Why we can’t just leave the DUP in the corner

If the result of a hung parliament has come as a surprise to everybody apart from YouGov, the biggest surprise is the sudden media focus on Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, the DUP. I know a number of people will be disquieted at the presence of the DUP as a potential party of government – so I wanted to use a quick bit of political science to show how the DUP are in the position that they have an effective veto on House of Commons business.

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Should Christians vote a distinct way?

If you are of my generation (ie. born somewhere in the 1980s) and were at all involved in church life between 1995 and 2005 you will have almost certainly come across the W.W.J.D. bracelet fad beloved by young Christians of that time. The bracelet was meant to prompt the wearer to ask, in any given situation “What Would Jesus Do?” On the whole, I think aspiring to act like a man who urged his followers to love their enemies and to treat others as we would treat ourselves, is rather good advice. The trouble is that we are rather good at applying it to some obvious scenarios (not gossiping about the questionable office colleague; being patient with your annoying family member) and find it trickier when it comes to questions like “How would Jesus vote?”

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Continuing the Electoral Reform debate

After a longer delay than I was planning, I’m now replying to some feedback I was given on my previous post on electoral change.

Firstly, it was suggested that while the party that wins the most votes might ‘lose’ to a coalition of smaller parties, it could only do so where it either voluntarily refuses to work with those parties (essentially ‘opting out’ of government), or else the smaller parties decline to deal with the largest party because they have chosen to work with each other – if you like, akin to the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreeing to be an ‘anti-austerity’ bloc in the 2015 election.

I think the first argument is somewhat unlikely – parties pursue their policy agenda, which means pursuing and holding on to power. The examples of Ted Heath in 1974 and Gordon Brown in 2010 (to a lesser extent also James Callaghan and John Major while actually in office) show that parties try by whatever means possible to maintain their hold on office.The whole point of PR is to ensure seats gained broadly reflect votes cast, thus (theoretically) giving the largest party the strongest hand for coalition negotiations.That is to say – we can discount the former because parties will always seek by whatever means to take power. Because of this, the second point is actually a major point in favour of FPTP. If the largest party cannot command the confidence of Parliament, due to the smaller parties effectively operating as one bloc, FPTP concentrates the voters minds on the choice between a government and an opposition, and makes it easier to replace a governing coalition with an alternative.

I would also briefly take this point to add that electoral systems are not just a means of turning votes into seats – the electoral system also influences the type of party politics that emerges. The Liberal/SDP alliance did not break through in the 1980s because FPTP encourages two party competition; in contrast, PR has been used in the following contexts with the following results:

  • List PR for European elections allowed UKIP to emerge as a major party in the mid 00s
  • The Additional Member System in Scotland established the SNP as the principal opposition to Labour in Scotland.
  • Single-Transferable-Vote in Northern Ireland has mapped the move from moderate to extreme parties, while showing that the sectarian divide has ot changed at all.

That is to say – the type of electoral system you choose influences the type of political party competition you get. So to acknowledge a different question on whether electoral change could take place at other levels – that is precisely the problem with changing at one level but not all levels – PR at local levels would encourage the proliferation of smaller parties and interest groups. FPTP is ultimately lots of small interest groups gathering into big formal coalitions (the major parties) – requiring them to decide together how to govern in the national interest.

I’d like to finally acknowledge one aspect of Jonathan Chaplin’s initial post that was also raised, and I did not quite do justice to – the role of Parliament as a debating chamber as well as a legislature.The example given was the Scottish Tories – they have held a pretty consistent 15% vote share since 1999 and not moved much since, but PR in Scotland enables them to win a representative voice in the Scottish Parliament. It is worth repeating that electoral choice reflects what one prioritises in an electoral system – so prioritising each party having a ‘voice’ in proportional strength to their votes would of course mean one would favour PR.

I think however this is to massively overstate the importance of representation compared to other political channels. Part of the reason for being involved in major parties is to make your voice heard in those parties. In the recently published book Those Who Show Up, the example is given of a Christian activist who became involved with the Liberal Democrats, and through her involvement the party ended up adopting what ought to have been their flagship policy – raising the threshold at which one begins paying income tax (a policy so popular that the other parties have adopted it!). Parties are not the only medium of being heard, and speaking in Parliament isn’t necessarily the best way to make yourself heard. I do not deny that representation is important insomuch as it lends respectability to a party, but representation is not the be-all-and-end-all. To revisit the Scottish Tories, while they have been consistently represented since 1999, one has to ask whether the system really works for them given that the prospect of the Tories being invited to govern in Scotland (barring major cultural change) is practically zero, thus negating their capacity to implement their policy agenda.

I’ll conclude this post by adding that I really enjoy the debate on electoral change and hugely value the thoughts and comments so far – I will post my own thoughts on ways forward in the coming weeks. I think this isn’t a debate that will go away, or one the Conservatives would wisely ignore in victory – and it is undoubtedly better that one faces it when one has the chance to, on one’s own terms. If I could seek consensus on one point, it would be that the debate on electoral change is worth engaging with as we determine as a society what we most value in electoral outcomes – but that that there is a debate to be had, not a wrong to be made right.

What makes an electoral system ‘Fair’?

If the surprise that the Conservatives won a clear majority was the biggest story of the 2015 election, the demands for electoral reform the result has generated must surely be very high also. I suspect that even if you don’t usually follow politics closely, you will have seen features, principally advocated by the Electoral Reform Society, arguing that our present electoral system (popularly known as First-Past-the-Post) is no longer fit for purpose – their principal evidence from the 2015 results being the Greens and UKIP gaining 16% of the popular vote, but a mere 2 seats for their trouble – in contrast to the SNP gaining 56 seats on a relatively paltry 4.7%. This argument is amongst those being used to argue that the result is illegitimate, and not reflective of the wishes of the nation.

My interest was particularly piqued by this article by the Director of KLICE, Jonathan Chaplin, in which he makes a strong case that Christians ought to support electoral change (I purposefully use the term ‘change’ rather than ‘reform’ as the latter implies a necessarily positive connotation). The crux of his argument I repeat below:

Those who benefit from FPTP but oppose the principle of proportional representation are in effect displaying profound disrespect for the views of millions of their fellow citizens. They are saying: Your political convictions are worth less than mine; it matters less that your views on justice and the common good are represented to government than that mine are.

I have to make a confession – I am a complete geek when it comes to electoral systems. While at university they were the topic I most enjoyed researching, so to have the opportunity to talk at length on the subject is a labour of love for me! In 2011 I wrote a position paper on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in response to a similar argument that was made for electoral change – in that instance, Christian think-tank Ekklesia argued not only that Christians ought to vote to adopt AV, but that it was an essential part of the church seeking fairness in society. While my paper is sadly no longer available online, the essence of my argument is that there is no impartial criteria by which we can deem one system to be ‘fairer’ than another. There is only one demonstrably fair choice system – simple majority. But it is only fair for so long as there are two choices – and as we are painfully aware, choices are rarely binary!

In the academic literature on electoral systems, the commentators themselves recognise the debate between systems that primarily aim to elect a government (ie. majoritarian), and systems that primarily look to elect a representative assembly (ie. proportional). No academic argues that one is ‘fairer’ than another for a simple reason – it’s entirely subjective! If you believe that our representative body should broadly reflect the votes cast by the population as a whole, then any non-proportional system is by definition going to be ‘unfair.’ If you instead subscribe to the view that the electorate want to choose who governs them, then a system which could allow the party with the most votes and seats to ‘lose’ to a coalition of parties who individually polled less, but collectively form a majority, is intrinsically unfair.

As the case against FPTP is already being noisily articulated I feel no obligation to repeat it here. Instead I will venture a few thoughts in favour of the system, and which would give proponents of PR pause for thought.

In the first instance, PR doesn’t necessarily lead to fairer outcomes. A very recent example of this was seen in the 2013 German Bundestag elections. Angela Merkel’s CDU increased their vote share by a full 5% and by all accounts clearly won the election. Instead of continuing her coalition with the FDP (the German Liberals) however, she was forced into a coalition with the second largest party the SPD, as her coalition partners had failed to surpass the 5% threshold necessary to win PR seats. Given that the Alternative fur Deutschland (the German equivalent of UKIP) also polled just under 5%, that meant that almost 10% of the German electorate went unrepresented, and the Germans ended up with a Grand Coalition that they almost certainly did not vote for.

Secondly, PR doesn’t usually lead to direct changes of government at the hands of the voters. Until Gerhard Schroeder won in the Red/Green landslide of 1998, most changes of government in Germany took place because the FDP switched their allegiance from the conservative CDU to the socialist SPD. It is not that it is impossible – simply that it is taken out of the hands of the voters because the decision to form a government is taken by the parties. The problem is compounded by the fact that PR encourages parties to chase a core vote to the exclusion of all else. Parties compartmentalise to reach their key voters and mirror their interests – which sounds great until you realise that the resultant governing coalitions become collective interest groups bartering for their narrow sectional interest. PR is used in my homeland of Northern Ireland, and it is striking that if you ignore party affiliation and simply classify members of the Assembly as Unionist, Nationalist, and non-aligned, the composition of the chamber doesn’t change at all. PR encourages parties and politicians to find an electoral niche and look after the interests of that niche.

The reason that is a problem was articulated by my earlier post in which I demonstrated that representatives don’t actually have much choice. It was striking to note that when commentators spoke of the new Conservative majority, it was observed ‘it is a smaller majority than the coalition.’ Note the term well – the coalition had a majority. Governments seek stability – stability comes through a secure majority that is able to pass the legislation they want, and block the legislation they don’t. With PR, you either have a highly unstable government (hardly desirable) or you have the exact same issue people have with FPTP – a majority government doing whatever they want. In his article Jonathan Chaplin contests that at least a majority government under PR has secured the votes of more than 50% of the electorate.  While potentially true (as no system is perfectly proportional) it does not address two concerns – voters are deprived of the opportunity to directly choose who governs them, and no party is encouraged to appeal beyond their natural base.

Let me stress that I am not saying that PR is intrinsically wrong – simply that every electoral system has its own problems. Nor would I say my case for FPTP is entirely based on trashing PR. As a Conservative I ought to favour PR – the present system favours Labour (who tend to win constituencies with smaller populations and a lower turnout), and PR would prevent them from being able to introduce radical programmes with less than majority support. And yet I support FPTP. One of the reasons for this I have alluded to – it encourages parties to seek beyond their natural base, which in practice means seeking the support of the moderate ‘undecideds’. However much voters may complain parties are too alike, there is something to be said that FPTP encourages parties to chase the moderate centre rather than a niche vote.

My final defence of FPTP relates directly to the 2015 election – at the end of the day, the electorate made a choice. It is with good reason I posted that, in my view, tactical voting does not exist – in actual fact there is no choice system that can completely eliminate the incentive for voters to vote for an alternative to their first preference. FPTP means that the voters consider the person representing their area, and whether or not they would support or oppose the government – and if they oppose the government, whether they would form part of the principal opposition party. It accurately captures the desire of the voter to punish the government for poor performance, or indeed to punish both large parties for poor performance!

I am not saying that FPTP is fairer – simply in my view that it is preferable to PR. I do however want to recognise two challenges that 2015 in particular flagged up. Firstly is that the SNP won almost every Scottish seat on 50% of the Scottish vote. It looks unfair, but the swing in those constituencies was astronomical – over 30%! Even if FPTP accentuated the result, something powerful is going on in Scottish politics, and fixating on the electoral system is not going to address that.

Then we have the Greens and UKIP – and especially UKIP’s astonishing 13% of the vote. Not since the SDP/Liberal alliance performance of 1983 has such a large vote had such a meagre return. While it is a concern, I think we must acknowledge two factors. The first is that the electorate was in complete flux – the Lib Dem vote collapsed and there was no way of knowing where it would go. For the first time in many years voters didn’t know whom was first or second in their area – which contributed to a higher number of ‘wasted’ votes. The second is there is a challenge for all the parties to re-energise the political process – turnout was still an unacceptable 66%, and party membership has been in freefall for decades. Voting for minor parties is not necessarily a reflection of a fractured electorate, but an urgent call for parties to re-engage with the electorate.

I could go on at length – and indeed I would love to have extended conversations on my pet subject! For now however I would conclude with this summary argument – it is absolutely right that we should debate our electoral system and not take it for granted, but let’s at least agree that no one system is objectively better or fairer than the others.

There’s no such thing as tactical voting

With commentators insisting the election is close (to which I include myself), it is inevitable that you are going to hear talk in the media about tactial voting – which can be defined in short as ‘voting for a preference other than your first preference, to attempt to bring about a more preferable outcome.’ In one of my earliest posts I explained how this comes about – in systems such as First-Past-the-Post the only thing that matters is which party finishes first, and so voters of parties with less chance of winning (historically the Liberal Democrats) ‘loaned’ their support to the most preferred of the two parties most likely to win, to try and prevent their least favourite candidate from winning.

The most obvious place that this is potentially going to take place in the 2015 election is in Scotland, where the three pro-Union parties might encourage their supporters to vote for whichever candidate is most likely to prevent the SNP from winning locally – as shown in this example. In 2010 I was asked by my friends to comment on tactical voting, partly because I was foolish enough to mention that my MPhil Thesis was on the subject of Tactical Voting, and partly because of the Tactical Situation in Oxford, where Oxford West was a Lib Dem/Tory marginal, and Oxford East was a Labour/Lib Dem marginal. On that occasion I shared the distinction I used in my research – expressive voting means you vote for your first preference, even though by voting differently you might have secured a better short-term outcome. Tactical voting means you vote for a preference that is not your first, in order to secure a better short-term outcome. I suggested then that it was up to the individual voter to decide which priority was more important.

Five years on, I am now convinced that tactical voting does not exist, except in the strictest sense of an academic measurement. The reason for that is that I think there is a single measure that applies to all political activity, and especially to teh act of voting – pragmatic voting.

I will use membership of a political party as an example. If you show me a person who agrees with 100% of their party’s political platform, you are showing me a one-person party. Politics is about building formal and informal coalitions of like minded people, who share agreement on enough important issues to band together and attempt to achieve their programme. A necessary part of that action is accepting that parts of the programme will not be 100% to your taste. It is a pragmatic consideration. And it is true for party members across the UK – not all of them will like their party leader; they will think their current policies are too right or left wing, or not right or left wing enough – but they still loyally ask their friends to vote for their party. It is not tactical, in the sense that it is the first choice of the options available to them, but it is a pragmatic choice – and not least one that carries the cost of having to defend policies and persons regardless of how your friends will perceive you.

But surely, you might say, those poor voters who want to vote Liberal Democrat or Green or UKIP are voting tactically when they instead vote Labour or Conservative? I contest that this is only true insomuch as it is used as an academic measurement. In practice, every voter does exactly the same thing – make a pragmatic choice. The Liberal Democrats are the perfect example of this – their strategy over time focused on persuading their votes to keep voting for them, forsaking the short-term outcome for a longer term outcome. And in many seats it paid off – they overtook Labour in some seats to become the main opposition to the Conservatives, or they overtook the Conservatives to become the main opposition to Labour. And from that base-camp, they became the beneficiaries when there was a swing against the incumbent, and thus able to win seats that years before seemed unwinnable.

In short – there’s no such thing as a tactical vote, because there is no such thing as a non-tactical vote. Every vote is pragmatic – from deciding whether to impact the short-term outcome or the long-term outcome; to deciding if you are voting for the best candidate, or the best party; the best party, or the best party leader; the best group of party MPs, or the best party policies … and many more variables.

I cannot advise you how to use your vote in light of that. Some of you may decide to favour the short term – perhaps because you live in Scotland and cannot risk your local MP belonging to the SNP. Some of you may favour the long term, voting for the party in third place last time around (as I am doing in fact!) so that they might challenge in future. I would simply say that every vote is a tactical and pragmatic choice – so know what you value, know how to make it more likely and make your vote count!

The Christian heritage of voting

2015 has been marked red in my diary for the last four years with one clear message: ELECTION YEAR.

With the election only 124 days away, I am opening this crucial year with a feature on one of the very first articles I read for my course on Voting Theory, which acknowledged a rather surprising contributor to development of electoral democracy – the adoption by the medieval Church of the conclave to elect a new Pope. Now, with my reformed Protestant theology I was not expecting that I would be very warm towards the article, but the explanation of how the Conclave came about was a fascinating insight into how the historic church used a form of democracy to achieve unity – while of course acknowledging that when the church was to divide in the reformation, one of the issues at stake was Papal Primacy! If one sets aside the religious aspect however, the problem faced by the medieval church was rather similar to what all modern democracies face – making a choice.

If you will forgive a brief history lesson – the Conclave was introduced in the first instance because the Church had to reconcile the fact (notionally at least) that God had appointed one person to the role of Pope, but that the Cardinals held sincerely different beliefs whom that man should be. A democratic vote was judged the means of acknowledging there was a division, and achieving a united result. In actual fact, the subsequent development of the distinct features of the Conclave vote, namely the necessity of a two-thirds majority, a secret ballot, and the Cardinals being locked away until a decision is reached, were all intended to achieve a final result that would be clear, achieved quickly, and would not be challenged afterwards.

The church may have been authoritarian in nature, and the era described many centuries previous to us, but there are some good lessons to learn from the choice by the medieval church to adopt a voting mechanism to choose their leader:

1. Division is to be expected
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united as to bicker.” There is a worrying trend in modern politics to criticise opponents for daring to have a contrarian view – which in my view is both an attack of freedom of expression, and also what Sir Humphrey would refer to in Yes Prime Minister as ‘playing the man, not the ball.’ Let’s not be disheartened that division occurs, but rather be glad that we can enjoy earnest debate, reassured that every government will be challenged and held accountable for the decisions it has taken, and embrace the opportunity each of us has to assess the personal performance of our local MPs.

2. Elections are meant to ultimately unite
The intention of the Papal Conclave was (and still is) to unite the church in support of the man elected as the Pope, regardless of whom the man might be. The General Election of May 2015 will be exactly the same – it will tell us whom the country has chosen to entrust to the task of governance for the next five years, whether they should govern alone or in some form of coalition; and potentially even whom the principal opposition should be, or with whom the largest party should form a coalition. At the moment we can only guess, but by the morning of Friday 8th May 2015 we will know.

3. The choice is ours
With that in mind, we should remember what a great privilege it is that we have the opportunity to choose who represents us in Parliament, and therefore to determine indirectly whom will form the next government. The obvious flaw of conclave was the limitation of the franchise to certain Cardinals – whereas the vast majority of us enjoy the right to vote for our MP. We’re going to be divided in our sincerely held beliefs, but we’re also going to achieve a clear outcome by the end.

I would not be so arrogant as to attribute sole success of democracy to this part of the Church’s history – but when we ask what Christians have done for us, we can certainly learn from this aspect of their history, and take to heart the lessons for today.

The Constituency Effect

In a number of posts so far I have referenced tactical voting and the distorting impact of the First-Past-The-Post system we use for Westminster elections. I did not want to assume that everyone is automatically familiar with why this is the case, so I am very briefly going to touch on how votes turn into seats. If I were to compare my previous post on the likely composition of the House of Commons with the actual projected vote shares of the parties, there would be an obvious disparity – that is to say, the Greens and UKIP would only have a collective 4 seats with around 21% of the vote, while the Lib Dems with a projected 8% might end up with 32 seats! This of course is deeply ironic given the Lib Dems past history – in 1983 (as the Liberal/Social Democrat ‘Alliance’) they finished 2% behind Labour on 24% of the vote, but won a mere 21 seats to Labour’s 220! The reason is simple – they finished a strong second in lots of seats, but you don’t get seats for finishing second!

On Political Betting there is an excellent article explaining how the Lib Dem vote could collapse, but they could still remain major players post 2015. While their vote is likely to collapse everywhere, and especially where a sitting MP does not run again, they only need to poll about 35 to 40% of the vote to stand a chance of holding on, especially if UKIP or the Greens take votes off Labour and the Conservatives – they only need to finish with more votes than any other party in these core seats. It is a bizarre truth that the Lib Dems might crash to 8% of the vote overall, and in many seats finish with less than 5% of the vote – but in a crucial 30 odd seats, sneak a win with 40% of the vote. That’s the constituency effect – as ABBA would have put it: “The Winner Takes It All.”

Now it is not the purpose of this particular post to visit the long-running debate on whether our present electoral system is unfair and should be replaced by a proportional system, as is used for devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is simply to highlight that if you do vote for a particular party, it only impacts your given constituency – and even if a party is bombing nationally they still might pull out a strong local showing. I suspect this will contribute to a lot of disappointed voters based on current trends – imagine for example if UKIP and the Greens outpoll the Lib Dems, but Nick Clegg ends up choosing the next coalition partner because the Lib Dems have enough MPs to do so?

This is why my advice on making your own vote count is very simple – judge the incumbent MP. If they have done a good job, and you are happy with the party leader they would endorse as Prime Minister, vote to re-elect them. If not, then vote for the candidate who is best placed to defeat them. As I mentioned in my last post, you do not gain bonus prizes for voting for a different opposition party member. In much the same way, it doesn’t actually matter (directly – but I will revisit this!) if you decide to vote for the candidate who will finish 3rd (or 4th, or 24th) in the election. Your vote still won’t impact the final outcome, except to prevent the candidate in second from beating the winning candidate. Although you can vote expressively for a particular party I would encourage you to make your vote count – endorse your MP, or vote for the candidate most likely to hand them their P45!