Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Thompson Paradox And How PR Suffers From Bad PR

I was struck by an interesting post called I, for one, welcome our new UKIP overlords by Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Thompson.

This can be summed up as:

  • Some opinion polls put UKIP ahead of the Liberal Democrats
  • The impact of this would be that UKIP would probably have no seats
  • What would the response be from the eurosceptic press and the Conservative party?
  • One thing to note is that in opinion polls, the Liberal Democrat vote has plummeted. My gut feeling is that Liberal Democrat voters who are opposed to the Government will have defected to Labour already, and what is left are those who are instinctively on the right of the party, those who are Liberal Democrats till they die, and those who feel that the Government is giving the Liberal Democrats that chance to show they are a serious power of Government.

    I was one of the few Conservatives to campaign in favour of the Alternative Vote and to vote in favour of it, with one my arguments being that on Friday 8 May 2015, Conservatives will see Ted Miliband stride into Number 10 after a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and- as they reflect on the centre-right vote being divided between the Conservatives, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, while (apart from a few Liberal Democrats, Respect and nationalist parties) Labour has the centre-left vote pretty much united- will regret the fact that they voted against AV as they think about all those lovely second preferences from UKIP and Liberal Democrat voters that under First Past The Post can never be cast.

    I note that UKIP backed AV, but I think, ultimately support the Alterative Vote Plus system recommended by the Jenkins Commission. Last year I noted how AV could help eurosceptic Conservatives who might be leaning to UKIP and actually help both the Conservatives and UKIP.

    One reason for hostility towards UKIP is the idea that they are vote-splitters. And that is one problem with FPTP- yes, you might vote UKIP, but in doing so, you are reducing the Conservative majority over a Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate in your constituency, and if enough others do the same, the Conservatives will lose the seat. The battle is between heart (backing UKIP) and head (wanting the Conservatives to win rather than Labour or the Liberal Democrats). One thing I would point out to eurosceptic Conservatives considering UKIP is that under AV you have the best of both worlds. When you enter the polling booth, your heart can seize the pencil and put 1 against the UKIP candidate and then pass the pencil to your head which puts 2 against the Conservative candidate. Result- you have sent a message about how strongly you feel about the European Union and you have helped elect a Conservative MP.

    There is one thing that causes confusion in debates over proportional representation, which is there is no system called "proportional representation". Sometimes, there is this attitude which can be summed up as Alternative Vote is Single Transferable Vote is List PR is Additional Members System is Supplementary Vote and it's all very-terribly-complicated with funny foreign names like d'Hondt and Saint-Lague, it's how Johnny Foreigner votes, and why-oh-why-oh-why can't we stick with the system which William the Conqueror introduced and has served us well since 1066, and by the way what the heck is a Droop quota when it's at home?. We saw this approach from the NO2AV lobby- I was always a bit perplexed that AV was so unpopular that only Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia use it, while it was AV which caused the political instability in Italy.

    It's this approach which bungs everything that is different together under the term "proportional representation"- and then hunts for the minority of cases where "proportional representation" gives an odd consequence to argue that we should keep the system we have been using since the February 1950 general election.

    No, I didn't mean to type "1850" or "1750". 1950- the first time that we had a House of Commons composed of single-member constituencies elected by FPTP, thanks to the Representation of the People Act 1948.

    The traditional, until well into the 19th century, method of electing MPs was in constituencies which generally returned 2 MPs by the Multi-Member Plurality method, familiar to people who vote in some local council elections. Vote for 2 candidates, and the 2 with the most votes are elected.

    The change was with the Representation of the People Act 1867 (covering just England and Wales) and the accompanying Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1867 and Representation of the People (Scotland) Act 1867. At the November/December 1868 general election, this saw a change in two directions:

  • The rise of the single-member constituencies that we all know and love (?) today.
  • The rise of three-member constituencies and a four-member constituency, elected by the Limited Vote- whereby if a constituency returns n MPs, you vote for n-1 candidates.
  • The next big change was the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 which meant that, from the November/December 1885 general election, one-member constituencies were the norm- and the Limited Vote's brief existence ended as the three- and four-member constituencies were either hacked apart or saw their representation decreased.

    AV enters the picture in the parliamentary process that led to the Representation of the People Act 1918, with a Speaker's Conference recommending the end of FPTP and MMP:

  • In urban areas the use of STV in consttuencies that would return 3 to 7 MPs.
  • In rural areas, single-member constituencies using AV to elect their MP.
  • The House of Commons rejected the use of STV (except for university constituencies) but backed AV by 1 vote. So, by the time the Bill went to the House of Lords, the form was:

  • University constituencies using STV
  • Multi-member non-university constituencies using MMP
  • Single-member constituencies using AV
  • The House of Lords had a different mind, and reintroduced STV but rejected AV, so the Bill that was returned to the Commons was in the form:

  • Multi-member constituencies (both university and non-university) using STV
  • Single-member consituencies using FPTP
  • One thing that is very important to notice is that both the House of Commons and House of Lords supported a preferential voting system- the clash was over how that was to happen. Similar to the House of Commons vote on reform of the House of Lords in March 2007 where a majority of MPs backed an elected element of the House of Lords, yet could not agree on what proportion of Lords should be elected.

    The Act was busy with introducing other things, such as an extension of the franchise (including, for the first time, to women), so- to avoid parliamentary deadlock- AV was dropped and STV was introduced for university constituencies.

    Rather than being a funny foreign invention, AV was a system chosen by the House of Commons. Not only that- for over a third of a century, its close cousin STV was actually used to elect a handful of MPs.

    That gets the British history out of the way. However, there are, of course, objections to any form of electoral reform. I was discussing this yesterday with someone who has- since the general election of May 1955, voted Conservative at every national, local or European election (except for voting Green at the June 2004 and June 2009 European elections as he feels Caroline Lucas was doing a good job as a Member of the European Parliament). And his objections to electoral reform are summed up as:

  • We have seen, since the May 2010 general election, what proportional representation would lead to every time, with "the tail wagging the dog" and Prime Minister David Cameron having to give in to the Liberal Democrats all the time
  • Supporters of proportional representation should look at Italy, the inevitable chaos which electoral reform leads to
  • Under proportional representation you cannot remove an unpopular government.
  • These are, of course, familiar examples, given as standard defences of FPTP. But, let's unpack them,

    UKIP appear to be doing better than the Liberal Democrats in the polls. Why, if the first point is correct, could this be? The thing is, the Liberal Democrats have seen their support fallen as they have had to make compromises. But, if Cameron is just their puppet Prime Minister, and the Lord President of the Council Nick Clegg is the man really in charge, with the ultimate sanction of forming a coalition with Labour, then why weren't tuition fees abolished? Why did Cameron exercise his veto at the European Council in December?

    And if Cameron is the Liberal Democrats' prisoner, then he can, at times, seem a willing and enthusiastic one, going way beyond the Stockholm syndrome. Evem as Leader of the Opposition, he was calling himself a "liberal conservative". Clegg wasn't even Liberal Democrat leader when Cameron turned into a devout husky-hugger. Environmentalism? That's in Cameron's philosophy, rather than foisted on him by the Liberal Democrats. Reform of the House of Lords- the latest hot potato? Yes, a long-standing Liberal Democrat dream, but the Conservatives promised "to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence."

    Italy is, of course, the example, of what proportional representation is supposed to lead to. Unstable, permanently changing government, as parties throw a strop and bring down the government yet again. Whenver it is expressed, it may sound as if a minor party forms a coalition with left, flounces out, forms one with the right, then flounces out of that, being in a permanent crossing.

    But Italy is not like that. In some countries, there have been changes of government by the junior coalition partner changing sides. In the old West Germany, the October 1980 election to the Bundestag saw the sitting coalition of the Social Democrats (with 218 seats) and Free Democrats (with 53 seats) defeat the opposition Christian Democrats (with 226 MPs- Christian Democratic Union 174, Christian Social Union 52). However, in October 1982, the Free Democrats formed a coalition with the Christian Democrats- without a general election (which was not until March 1983).

    The 1983 election was interesting:

  • Christian Democrats- 244 (CDU 191, CSU 53)
  • Social Democrats- 193
  • Free Democrats- 34
  • Greens- 27
  • Note the arrival of the Greens, which changes everything. The Free Democrats no longer hold the "balance of power" as a Social Democrat/Free Democrat majority government is not possible. Once more than one medium-sized party is on the scene, or even a number of small parties, then what we find is that the parliamentary arithmetic, together with which parties cannot get on with each other, produce one possible government (e.g. a Labour/Liberal Democrat one after the Scottish Parliament elections of 1999 and 2003 was the only feasible option).

    The Irish Republic, our nearest neighbour, elects its Dail Eireann by STV, but rather than be unstable, there has been only one mid-term change recently. In November 1992, the election to the Dail Eireann gave this result:

  • Fianna Fail- 68
  • Fine Gael- 45
  • Labour- 33
  • Progressive Democrats- 10
  • Democratic Left- 4
  • Greens- 1
  • Independents (including the Ceann Comhairle- 5
  • The Ceann Comhairle is the Speaker of the Dail. They are automatically returned at the general election, and normally resign as Ceann Comhairle when the Dail meets for the first time and returns to their previous party affiliation while the Dail elects their successor. This election was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, the sitting Ceann Comhairle, Sean Treacy, a Teachta Dala for Tipperary South, was an Independent when elected Ceann Comhairle anyway, and he was also, unusually, re-elected by the Dail rather than stepping down.

    With 165 voting TDs, 83 are needed for a majority. The sitting Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition only had 78. Fine Gael and Labour, if they had re-created their traditional alliance, would only have had 78 TDs as well, but could have formed a majority with the Progressive Democrats.

    However, Fianna Fail and Labour formed a coalition. But, in November 1994, Labour pulled out and the following month a Fine Gael/Labour/Democratic Left coalition was formed. It may look as if this would be a minority one (only 82 TDs), but at by-elections in June 1994, Fianna Fail lost one seat to each of Fine Gael (Mayo West) and the Democratic Left (Dublin South Central), and in November 1994 Fine Gael won Cork South Central from the Progressive Democrats in a by-election.

    The next election in June 1997 gave:

  • Fianna Fail- 77
  • Fine Gael- 54
  • Labour- 17
  • Progressive Democrats- 4
  • Democratic Left- 4
  • Greens- 2
  • Sinn Fein- 1
  • Socialists- 1
  • Independents- 6
  • This was an unusual election, in which the sitting Ceann Comhairle retired and did not exercise his right to automatic re-election to the Dail. After the Dail assembled, Labour's Seamus Pattison was elected Ceann Comhairle.

    The combined Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left total was 74 TDs- not enough for a majority, and the result was a Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat minority government.

    The 1992 and 1997 elections are both ones where sitting coalition governments lost their majority and were replaced just after the election- the first one where the junior (not the senior) coalition partner was replaced, and the second one where there was a complete change.

    Back to Italy. Does Italy show that proportional representation is a motorway with no exits heading to complete chaos? Does the Italian example show that if we ever had proportional representation, we would see a Conservative/Liberal Democrat government, then the Liberal Democrats flouncing out after a few months and forming a coalition with Labour, then having a strop and returning to the Conservatives, etc. etc. etc.?

    Well, no. Because that wasn't the Italian example. Note that in the Irish election of 1992, the senior coalition partner could ditch its junior partner and find another- and indeed, from 1997 to 2011 Fianna Fail dominated Irish politics and chose its partner(s).

    From the founding of the Italian Republic in July 1946 to Silvio Berlusconi becoming Prime Minister in May 1994, the Italian government was basically the Christian Democrats and friends. The Christian Democrats were the major player, and produced most of the Prime Ministers, sometimes allowing a junior partner to hold the premiership for a few months. Yes, junior partners came and went. but the Christian Democrats simply found others or continued as a minority government alone.

    Of course, once you point out that Italy was actually stable, you get a response along the lines of "Proves it! You can't kick the buggers out under proportional representation".

    Well, let's look at that again. And let's return to the Bundestag, and look at the September 1998 election, as the sitting Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalition (the one formed way back in 1982) sees if the German people will let it see in the new century:

  • Social Democrats- 298
  • Christian Democrats- 245 (CDU 198, CSU 47)
  • Greens- 47
  • Free Democrats- 43
  • Democratic Socialists- 36
  • With 669 representatives, 335 are needed for a majority. And, with 288 between them, the sitting government has been defeated. The Germans have, indeed, kicked the buggers out.

    But there's more to it than that. The Social Democrats need another 37 representatives- and it can do that by either forming a government with the Greens or the Free Democrats. The Social Democrats have clearly won- and rather than the tail wagging the dog, this dog gets to choose its tail.

    The supreme example of kicking the buggers out is the Irish example. The May 2007 general election saw the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition that had been in power since 1997 seek a third term:

  • Fianna Fail (including the Ceann Comhairle)- 78
  • Fine Gael- 51
  • Labour- 20
  • Greens- 6
  • Sinn Fein- 4
  • Progressive Democrats- 2
  • Independents- 5
  • The coalition had 79 TDs, and the Greens joined the government to give it a majority of just 5. But things started going badly. In June 2009, Fine Gael win the Dublin South by-election from Fianna Fail (which had been vacant for 11 months!). In November 2009, the Progressive Democrats ceases to exist, with its two TDs, Noel Grealish in Galway West, and Mary Harney (at the time the Minister for Health) in Dublin Mid West, becoming Independents. In November 2010, Sinn Fein win the Donegal South West by-election from Fianna Fail (which had been vacant for 17 months!!). In addition, there were Fianna Fail TDs choosing to become Independents.

    Yes, a party may dominate the system under proportional representation. But when its time is up, it goes down the tube, whether Italy's Christian Democrats or the Irish Republic's Fianna Fail.

    And in January 2011, the Greens pulled out of the coalition. Theoretically, a Fine Gael/Labour/Green/Sinn Fein coalition (with a majority of 1) was possible at this point, but there was an election in February 2011:

  • Fine Gael- 76
  • Labour- 37
  • Fianna Fail (including the Ceann Comhairle)- 20
  • Sinn Fein- 14
  • Socialist- 2
  • People Before Profit- 2
  • Workers & Unemployed Action Group- 1
  • Independents- 14
  • The Fianna Fail meltdown appears not to be over- in October 2011, they lost the Dublin West by-election to Labour.

    What conclusions can be drawn about "proportional representation"?:

  • In a two-large two-medium party system, it can lead to there being only one viable government
  • Once you get to the stage of a two-large three-medium party system, it can lead to a clear winner which then has its choices as to coalition partner(s)
  • In line with the above, it can lead to stable long-term goverments
  • A government can be kicked out- either partly (where it has to look for additional coaliton partners, or where the senior coalition partner has to look for an alternative to its junior psrtner(s)) or totally (where a new government takes over)
  • Is there actually a future for electoral reform? Possibly- but what form would it take?

    Note that there has been loads of electoral reform- just not for the House of Commons. The process was started with the Scotland Act 1998 and Government of Wales Act 1998 introducing the Additional Members System for their devolved legislatures. It seems that electoral reform is following two trajectories.

    It is in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 that we see those two trajectories happen in tandem. The first is the Assembly itself- 14 elected by FPTP in constituencies, and 11 by AMS. That Act- unlike the Scottish and Welsh ones- created a 5% threshhold, so a party that got less than 5% of the vote wasn't entitled to any top ups. In May 2000, the Christian People's Alliance would have got a seat if it weren't for the threshhold (it went to the Conservatives) and in June 2004 it was the British National Party and Respect that were hit by it (the seats they would have won without the threshhold went to Labour and the Liberal Democrats instead).

    But that Act created the first directly-elected Mayor in the United Kingdom, elected by the Supplementary Vote. Not perfect, but it deals with one of the common objections to AV- namely that third-placed (or lower candidates) can be elected and that some people end up seeing their third (or lower) preferences used to elect MPs. SV prevents this- the winner will be the person who comes either first or second in first-preference votes, and you only get two preferences.

    So, perhaps, the next time electoral reform is tried, it will be SV- which is at least in use in the United Kingdom (and as more and more cities get elected mayors, more people become au fait with how it works).

    But that won't answer the Thompson Paradox- is it fair if UKIP gets more votes than the Liberal Democrats but no seats? SV won't help them.

    Maybe in those circumstances, the centre-right press will note that AMS has helped the Conservatives in both Scotland and Wales, helping us to get a number of representatives broadly in line with our vote (indeed in the first Scottish Parliament election of May 1999, the Conservatives got 15.6% of the constituency vote but no constituency Members of the Scotrish Parliament, while the Liberal Democrats got only 14.2% and 12 constituency MSPs, which can be compared with the Scottish National Party's 28.7% and only 7 constituency MSPs). Would they see AMS as a way to resolve the Paradox, giving UKIP some top-up MPs?

    The Scottish and Welsh experience gives another reason why the Conservatives should look at AMS. Yes, in those countries, they are hammered hard by FPTP, but elsewhere it works in their favour. This seems to be thing from the main parties- hope that the working-in-your-favour parts of the nation more than cancel out the FPTP-treats-us-badly areas. The Conservatives want to represent the whole United Kingdom and be a One Nation party. To do that you have to represent everyone. As many people as possible should have a Conservative MP (and yes, as many people as possible should have a Labour MP and Liberal Democrat MP). AMS ensures that most regions- if not all- would have top-up MPs from the main parties. Wherever the area is that is being affected, every main party would have at least one sitting MP there able to talk about it in the House of Commons. Conservative MPs would be representing northern industrial heartlands, Labour MPs would be representing the rural areas of England. To do well, you can't concentrate on key marginals, you have to target everywhere.

    The Jenkins Commission recommended that reasonable proportionality would need between 15% and 20% of MPs elected on the top-up section. With 600 MPs, this would range from 480 constituencies-120 additional to 510 constituencies-90 additional.

    The regions are now more familiar- we use them for European elections- than they were when the Jenkins Commission reported, so these seem logical areas for the top-up MPs (we are already used to MEPs representing the whole of these areas). What about the constituencies?

    Well, looking at our longer parliamentary history, is there any reason why they should all be single-member. There could be various permutations:

  • single-member constituencies across the country (FPTP, SV or AV)
  • multi-member constituencies across the country (STV, MMP, LV)
  • a mixture of single- and mult-member constituencies
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