent assembly majority despite the Liberals’ having won their first-ever voting plurality.

The referendum requires 60% to pass, plus majorities in 60% of the provincial ridings (electoral districts). Sixty percent of votes is probably at least 20 percentage points more than it would take either party to win 60% of ridings, depending on margins and geographical distribution of the vote.

There are YES and NO sites regarding the referendum that are worth a look.

I have addressed many of these issues in past B.C. plantings.

Ontario election and referendum on MMP

MMP was defeated resoundingly, getting less than 37%.

And, oh, by the way, the Liberals won nearly two thirds of the seats on only 42% of the vote.

More later. Meanwhile, this thread continues to grow. Thanks for the comments. (I have weighed in there a few times, too.)

On 10 October, voters in Ontario will vote in a general provincial election. They will also vote in a very important referendum on whether to change the electoral system for future provincial parliamentary elections from the current FPTP to MMP.

The proposed MMP–mixed-member proportional–electoral system was recommended by a Citizens Assembly, made up of ordinary citizens selected (mostly) at random from the voter rolls (sort of like a grand jury). The assembly was given the task, under law, of deliberating about how elections actually work in Ontario and whether there might be a superior model. If it recommended an alternative, it was legally guaranteed that its proposal would be put up against the current system in a provincewide referendum. That time is now, and Ontario voters can decide whether to keep or change FPTP. Or, rather, a super-majority of Ontario voters can decide to change, as the proposal must obtain 60% provincewide, and majorities in at least 60% of the 107 provincial ridings (electoral districts).

Under the proposal, voters would have two votes–one for a candidate in their local riding (as now), and a second vote for a party list. There would be 90 (instead of the current 107) districts in which a single legislator would continue to be elected by plurality of votes cast. There would be 39 compensatory seats, from closed party lists, allocated to “top up” the seats of any party that had won more than 3% of the provincial party vote, but whose number of districts won was a proportional share (of the full 129 seats) that was less than its party vote share.

There is video debate on CBC that you can watch (about 6.5 minutes long), and CBC also has a list of some of the key arguments for and against.

Meanwhile, in the provincial election, it will be business as usual for FPTP. One party–and it will be the incumbent Liberal party, unless there is a very big surprise–will get “reelected” with around 42% or so of the vote, and is projected to win more than three fifths of the seats. The Conservatives–led by, and I kid you not, John Tory–will win around a third of the votes, but probably under 30% of the seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) may win around 17% of the votes, but only around 11 seats (10%). The Greens may win five or six percent–and one poll says 11%–of the vote, but almost certainly no seats.

Obviously, Ontario has a multiparty system, and would be well served by a more proportional electoral system, which would raise the prospect of Liberals cooperating with one or more parties. If MMP were being used in this election, perhaps the Liberals would cooperate, after the election, in forming a government and passing policy with the NDP. Or they might strike a deal with the Greens, who would win anywhere from 7 to 14 seats, depending on their vote total, rather than zero. Under the current system, the Liberals will rule alone in spite of their having only 43% (or so) of the vote. Nonetheless, the referendum’s chance are considered a long shot.

The MMP proposal may not even make it over 50%. To get to 60% is hard. After all, one former FPTP jurisdiction, New Zealand, has MMP today because a vote of more than half the voters was sufficient in its 1993 referendum. The MMP proposal would have been considered defeated if 60% had been required; the change was endorsed by “only” 54% of the voters. In British Columbia in 2005 a referendum on a different electoral reform, also proposed by a Citizens Assembly, obtained around 58%, where, as in Ontario, 60% was required. (In BC, a second referendum is scheduled on the proposal.) Meanwhile, most governments in New Zealand under FPTP, as well as in Ontario and BC have been single-party majorities based on well under half of the vote–and sometimes on less than 40%.

It is perhaps surprising that a jurisdiction such as Ontario in which the ruling party usually is endorsed by well under half the voters, and where there are important parties other than the top two, would not be “ripe” for some form of proportional representation, such as MMP. However, Ontario is not exactly the most likely case for an electoral reform process to have emerged in the first place. It has had none of the serious anomalies–such as a party with the second most votes winning a majority of seats–as New Zealand had for two elections in a row (1978 and 1981), or as British Columbia had (1996).

With its multiparty politics, it has had some erratic results under FPTP, but nothing out of the ordinary. The graph below shows the patterns over recent decades.


This graph–as with others I have shown here in the block on the “seat-vote equation”–shows, in the lower segment, the deviation of the second largest party (in seats) from what it would be expected to have won, for the given votes for the parties and the size of the assembly and the number of total votes cast. On that lower (dark green) trend line, we see the identity of the second largest party. The trend line in the upper part of the graph shows how close elections have been.

The one really noteworthy–and perhaps “anomalous” election–was over twenty years ago. In 1985, the party with the most votes was the Liberals, with 37.9%, but the Conservatives, who had 37.0%, won the most seats. The Conservatives did not, however, win a majority. They won 52 of 125 seats, and the Liberals were actually able to form a minority government, with the support in parliament of the third party, the New Democrats. Then, in 1987, the Liberals called an early election and won a very large majority: 95 of 130 seats, on 47.3% of the vote.

As can be seen by the trend line in the lower portion of the graph, the electoral system has been somewhat biased against the second largest party–except in 1987, when that party was the NDP. In most elections before 2003, the second largest party was the Liberals, and they have won fewer seats than the second party would have been expected to have won (given the vote shares of the parties, the number of seats at stake, and the number of votes cast).

However, the bias has not been great, and the anomaly (if it was one) of 1985 was a long time ago. It is somewhat surprising that the Liberals actually promised prior to the 2003 election to convene a Citizens Assembly, and that they then went ahead with it. Now we are at the decision point. Will Ontario voters agree that MMP would be an improvement, or do they like the status quo electoral system in which they will most likely reelect their current government on 43% of the vote?


The Globe and Mail has a rather odd editorial.
It almost seems to think the electoral reform is a good idea, but says to vote against it, partly because it claims the idea has been given short shrift in the general-election campaign. It suggests, rather strangely, that MMM would be better. And it wishes the threshold were at 5% instead of 3%.

Ontario Citizens Assembly consensus on MMP

Excerpted from Wilfred Day’s report in a previous thread:

An early consensus. The Citizens Assembly voted on Sunday on their first preferred alternative system. They plan to design two, and then choose one.

Mixed Member Proportional – 78
STV – 8
Parallel – 6
List PR – 3
Alternative Vote (IRV) – 2
Two Round System – 0

That’s a lot stronger consensus than most expected.

On Saturday they settled their three key objectives for system design, after breaking out into five group sessions. Chair George Thomson quipped “you’re making my life easy” when all five groups chose the same three:

“The number of seats a party wins should closely reflect its vote share;”

“Each MPP should represent a geographic area of the province;” and

“Voters should be able to indicate their preferred party and candidate” separately, that is, have two votes, one for the party, one for the local candidate.


Next step: preliminary design of the first alternative (MMP) on the weekend of March 3 and 4. Apparently that’s two-vote regional MMP.

[All of the above is Wilf’s post, not mine–MSS]

Dutch electoral-reform proposal

As noted by Bancki in a previous thread on the Citizens Assembly on the electoral system in the Netherlands, the citizens now have a proposal.

It keeps the actual party-list PR in a nationwide constituency, but proposes two major changes:

1. The d’Hondt formula should be replaced by the simple quota & largest remainder formula because it is fairer to smaller parties.*

2. Voters should get more power in determining who will be elected from the party lists. Normally the top candidates are elected; lower-ranked candidates can only get elected if they obtain 1/4th of a simple quota (only 10% of MPs get elected this way).

The Citizens Assembly proposes that a voter can vote for the whole list or for one candidate. The seats are distributed “proportionally” between the top of the list and the most vote-getters: if party A gets 20 seats, 40% of A-voters vote for the entire list, and 60% vote for some candidate on the list, then the top 8 are eleted and the 12 other seats go to the 12 candidates with the highest personal score.

That would be an interesting way of attempting to split the difference between open and closed lists. Elsewhere, I have proposed intra-party d’Hondt, allocating seats based on the shares of the votes cast for the list (as a whole) or to specific candidates. Neither intra-party d’Hondt nor this Dutch proposed method has ever been used, to my knowledge. My quick expectation would be that this proposal would allow the election of candidates with smaller personal-vote shares than would intra-party d’Hondt. That may be precisely consistent with the citizens’ goals, but in many other jurisdictions, the intraparty fragmentation promoted by rules in which large numbers of seats are filled by simple rank in preference votes has produced considerable dissatisfaction.

Apparently, the citizens like fragmentation, on both the intraparty and interparty dimension. I have just discussed the intraparty dimension. Regarding the interparty dimension, the decision to change from d’Hondt divisors to simple quota and largest remainders (SQLR) also would favor fragmentation. The proposal favors SQLR because it is “fairer” to small parties–overly so, I would argue. It can allow a party or faction thereof to split off and present its own list, with the result that the separate lists of the formerly unified party can obtain more seats collectively with the same votes than they could have running on one list. For this reason, many countries (including the Netherlands, previously, and Colombia most recently) using PR have abandoned SQLR for d’Hondt. A threshold can help overcome this effect, but the existing Dutch threshold is very low (about 2/3 of 1% of the nationwide vote).

Bancki reports that he can find only a Dutch text of the full proposal. If anyone reading this also reads Dutch, please post in the comments any additional information you can glean from the report.

Ontario Citizens Assembly has held first session, so Beware!

Via Fair Vote Canada:

The long-awaited convening of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform took place at York University campus on the weekend of September 9-10. One hundred and three citizens, representing every riding in the province, began their work to determine whether Ontario needs a new voting system.

Assembly Chair George Thomson welcomed the 52 women and 51 men who will be meeting on several weekends each month through the fall and winter to learn about voting systems. They will hold public meetings across the province from late November to the end of January, and then make a recommendation in April or May on whether the voting system should be changed. If they do recommend a new system, that recommendation will go to a referendum, all but certain to be held with the October 4, 2007 provincial election.

The agenda for this first weekend session included an introduction to the role of voting systems. To gain first-hand experience on how different voting system can produce very different outcomes, the Assembly used three different voting systems to select their snacks for the three coffee breaks on the second weekend. To wrap up the weekend, Assembly members discussed what they expect elections to accomplish. The next five weekend sessions will go into detailed reviews of all major voting systems.

The Citizens’ Assembly sessions are open to the public. For more details on the schedule and topics, visit

As always, J.H. Snider has regular updates and links to news accounts, including a rather hysterical warning from Ian Urquhart in the Toronto Star of 9 September about “a leap of faith into electoral darkness.” In the Star article, we get these nuggets:

Two years ago, a similar assembly in British Columbia recommended a loopy new system called the “single transferable vote,” which hardly anyone understood…

Urquhart alleges that in BC,

the research director for the assembly was an individual who was already predisposed toward the single transferable vote…

I know who this is, and while he has done research on STV and probably thinks it has been, on balance, pretty effective over the past 90 or so years in Ireland, to say that this makes him “predisposed” (as in biased in favor of) the system strikes me as unfair and unreasonable for the reporter to say (unless he has some very specific evidence). Essentially, he is calling into question the sholarly integrity of an professional researcher. Anyway, in Ontario, the reseach director will be a:

professor of political science with no published record on the issue of electoral reform.

Wonderful. We certainly would not want someone who actually is an expert on electoral systems working to assist a group of citizens–most of whom have never thought about electoral systems before–tasked with recommending either a new electoral system or the retention of the current one! (I do not wish to imply that the scholar chosen is unqualified or will not do a good, professional job. I simply am questioning the principle of having chosen someone who is not a specialist in the field. Additionally, Wilf notes in a comment that the model of a non-specialist Academic Director supported by a team of elections experts was precisely the model that Fair Vote Ontario recommended.)

Urquhart also fears that “the playing field is already tilted against the status quo.” In a sense, that is probably correct. Given that jurisdictions do not regularly hold such extensive reviews of their electoral systems (though perhaps they should!), the very fact that a process is underway suggests there is doubt about how well the status quo serves the jurisdiction. And well there should be, though my own research on reform away from plurality shows that Ontario is not one of the cases that is most “objectively” in need of reform. The province has not had the record of severe anomalies that British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, or pre-reform New Zealand have had.

Then, even after criticzing BC-STV, Urquhart implies that proportional representation necessarily is a system of “party lists” notwithstanding that there are no party lists under STV. He also claims that under PR candidates run on such lists “rather than in constituencies” (my emphasis), notwithstanding that one can have both, if one understands “constituencies” to mean single-seat districts and the form of PR adopted is MMP. (Of course, most non-MM PR systems, including STV, indeed have constituencies; jurisdiction-wide party-list systems, a la Israel or Ukraine, are exceedingly rare.)

Urquhart says that “permanent minority government” would be a cure worse than the disease, which he diagnoses as “presidentialization.” The latter term–highly misleading in any parliamentary system, but that’s a topic for another day–refers to the concentration of power in the premier. Apparently it has not ocurred to Mr. Urquhart that the reason the premier is so powerful is that there are no checks and balances on a single minority party (in votes) that is frequently given a majority (in seats) by Ontario’s current electoral system. Your premier will be a whole lot less “presidential” (not that he is now, but, again, that’s a topic for another day) once you have an electoral system that ensures, when there is no party with a majority of votes, that a minority party leads a minority government–or else, of course, a majority coalition.

The idea that one can genuinely empower “ordinary MPPs,” as Urquhart wishes–at least without real presdentialization, that is, electing legislators and the executive separately and eliminating confidence votes–is quite frankly naive. Under a parliamentary form of government, individual members are arguably at their least powerful under plurality voting and the resulting tendency towards single-party governments. PR–of some form–is essential to what Urquhart claims to want to accomplish.

It seems Urquhart and his newspaper could use a primer from an electoral systems specialist. But of course we can’t be trusted to be objective about our areas of research specialization, can we?

Netherlands Citizens Assembly update

J.H. Snider has an update, from his correspondent in the Netherlands, on the Citizens Assembly that is reviewing the workings of Dutch democracy.

A couple of things stand out for me in the correspondent’s report:

A poll held in the previous weekend revealed some opinions in the assembly: The majority of the assembly does not want to change anything about the proportionality of our current system, the existence of coalition governments and the current high turnouts at elections (of around 80%).

All good and sensible. But…

Some things the majority thinks should be changed are the number of parties in parliament, the way coalitions and the cabinet are formed, and the role of MPs.

Keeping the existing things they like while getting the new things they want is going to be a interesting exercise in institutional design.