UK election 2017-any hope for electoral reform?

One of the most remarkable things about the UK election was the total number of votes cast for the top two parties, which increased from 67.3% in 2015 to 82.8% this year. It has been less noticed, however, that this has come with a substantial drop in the Gallagher (least squares) Index of disproportionality. From 15.02 in 2015, it has more than halved to 6.41, a figure actually larger than that in Ireland in 2011, Germany in 2013, or Poland in 2015.

UK_Gallagher_1966-2017

Source: Michael Gallagher

This is largely due to the absence of a large third party discriminated against by the single-seat plurality system. No established minor party outside Northern Ireland gained votes, with UKIP and the Greens both falling to below 2% and even the Liberal Democrats slipping back slightly in terms of votes despite picking up four seats. The (unusual, as Shugart points out) absence of an unearned majority for either party also contributed to the low score.

There also seems to be some evidence from past UK election results that two-party elections tend to be more proportional. Between the 1950 and 1970 elections, when support for the Liberals (the only substantial third party) never exceeded 11.2% (and was generally substantially below this), the Gallagher Index averaged only 6.41; since then, with the until-recent presence of the SDP-Liberal Alliance/Liberal Democrats, it has stayed high as can be seen above.

UK_margins_2015-17

The number of very marginal seats has also increased substantially at this election, as can be seen above. While other readers may disagree with me on this, I personally view a higher number of marginals as good for the status quo, given that it means more voters view their votes as having an impact upon the result. This is not necessarily a result that would appeal to the major parties, but it would seem to act to quell public concern over the current system.

The growth of the top two creates a problem for electoral reform advocates. Which party, exactly, benefits from implementing proportional representation? The Labour and Conservative parties obviously have no personal interest in PR. The Liberal Democrats, at present, are far too weak to extract such a concession (even with 57 seats in 2010, the best they could do was a referendum on AV) in a coalition, as are the Great British regionalist parties (which would probably be heavily expected to go with Labour anyway, weakening their leverage) and the Greens (much the same reason).

Labour’s manifesto makes no specific mention of proportional representation, while the Conservative manifesto goes further, calling for single-seat plurality to be adopted for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has gone on record in the past as being in favour of proportional representation, but I suspect now Labour are at 40% that proposal will be soon forgotten.

While the past two months has demonstrated conclusively that much can change in a short time in UK politics, it’s difficult to imagine that proportional representation could gain any traction in a political system dominated by the top two parties after failing to gain traction (at least for the House of Commons) in nearly thirty years of three-party politics.

France 2017–Honeymoon Election time!

Today is round three of France’s four-round national elections. As I said back on 23 April, everything followed from the first round, i.e., when the final two presidential candidates were set. At that time, I projected Macron’s party to get a plurality, with around 29% of the vote, in the first round of the assembly election (today’s vote). I also added, “maybe more!”

Things were progressing more or less as expected as Macron assembled his pro-presidential party and appointed his choice of premier and cabinet, effectively saying to voters, here is the government I want you to approve.

An assembly majority for La Republique En Marche to support the government, following runoffs in a week in most districts, is easily within reach.

That is at once remarkable–the party nominated its candidates within the last month solely to support a presidency that looked unlikely as recently as several months ago–and utterly predictable–to those of us who do logical models of electoral system and presidential effects.

The UK 2017 result–Comparative data forays

Well, the election that I thought would be just a boring “typical” snap election in which the incumbent takes advantage of the unprepared opposition… did not quite turn out that way.

Some things happened that are not supposed to happen. And some things about the result are glaringly off the mark of what we should expect from the Seat Product Model (which, of course, is meant to predict average trends, not individual elections).

Top two dominance but no majority

A party is not supposed to gain votes, but lose seats. It is hard to exaggerate how extraordinary this is. The top two parties combined for 82.4% of the votes, the highest in the UK in a long time. The last time it was over 80% was in 1979. The last time over 75% was 1992, and in the three elections immediately before this one, the future had been around two thirds.

Yet, despite the recovery of the top-two vote shares, there is no majority party. Parliamentary majorities have been won on far less in the past, and one would not expect such dominance of the two leading parties (42.4% and 40.0%) under FPTP to fail to produce majority government. But here we are.

I was curious to know just how common it was for both parties in a FPTP parliamentary system to have at least 40% of the vote, but there to be no parliamentary majority. In my dataset of FPTP elections, consisting of 210 observations, I find one case: Trinidad and Tobago 1995 (two top parties on 48.8% and 47.2%, tied in seats with 17/36). (I have not kept this updated in recent years, and perhaps I am failing to remember one that would be included if I had.)

If I drop my threshold a little lower, to the top two parties both being at at least 38% (but no seat majority), I get one more case: Canada 1957. Of course, the main reason why a leading party with 40% or even 38% of the votes so often gets a majority under FPTP is that it tends to have a more substantial lead over the runner-up, implying many districts are competitive.

Thus it is not only the top two absolute sizes that matter for getting a majority, but also their ratios. How common is it for the top two parties to have votes so similar? First of all, let’s define a ratio of the top two in votes; the mean of this ratio in the data sample is 1.67 (median 1.26). In this UK election, it was 1.06. Approximately 15% of the elections are this close. However, only around 3% of all the elections are both this close and result in no majority party, including UK 1974 (Feb.).

Thus the UK17 combination of two-party dominant, close, and no seat majority is pretty unusual!

Campaigns and leaders

Campaigns and leaders matter. That is not in itself surprising, but many political scientists (sometimes including me) consider them less important than “fundamentals”–whatever those might be. But May did not look like someone who could provide “strong and stable” government. And indeed, she may not get to provide any government at all, if she can’t survive a seemingly inevitable challenge to her position from within.

On the other hand, does Labour’s success relative to low expectations suggest leaders do matter? Did voters actually come to like Corbyn? I am aware of no evidence that such was the case. I suspect he was still a drag on the party, but will leave it to other analysts to try to sort this out. It seems to me that any reasonably competent Labour leader could have won this election, which in turn would never have happened, because May would not have called it had the main opposition had a reasonably competent leader.

The numbers compared Seat Product expectations

On the quantitative indictors, the effective number of vote-earning parties (NV) was, by my calculations from data at BBC, 2.88. The last time it was that low in the UK was 1987, when the leading party (Conservative) won a vote share about the same as this time (42.3%), but it won 57.8% of the seats.

The effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) was 2.47. This is not so unusual, by UK standards, as the figure was 2.53 in the 2015 election and 2.57 in 2010, the last time no party won a majority. In fact, the UK has tended to have a less fragmented parliamentary party system than expected from the Seat Product Model, which would be NS=2.94. The maximum observed since 1945 was the just-reported 2.57 in 2010.

For NV, the Seat Product Model says to expect 3.32, based solely on the large assembly size. Although the post-WWII mean is much lower than that, the electoral party system was finally behaving in the 1992-2015 period, with all those elections seeing NV>3, and the last three (2005, 2010, 2015) all being at 3.6 or higher. Then came 2017, and the party system stopped behaving properly!

It should be emphasized that the Seat Product Model does not expect a majority party; with this large an assembly, even FPTP “should have” a largest party size of 44.5%. At 48.9%, the Conservatives are only a little higher than where they should be. But, of course, actual UK experience usually returns a majority in parliament, and this election was certainly expected to do so–where those expectations are based on political factors and the opinion polls, not the humble Seat Product Model.

Governance and policy

As for government-formation, clearly it is a Tory minority government. Claims by a few pundits that Corbyn could somehow assemble parliamentary support are pure fantasy. And there almost certainly won’t be a coalition. The most likely formula is backing from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), of Northern Ireland. The DUP’s 10 seats plus the Conservatives’ 318 combine for just over half the seats.

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.

Funny how elections don’t always turn out how we expect them to. Democracy! FPTP!

Appendix: Effective Number of Parties and the Seat Product Model

The effective number of parties is a size-weighted count, where each party’s share (of votes or seats) is weighted by itself through squaring. The squares are summed, and you take the reciprocal. See Michael Gallagher’s excellent website for details.

I am not going to explain here the logic behind the Seat Product Model. For that, see Taagepera (2007) or Li and Shugart (2016), or the forthcoming Shugart and Taagepera book, Votes from Seats (2017, due out in October). But the equations are as follows, where M is the mean magnitude (1, in the case of FPTP) and S is the assembly size (650 in recent UK elections).

NS=(MS)1/6;

NV=[(MS)1/4+1]2/3;

Seat share of the largest party: s1=(MS)-1/8.

The important thing to understand about these equations is that they are not post-hoc regression fits. They are logical models, derived without reference to the data. When tested against the data from hundreds of democratic elections under various electoral systems, they are astonishingly accurate.

Related earlier posts and comment threads:

UK 2017: Green Party won’t stand in Ealing constituency

So much for fixed terms

UK 2015 and Diverter’s Law

Does UK 2015 mean the death knell for Duverger’s Law?

Lesotho (MMP) & Malta (STV) hold early elections on the same day

Lesotho and Malta will hold early elections this Saturday, June 3rd. Both have parliamentary systems and each one uses a different (and interesting!) type of proportional representation – each having a certain following among readers of this blog.

Lesotho uses a one-vote variant of MMP, with 80 single-seat districts in the nominal tier and 40 in the list tier. There is no threshold, and no seats are added in case of overhang, so a party can win a majority by taking more than 60 districts.

Malta uses STV, with a twist: if I understand correctly, in case one party receives an absolute majority of first-preference votes, seats are added to ensure that party has a majority, and that the majority is in proportion to its majority of the vote.

The elections were also called in different ways. Lesotho’s parliament (election not required before February 2020) was dissolved after the government lost a confidence vote in March – the prime minister could have handed over power to the coalition that ousted him, but chose instead to ask the king for an early election. Malta’s early election (originally not due until March 2018) was called by the prime minister.

BC deal between NDP and Greens

In the wake of British Columbia’s provincial assembly election, which did not result in a single-party majority, a deal has been stuck that would see the government change. The NDP (41 seats) and the Greens (3) would topple the incumbent Liberals (43).

It is a “confidence and supply” arrangement. That is, the NDP and Greens are not forming a coalition cabinet; rather, the Greens are promising support to the NDP to form and maintain a minority government. The deal is intended to last for four years.

Details remain scant at this point, but regarding Greens’ priorities, the Globe and Mail (second link above) reports that the party

had set out three “deal breakers” that include official party status, campaign finance reform and proportional representation, although other issues, including the party’s opposition to several Liberal resource priorities, also would have factored into such talks.

Remember: Honeymoon elections matter

On 23 April, when many commentators were lamenting how weak (then-expected) President Emmannuel Macron’s support might be in the National Assembly, I offered an estimate of 29% of the vote for his newly formed party. I based this solely on the mean surge that presidents’ parties tend to have when an assembly election occurs early in their terms–a honeymoon election.

Maybe that was an underestimate. While one poll (OpinionWay/ORPI) has Macron’s party, La République en marche! (LRM), on 27%, Harris Interactive sees it on 32%. Both agree this will be the biggest party (Reuters). Given the electoral system, such a share puts Macron well within reach of having a majority in the Assembly.

And what a party it is!

Half of the LRM preliminary list of 428 candidates for the 577-member National Assembly are women and 52 percent are civil society figures.

Better yet, 95% are not current MPs and one of them is a “rockstar mathematician”! (France24)

Macron has also named his cabinet. The premier will be Edouard Philippe, mayor of Le Havre and a member of the Les Republicans (the party of defeated and discredited presidential candidate François Fillon). Reuters reports:

A leading French conservative accused President Emmanuel Macron of “dynamiting” the political landscape on Tuesday as he put together a government that is expected to include former rivals on both left and right.

In other words, he is being “accused” of doing precisely what he won nearly two thirds of the vote (in the runoff) saying he would do.

Furthermore,

over 20 LR members of parliament, including some party heavyweights and former ministers, issued a joint statement on Monday urging the party to positively respond to the “hand extended by the president”.

All of the above should serve as a reminder of two things: (1) the purpose of the upcoming election is to ratify the new executive’s direction, not to be a second chance for an alternative vision; (2) the honeymoon electoral cycle matters.