Why we shouldn’t be surprised that electoral reform keeps failing

Here’s a quick graph that I threw together for a lecture I’m giving tomorrow, based on aggregates of the latest polls and seat predictions (all garnered from the excellent May2015 website). Click for a bigger version!

2015pic

The back row of columns represents a reasonable guess of the real distribution of seats, based on the latest polls, within our current First Past the Post system. Specifically, it makes use of the May2015 Predicts totals, which is a good model, incorporating the ‘strong transition’ equation as well as data from Ashcroft’s polling of marginal seats.

The front row of columns, meanwhile, shows a seat distribution that assumes simply that the aggregate of current polling is accurate and that each party’s nation-wide support level is translated directly into proportional Westminster seats. This would be the outcome under some variant of a ‘list’ electoral system, and would be close to the outcome under STV (depending on how that system would be implemented).

There’s lots to talk about in this graph, just as there is for so many comparable images based on the outcomes of past elections. Regionally-bound parties like the SNP would clearly have less nation-wide power under a proportional system. Parties with meaningful levels of support that are quite widely distributed would do better. How resilient the Lib Dem MPs would be under a more proportional system! How significant UKIP would be for everyone’s post-election coalition mathematics! How much more seriously we’d have to take the Greens!

But the real headline – and the thing that is made most immediately and obviously visible by illustrations such as this one – is the changing size of those first two red and blue columns. The two parties that will necessarily be involved in every future government are also the two parties with the most to lose from a more proportional voting system.

This doesn’t add up to a substantive argument about the value of proportionality of representation. But I don’t think we need to look any further if what we want is an explanation of the failure to make meaningful reforms to FPTP, and the gloomy prospects for such reform efforts in the future.

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A Crisis in British Democracy?

Prompted by an intriguing question from a colleague, I just found myself in the position of trying to set out, in one paragraph, the big overarching theme from all my lecturing and teaching on British politics. I kind of didn’t manage it, but I think that my failure may be an instructive one, and the theme I did draw out makes a certain amount of sense: contemporary democratic crisis.

Not-so-contemporary democratic crisis.

The paragraph I ended up writing speaks, I think, to the broader perspective that this blog is trying to pull together:

The unspoken overarching question … is “Is there a crisis in British democracy?”. To begin to answer this question, we have to draw upon a multitude of core trends from recent years: voter dealignment, sovereignty debates, regional nationalism, single-issue parties, electoral instability, political scepticism on the part of the public, conflict between formal and informal elements of the establishment (media vs. politicians = good example), the rise(?) of executive presidentialism, etc.

Each of these topics could form the basis for a blogpost (or journal article. Or book. Or book series) in their own right – and perhaps they will. But we might sketch out how each of these vaguely-drawn headings contribute to the sense of a broad crisis in British democracy.

Voter dealignment is a hugely important trend in contemporary politics, convincingly framed by David Denver and others. In the UK context, it incorporates the effects of the decline in class-motivated voting, a long-term pattern that was powerfully concretised by the New Labour project and its rejection of most of the ideals usually associated with a politicised working class. We are now, as a voting public, far more likely to be ‘floating voters’ than before, far less likely to maintain political and party memberships, and increasingly disinterested in emulating the voting tendencies of our parents. Economic social mobility may be rather stagnant, but political mobility remains alive and well among voters.

Our dealignment from the classic duopoly of British political culture contributes to several other trends. So-called ‘single issue’ parties are now successful enough to need to set out more broadly-framed governmental manifestos (often with mixed results), meaning that UKIP isn’t just interested in immigration reform and EU membership, but also needs to have a perspective on education and the NHS that is at least somewhat plausible. Combined with the rise of regional nationalist parties – primarily meaning the SNP, given the strangely dwindling fortunes of Plaid Cymru in Wales – voter dealignment clearly hasn’t simply resulted in more variation in party support, but in the awakening of the UK as a venue for a multitude of political perspectives and parties. This rise in ‘third’ parties is of crucial importance even in the face of the Liberal Democrats’ declining fortunes. With significant upticks in support for UKIP, the Green party, and the SNP, combined support for Labour and the Conservatives is at a historic low.

Of course, when we talk about the changing tendencies in party support, what we’re really trying to understand is the changes in voter behaviour more broadly.  Political scepticism and political apathy are powerful forces in our democratic landscape. Electoral turnout crashed significantly in the early-mid 1990s, and has only recovered a little bit since the end of the Blair years. While the importance and efficacy of voting is generally considered to be non-negotiable in most democratic contexts, there exist good reasons to doubt the meaningfulness of democratic participation in this country – and it’s telling that such scepticism seems, more and more, to be at the heart of our national debate, with various movements claiming (or being accused of embodying) an ‘anti-politics’ agenda. Various recent events have contributed to declining public confidence in the institutions of British democracy even as they form part of what many commentators perceive as being a generalised crisis in the support-base for established liberal democracies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the crisis in British democracy – if there is one – is surely reflected in the mounting tensions between the various core institutions and components of the establishment in this country. This is a democracy where the printed media claim to influence the outcome of elections even as their circulations decline and the political class seeks to introduce press regulations. The police are constantly at odds with political will at a personal and institutional level and the NHS is alternately revered and delivered to play as a viable political football.

This is a short list, and a badly incomplete one, but it gives some sense of the scale and rapidity of the trends that are reshaping British political reality. Now, more than ever, British politics is in need of a clearer understanding of its own democratic theory.