Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.

Since then, things have changed somewhat.

The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.

Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.

In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.

Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.

However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.

labourtory

(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)

This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.

At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.

So now where for Brexit?

I spent far too much of my spring break listening to debates from the UK House of Commons. And even though I heard almost everything that was said today, I am still not sure what happened. Or, rather, what it means for next week and beyond.

What do folks around the virtual orchard think is going to happen?

UK MPs “plot” to do their job

As the expected “meaningful vote” on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement looms, and the legally mandated Brexit day (29 March) draws closer, it is worth thinking clearly about what the relationship is between the House of Commons and the executive in the UK system. As it happens, this is the week in my Ph.D. seminar on party and legislative organization in which we read a couple of items specifically about this relationship. Understanding the relationship is important if for no other reason than to inoculate oneself against headlines like this one in the Sunday Times yesterday:

Revealed: Commons plot to seize control from Theresa May ahead of Brexit vote

The print version even had a headline about a “coup”. It is bad enough when the newspapers and talking heads refer to a vote within a party on the continuance (or not) if its leader as a “coup”. It is just that much worse when the possibility of elected representatives taking back power from the executive is so branded.

To be clear, when a collective body to whom a leader (or other collective body) is responsible seeks to replace or diminish the authority of the latter, it is not a coup.

The specific potential actions that got the Times and “one senior figure” quoted therein so worked up is summarized as:

At least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.

Let’s be clear about something, shall we? The executive in a parliamentary democracy is an agent of the assembly, not vice versa. Thus if a majority of the House of Commons seeks to clip the wings of its agent, this is a principal acting as it should.

It is a separate question as to whether existing statutory law permits a change in control over the order of business, or whether statute first would have to be changed. That is, parliament may already have delegated away some of its rights to make day-to-day changes in business. If that is the case, these “rebel MPs” may be out of luck in the short term, and given the press of time (the Brexit deadline), the short term is rather important. Yet clearly they would have the right, under the structure of the political system, to make an effort to take back powers currently given to the executive.

A second critical point here is that the claim of a “centuries-old relationship” is just plain wrong. On this point, it is indeed helpful that I have just re-read Gary W. Cox’s masterful The Efficient Secret (1987), wherein the author traces exactly the process by which backbenchers relinquished their capacity for legislative initiative (and the emergence of an electoral connection between voters and the executive). The timeline provided by Cox makes clear that there was no single watershed date on which parliamentary power of initiative was abolished. More to the point of the preceding quote from the Times, Cox shows that this process of delegation took place in the middle of the 19th century. Thus we have something less that a “centuries-old” precedent, even if it is undoubtedly true that the executive generally has dominated the agenda of the House for quite a long time.

Cox also makes clear that this relinquishing of initiative did not take place without a fight–MPs regularly resisted efforts to centralize agenda power, but ultimately gave in because it served their own collective interests.

Of course, if a delegation of authority ceases at some moment to serve the collective interests of parliament, what has been delegated can be taken back. At least in principle, as again, if it requires statutory change rather than a procedural motion, it is somewhat more difficult to pull off.

Nonetheless, the governing Conservative Party (which is in a minority in the House) is evidently worried. Today in the House proceedings, there was a series of Points of Order, including several raised by Conservative MPs about scenarios like those sketched by the Times. The exchange is worth watching, at least for those of us interested in parliamentary procedure and executive-legisaltive relations. The exchanges run just over 16 minutes, from around 18:11 (when Prime Minister May answers her last question about her earlier statement to the House) to 18:27 (the last response by the Speaker to the various Points or Order).

The Speaker indicates in one of his responses (to Charlie Elphicke) that it is indeed his understanding that a “statutory instrument” currently can be raised only by a Minister of the Crown. Nonetheless, the next MP to raise a Point of Order (Nigel Huddleston) asks the Speaker to clarify whether MPs are indeed equal, with full access to information about any changes of procedure. (This is a pretty remarkable question!) Then in response to the final Point of Order of the exchange (Matt Warman, who says his constituents have raised doubts about the role of the Speaker), the Speaker says he will defend the rights of the House against “agents of the executive branch”.

Today’s discussion comes against a backdrop of a claim by hardline Brexiteer Tories that the Speaker upended some precedent on procedures in December and again just last week. The issues in question concern what the House can do if, as widely expected, the meaningful vote results in parliamentary defeat of the withdrawal agreement.

The upshot of all this is that the House is not quite as weak as it is often portrayed, and it may be prepared to reassert itself. As Ed Miliband stated in an intervention in today’s debates, the executive works on behalf of the parliament. It may be something that gets forgotten at times, especially by journalists and taking heads. But it is a basic fact of parliamentary democracy.

It is not only journalists and taking heads who forget about the importance of parliament. It is also academics, as another book on my seminar reading list for this week notes. Meg Russel and Daniel Gover’s Legislation at Westminster (2017) offers a much welcome corrective to the mainstream understanding. They push against the “parliamentary decline thesis” and offer a rich analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, of how parliament (both chambers) actually has substantial influence on legislative output. Some of this influence is due to relatively recent changes in parliamentary organization (e.g., changes in the 1970s to institutionalize the select committee system). Again, this serves as a reminder that “precedent” that gives a dominant role to the executive comes with all sorts of caveats, and is subject to occasional rebalancing. In any case, it is not a “centuries-old” precedent, but rather more recent. And it could be that Brexit is showing that it is rather fragile, too.

We may be witnessing a reassertion by the House of its rightful role in determining what course of action its agent, the executive, shall follow.

UK politics: Now what?

To say it has been an interesting, even tumultuous, week in UK politics would be an understatement. As readers of this blog are quite likely aware, earlier this week the PM, Theresa May, called off the “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal her government and the EU had negotiated. A day later she survived an internal party no-confidence vote, which revealed that those who want her not to remain Conservative Party leader amount to 37% of the caucus.

So, what happens next, both for her government and for the Brexit process?

I am interested in the expectations and assessments of readers of this blog.

As an aide, I was just looking at what I said when the results of May’s snap election in 2017 were known.

What will it mean for policy, especially Brexit? I can’t claim to know! But the DUP does not want a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and that implies a “softer” Brexit. On the other hand, if the main motivation May had in calling the election was to boost her standing against restive members of her own caucus who want a harder Brexit, she failed. It will not be easy governance or policy-making for May or an intraparty successor.

I guess that much still stands as of this week. Especially the first two sentences.

Is AV just FPTP on steroids?

In debates over electoral systems in Canada, one often hears, from otherwise pro-reform people, that a shift to the alternative vote would be worse than the status quo. It is easy to understand why this view might be held. The alternative vote (AV), also known as instant runoff (IRV), keeps the single-seat districts of a system like Canada’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but replaces the plurality election rule in each district with a ranked-ballot and a counting procedure aimed at producing a majority winner. (Plurality winners are still possible if, unlike in Australia, ranking all candidates is not mandatory. The point is that pluralities of first or sole-preference votes are not sufficient.)

Of course, the claim that AV would be FPTP on steroids implies that, were Canada to switch to AV, the current tendency towards inflated majorities for a party favored by less than half the voters would be even more intensified. This is plausible, inasmuch as AV should favor a center-positioned party. A noteworthy feature of the Canadian party system is the dominance, most of the time, by a centrist party. This is unusual in comparison with most other FPTP systems, notably the UK (I highly recommend Richard Johnston’s fascinating book on the topic). The party in question, the Liberal Party, would pick up many second preferences, mainly from the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) and so, according to the “steroids” thesis, it would thus win many more seats than it does now. It might even become a “permanent majority”, able to win a parliamentary majority even if it is second in (first-preference) votes to the Conservatives (who thus win the majority or at least plurality of seats under FPTP). The “steroids” claim further implies that the NDP would win many fewer seats, and thus Canada would end up with more of a two-party system rather than the multiparty system it has under FPTP.

There is a strong plausibility to this claim. We can look to the UK, where AV was considered in a referendum. Simulations at the time showed that the Liberal Democrats would stand to benefit rather nicely from a change to AV. While the LibDems are a third party, heavily punished by the FPTP electoral system even when they have had 20% or so of the votes, what they have in common with the Canadian Liberals is their centrist placement. Thus, perhaps we have an iron law of AV: the centrist party gains in seats, whether or not it is already one of the two largest parties. An important caveat applies here: with the LibDems having fallen in support since their coalition with the Conservatives (2010-15), the assumptions they would gain from AV probably no longer apply.

On the other hand, we have the case of the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by AV. There, a two-party system is even stronger in national politics than in the FPTP case of the UK, and far more so than in Canada. (When I say “two party” I am counting the Coalition as a party because it mostly operates as such in parliament and its distinct component parties seldom compete against one another in districts.)

It is not as if Australia has never had a center-positioned party. The Australian Democrats, for example, reached as high as 11.3% of the first-preference votes in 1990, but managed exactly zero seats (in what was then a 148-seat chamber). Thus being centrist is insufficient to gain from AV.

Nonetheless, the combination of centrism and largeness does imply that Canada’s Liberals would be richly rewarded by a change to AV. Or at least it seems that Justin Trudeau thought so. His campaign promised 2015 would be the last election under FPTP. While he did not say what would replace it, he’s previously said he likes a “ranked ballot” and he pulled the plug on an electoral-reform process when it was veering dangerously towards proportional representation.

Still, there are reasons to be somewhat skeptical, at least of the generalization of the Australian two-party experience. The reasons for my caution against the “steroids” view are two-fold: (1) the overlooked role of assembly size; (2) the ability of parties and voters to adapt.

Assembly size is the most important predictor of the size of the largest party, disproportionality, and the effective number of seat-winning parties in countries that use single-seat districts. (It is likely relatively less important when there are two rounds of voting, as in France, but still likely the most important factor.) This is a key conclusion of Votes from Seats. It is thus important not to overlook the fact that Australia has an assembly size considerably smaller than Canada’s. In the book, Taagepera and I show that Australia’s effective number of seat-winning parties and size of largest parliamentary party are almost what we would expect from its assembly size, even if FPTP were used. (See also this earlier post and its comment thread; how close it is to expectation depends on how we count what a “party” is.) The data are calculated over the 1949-2011 period, and the effective number of parties has been just 1.10 times the expectation from the Seat Product Model (which is based only on assembly size when single-seat districts are used). Similarly, the average largest party has been 93% of the expected size (averaging 50.5%  of seats when we would expect 54.2%).

Thus we do not need to invoke the alleged steroids aspect of AV to understand the dominance of two parties in Australia. But this does not mean it would not make a difference in Canada. Consider that the current effective number of parties and size of the largest party in that country, averaged over a similar period, are also just about what we should expect. The multipartism, including periodic minority governments, that characterize Canada are not surprising, when you use the Seat Product Model (SPM). They are surprising only if you think district magnitude is all that matters, and that FPTP is FPTP. But it isn’t! An electoral system using the FPTP electoral rule with an assembly of more than 300 seats is a different, and more multiparty-favoring, electoral system than one with 150 seats. Replace “FPTP” in that sentence with “AV” and it is surely still true.

But what about the centrist party, the Canadian Liberals? Surely AV would work differently in this context, and the Liberals would be a much more advantaged party. Right? Maybe. If so, then it would mean that the SPM would be overridden, at least partially, in Canada, and the largest party would be bigger than expected, for the assembly size, while the effective number of parties would be lower than expected. Of course, that’s possible! The SPM is devised for “simple” systems. AV is not simple, as we define that term. Maybe the SPM is just “lucky” that the one country to have used AV for a long time has the expected party system; or it is lucky that country has the “correct” assembly size to sustain two-party dominance. (Australia is the Lucky Country, after all, so if the SPM is going to get lucky somewhere, it might as well be Australia.)

This is where that other factor comes in. While no one has a crystal ball, I am going to go with the next best thing. I am going to say that the SPM is reliable enough that we can predict that, were Canada to have AV, it would have an effective number of parties around 2.6 and a largest party with around 48% of seats. In other words, just about where it has been for quite some time (adjusting for the House size having been a bit smaller in the past than it is now). Note these are averages, over many elections. Any one election might deviate–in either direction. I won’t claim that a first election using AV would not be really good for the Liberals! I am doubting that would be a new equilibrium. (Similarly, back in 2016 I said my inclination would not be to predict the effective number of parties to go down under AV.)

Parties and voters have a way of adapting to rules. Yes the Liberals are centrist, and yes the Conservatives are mostly alone on the right of the spectrum (albeit not quite as much now, heading into 2019, as in recent years). But that need not be an immutable fact of Canadian politics. Under AV, the Liberals might move leftward to attract NDP second preferences, the NDP center-ward to attract Liberal and even Conservative second preferences, the Conservatives also towards the center. It would be a different game! The Greens and other parties might be more viable in some districts than is currently the case, but also potentially less viable in others where they might win a plurality, but struggle to get lower ranked preferences. The point is, it could be fluid, and there is no reason to believe scenarios that have the largest party increasing in size (and being almost always the Liberals), and correspondingly the effective number of parties falling. With 338 or so districts, likely there would remain room for several parties, and periodic minority governments (and alternations between leading parties), just as the SPM predicts for a country with that assembly size and single-seat districts.

As I have noted before, it is the UK that is the surprising case. Its largest party tends to be far too large for that huge assembly (currently 650 seats), and its effective number of seat-winning parties is “too low”. Maybe it needs AV to realize its full potential, given that the simulations there showed the third party benefitting (at least when it was larger than it’s been in the two most recent elections).

Bottom line: I do not buy the “FPTP on steroids” characterization of AV. I can understand were it comes from, given the presence in Canada of a large centrist party. I just do not believe Liberal dominance would become entrenched. The large assembly and the diversity of the country’s politics (including its federal structure) both work against that.

I agree with electoral reformers that PR would be better for Canada than AV. I also happen to think it would be better for the Liberals! But would AV be worse than FPTP? Likely, it would not be as different as the “steroids” claim implies.

The Brexit cycle

EDIT: the pollster has corrected an error. May’s deal is a Condorcet winner after all (i.e., it would beat either of the other options in one-on-one competition.) The Delta Poll blog post about the poll has been corrected, without any indication of the previous error, although its author did note the error on Twitter. The first pie diagram in the image has the numbers reversed.

_______original post below

Sometimes it just really is awesome to be a political scientist. You see, we have a large literature on the theoretical problem of preference cycles. But they don’t ever happen in real life, right?

Or we could depict it the following way, which makes clearer why it is called a “cycle”: