With two of the big Westminster parliamentary democracies having had general elections in 2019, we have a good opportunity to assess the state of district-level competition in FPTP electoral systems.
(Caution: Deep nerd’s dive here!)
Before we turn to the district level, a short overview of what is expected at the national level is in order.
As noted previously, Canada’s election produced a nationwide seat balance that was extremely close to what we expect from the Seat Product Model (SPM), yet the nationwide votes were exceedingly fragmented (and, anomalously, the largest seat-winning party was second in votes). The UK election, on the other hand, was significantly less fragmented in the parliamentary outcome than we expect from the SPM, even if it was in key respects a “typical” FPTP outcome in terms of manufacturing a majority for a party with less than a majority of the vote.
In general, over decades, Canada tends to conform well to the SPM expectation for the shape of its parliamentary party system, whereas the UK is a more challenging case from the SPM’s perspective.
The SPM states that the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) should be the seat product, raise to the power, 1/6. The seat product is the assembly size, times the mean district magnitude. The SPM predictions for NS explain around 60% of the variance in actual outcomes for elections around the world under a wide variety of electoral systems. SPM predictions for other output quantities also explain in the neighborhood of 60%. So the SPM is both successful at explaining the real world of seat and vote fragmentation, and leaves plenty of room for country-specific or election-specific “other factors” (i.e., the other 40%). The SPM is based on deductive logic, starting from the minimum and maximum possible outcomes for a given number of seats at stake (in a district or an assembly). The logic is spelled out in Votes from Seats.
In the case of a FPTP system, the SPM makes the bold claim that we can understand the shape of a party system by knowing only the assembly size. That is because with district magnitude, M=1, the seat product is fully described by the country’s total number of seats, S, which is also the number of districts in which the voting is carried out. Thus we expect NS=S1/6. Let’s call this “Equation 1.”
For Canada’s current assembly size (338), this means NS=2.64, as an average expectation. Actual elections have tended to come pretty close–again, on average. Of course, individual elections might vary in one direction or the other. (The assembly size was also formerly smaller, but in recent times, not by enough to concern ourselves too much for purposes of this analysis.) For the UK, the corresponding expectation would be 2.94 based on a seat product of 650.
The actual Canadian election of 2019 resulted in NS=2.79; for the UK it was 2.39. Thus for Canada, we have a result very close to the expectation (ratio of actual to expected is 1.0578). For the UK, the actual result was quite short (ratio of 0.8913). As I said, the UK is a challenging, even aberrant, case– at least at the national level.
What about the district level? A national outcome is obviously somehow an aggregation of all those separate district-level outcomes. The SPM, however, sees it differently. It says that the districts are just arenas in which the nationwide election plays out. That is, we have a logical grounding that says, given a national electoral system with some seat product, we know what the nationwide party system should look like. From that we can further deduce what the average district should look like, given that each district is “embedded” in the very same national electoral system. (The logic behind this is spelled out in Votes from Seats, Chapter 10).
The crazy claim of the SPM, district-level extension, is that under FPTP, assembly size alone shapes the effective number of votes-earning parties in the average district (N’V, where the prime mark reminds us that we are talking about the district-level quantity rather than the nationwide one). (Note that for FPTP, it must be the case that N’S=1, always and in every district).
The formula for expected N’V under FPTP is: N’V=1.59S1/12 (Equation 2). It has a strictly logical basis, but I am not going to take the space to spell it out here; I will come back to that “1.59” below, however. It is verified empirically on a wide set of elections, including those from large-assembly FPTP cases like Canada, India, and the UK. So what I want to do now is see how the elections of 2019 in Canada and UK compare to this expectation. (Some day I will do this for India’s 2019 election, too.)
If the effective number of seat-winning parties at the national level (NS) is off, relative to the SPM, then it should be expected that the average district-level effective number of vote-earning parties (N’V) would be off as well. They are, after all, derived from the same underlying factor–the number of single-seat districts, i.e., the assembly size (S). We already know that NS was close to expectation in Canada, but well off in the UK in 2019. So how about the districts? In addition to checking this against the expectation from S alone, we can also check one other way: from actual national NS. We can derive an expected connection of N’V to NS via basic algebra. We just substitute the value from one equation into the other (using Equations 1 and 2). If we have NS=S1/6 then it must be that S= NS6. So we can substitute:
N’V=1.59(NS6)1/12= 1.59√NS (Equation 3).
In a forthcoming book chapter, Cory L. Struthers and I show that this works not only algebraically, but also empirically. We also suggest a logical foundation to it, which would require further analysis before we would know if it is really on target. The short version suggested by the equation is that the voting in any given district tends to be some function of (1) the basic tendency of M=1 to yield two-candidate competition (yes, Duverger!) in isolation and (2) the extra-district viability of competing parties due to the district’s not being isolated, but rather embedded in the national system. The 1.59, which we already saw in Equation 2, is just 22/3; it is the expected N’V if there were exactly two vote-earning parties, because it is already established–by Taagepera (2007)–that the effective number tends to be the actual number, raised to the power, two thirds. And the square root of NS suggests that parties that win some share of seats (i.e., can contribute more or less to the value of NS) tend to attract votes even though they may have no chance of winning in any given district. By having some tendency to attract votes based on their overall parliamentary representation, they contribute to N’V because voters tend to vote based on the national (expected, given it is the same election) outcome rather than what is going on in their district (about which they may have poor information or simply not actually care about). If the parliamentary party system were fully replicated in each district, the exponent on NS would be 1. If it were not replicated at all, the exponent would be zero. On average, and in absence of any other information, it can be expected to be 0.5, i.e., the square root.
How does this hold up in the two elections we are looking at in 2019? Spoiler alert: quite well in the UK, and quite badly in Canada. Here are graphs, which are kernel density plots (basically, smoothed histograms). These plots show how actual districts in each election were distributed across the range of observed values of N’V, which in both elections ranged from around 1.35 to just short of 4.5. The curve peaks near the median, and I have marked the arithmetic mean with a thin gray line. The line of most interest, given the question of how the actual parliamentary outcome played out in each district is the long-dash line–the expected value of N’V based on actual NS. This corresponds to Equation 3. I also show the expectation based solely on assembly size (light dashed line); we already have no reason to expect this to be close in the UK, but maybe it would be in Canada, given that the actual nationwide NS was close to the SPM expectation, based on S (Equation 2).
Here is the UK, then Canada, 2019.
What we see here is interesting (OK, to me) and also a little unexpected. It is the UK in which the actual mean N’V is almost the same as the expectation from nationwide NS (i.e., Equation 3). We have actual mean N’V=2.485 compared to expected N’V from actual NS of 2.45; the ratio of actual to expected is 1.014. We can hardly ask for better than that! So, the nationwide party system (as measured by NS) itself may be well off the SPM expectation, but the vote fragmentation of the average district (N’V) closely tracks the logic that seems to stand behind Equation 3. Voters in the UK 2019 election tended to vote in the average district as if parties’ national viability mattered in their choice.
In Canada, on the other hand, even though national NS was very close to SPM expectation, the actual average district’s N’V (2.97) was really nowhere near either the expectation solely from S (the light dashed line, at 2.58) or the expectation from the actual NS (2.66). The average district was just so much more fragmented than it “should be” by either definition of how things ought to be! (The ratio of actual to that expected from Equation 3 is 1.116; the Equation 3 expectation is almost exactly the 25th percentile of the distribution.)
The Canadian outcome looks as if the exponent on actual NS in Equation 3 were around 0.64 instead of 0.5. Why? Who knows, but one implication is that the NDP (the third national party) performed far better in votes than the party’s contribution to NS implies that it should have. Such an overvaluing of a party’s “viability” would result if voters expected the party to do much better in terms of seats than it did. This is probably a good description of what happened, given that pre-election seat extrapolations implied the NDP would win many more seats than it did (and the Liberals fewer). The NDP also underperformed its polling aggregate in votes (while Liberals over-performed), but it held on to many more voters than it “should have” given its final seat-winning ability would imply. That is, the actual result in votes suggests a failure to update fully as the parties’ seat prospects shifted downward at the very end of the campaign. In fact, if we compare the final CBC poll tracker and seat projections to the ultimate result, we find that their actual votes dropped by 13.6% but their seats dropped by 31.7% (percent change, not percentage points!). In other words, this was just an unusually difficult context for voters to calibrate the expectations that Equation 3 implies they tend to make. (I am assuming the polls were “correct” at the time they were produced; however, if we assume they were wrong and the voters believed them anyway, I think the implications would be the same.)
It should be understood that the divergence from expectation is not caused by certain provinces, like Quebec, having a different party system due to a regional party, as some conventional expectations might point towards. While Quebec’s size is sufficient to exert a significant impact on the overall mean, it is not capable of shifting it from an expected 2.6 or 2.7 towards an observed 3.0! In fact, if we drop the Quebec observations, we still have a mean N’V=2.876 for the rest of Canada. The high fragmentation of the average district in the 2019 Canadian election is thus due to a Canada-wide phenomenon of voters voting for smaller parties at a greater rate than their actual viability would suggest they “should”. In other words, voters seem to have acted as if Trudeau’s promise that 2015 would be the last election under FPTP had actually come true! It did not, and the electoral system did its SPM-indued duty as it should, even if the voters were not playing along.
On the other hand, in the UK, voters played along just as they should. Their behavior produced a district-level mean vote fragmentation that logically fits the actual nationwide seat balance resulting from how their votes translated into seats under FPTP. There’s some solace in that, I suppose.