Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Electoral Systems of the World-Brazil

Brazil is a large country on the continent of South America. It is the most populated country in South America, and the wealthiest. It is also the fifth largest country by population. Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, as it was colonised by Portugal.

The political system of Brazil is fairly complicated, and the nation has a long and bloody record of coups and revolutions. The nation gained independence from Portugal in 1825 after a war. Following the removal of the Portuguese government, Brazil became an empire, led by Emperor Pedro the First, the former King of Portugal. The early government of Brazil had trouble dealing with slavery, secessionism, and racial tensions. The monarchy of Brazil was complimented by a Parliament, but it was far from democratic.

The Empire of Brazil was not especially successful at meeting these challenges, and in 1889 the monarchy was overthrown, and Brazil became a republic. A presidential election was held by Congress, and Deodoro da Fonseca was elected President. His administration was short-lived, and Fonseca resigned. The first direct elections were held in 1894, and were won by the right-wing liberal Republican Party of Sao Paulo. This party dominated government for the next decade, but in 1906, the Mineiro Republican Party won the presidency.

Over the next few years, a confusing mix of republican parties held the presidency, and elections were fairly uncompetitive. There was nothing unusual about this in South and Central America at the time; this was the era of 'banana republics', when large fruit companies controlled the elections and politics of Latin American countries in order to ensure a monopoly over fruit production. However, in Brazil it was more a case of ruling governments using their positions in order to entrench their party's dominance.

In the 1930s, Brazilian politics was unstable, which caused serious social and economic problems. Defeated Vice Presidential candidate Getulio Vargas led a military coup to take power, and became President. Vargas led Brazil for 15 years, and introduced significant economic changes; he created state-owned monopolies for many industries. This economic policy remained significant in Brazil for many years.

Following World War 2, Brazil moved towards democratisation. A new, relatively liberal, constitution was introduced that was heavily based of the Constitution of the United States. Presidents were elected by the single-member plurality system, and vice-presidents were elected seperately from presidents; a design choice which led to instability, as presidents were frequently elected with less than a majority, and vice-presidents could be elected from different parties as the president. A party-list proportional representation system with open lists was introduced for the Chamber of Deputies, while the Senate was elected using the limited vote using state boundaries.

Brazil's president was fairly powerful. He appointed ministers, was able to veto or approve bills passed by Parliament unless the bill recieved two-thirds of the vote from both houses, and was supreme commander of the military.

The Congress played a purely legislative role. It approved bills, which the President could veto, and voted on the budget.

A new president, Eurico Dutra, was elected as the candidate of the centre-right Social Democratic Party, which also won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. Dutra was a heavily pro-United States candidate, but was fairly unpopular.

In the 1950 Presidential election, he was defeated by Vargas, who ran as the candidate of the left-wing Brazilian Labour Party. However, the Labour Party did not have a majority in Congress, and Vargas's presidency was fairly ineffective. In 1954, Vargas committed suicide, and was replaced with Vice President Cafe Filho.

Filho did not run for re-election in 1955, and in a three-way presidential election, conservative National Democrat candidate Janio Quadros was elected. However, Quadros had little support in Congress, and resigned at the end of 1961. He was replaced by left-wing Vice President Joao Goulart. However, Goulart's power was reduced by a constitutional amendment creating the office of Prime Minister.

During his term, Goulart came into conflict with the right-wing establishment, thus earning the enmity of the military. In 1964, these tensions came to a head. The military overthrew Goulart, and replaced him with high ranking officer Castelo Branco.

It is worth taking a further look at this period of Brazilian history. One of the big problems with the Brazilian government during this period was that it was rare for one party to control both the Presidency and the parliament, which made governments unstable and ineffective.

In nations with a powerful military, this sort of ineffectiveness can turn military officers against governments. Of course, this is a relatively minor factor; the main force for the coup came from the elevation of the leftist Goulart to the presidency.

Elections under military government

The military government abolished all of Brazil's political parties, and introduced repressive new electoral laws that only allowed two parties: the right-wing anti-communist National Renewal Alliance (ARENA) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). Vaguely democratic elections were held for Congress, but they were tightly controlled to ensure that the MDB did not get anywhere near power, and it was made clear by the coup leaders that if the MDB won, they would not win any power.

Presidential elections under the military government were held indirectly; presidents were elected through an electoral college. The makeup of this college was such that a victory for the military's preferred candidate was ensured. Nonetheless, the MDB did run candidates, but only to attract attention to the regime's human rights abuses.

During the late 70s, international pressure grew on Brazil to return to democracy. Eventually, the military leaders agreed to move towards democracy, but slowly, in order to ensure an 'ordered' transfer. Over the next few years, gradual improvements were made, including the introduction of a multi-party system. More controversially, an Amnesty Law was passed, making officials in the military government immune from prosecution for any crimes committed under the military government.

In 1985, the first (sort of) democratic  presidential election took place. The Electoral College was still used, but electors were free of the sort of coercion that took place under military rule. Tancrado Neves, the candidate of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (the renamed MDB, abbreviated as PMDB) defeated Paulo Maluf, the candidate of the Democratic Social Party (the renamed ARENA). Tancrado died before he was sworn in, but was replaced by his vice-president, Jose Sarney.

It is debatable whether this transition to democracy is the most desirable way. There are two distinct sorts of transitions: ones where the non-democratic government collapses (i.e. Soviet Union), and ones where the non-democratic government transitions to democracy of their own accord (i.e. Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan).

Ones where the non-democratic government collapses usually provide the quickest transition, and give less time for non-democratic leaders to put in place self-serving legislation. They can, however, lead to a chaotic development of democracy, which can lead to the rise of anti-democratic strongmen promoting 'law and order', such as in Russia and Hungary.

When non-democratic governments wind themselves up, the transition to democracy can be slow, and dictators have plenty of time to create golden parachutes for themselves. Despite this, this method has a number of advantages. It means that state institutions remain consistent during the changeover, and creates a more inclusive environment for constitution building.

For obvious reasons, this is not something that can necessarily be chosen. It is worth noting that most of the countries that have had the non-democratic governments transition to democracy have been 'soft' dictatorships, where voters had some opportunity to vote for opposition parties.

The new constitution

Following Sarney's victory in the 1985 elections, a Constitutional Assembly was elected. In this election, the PMDB won a majority, the new centre-right Liberal Front came second, the Democratic Social Party came third (with only 8% of the vote, down from 43% in 1982), and the left-wing Workers' Party (PT) came fourth.

This assembly took three years to write a new constitution, which was approved by the assembly. The constitution established a presidential system of government, with an elected bicameral legislature.

The President and Vice-President were to be elected simultaneously on the same ticket for four-year terms, using the two-round system. Presidents, among other things, are able to appoint Ministers, command the military, and submit budgets. They can veto legislation, but that veto can be removed by a majority vote of both houses of Parliament

The parliament remained bicameral, with the Senate being elected through the limited vote based on equal representation of provinces. The Chamber of Deputies was elected through the open list system, based on provincial boundaries. However, there is a maximum number of seats that a province can have, which means that very large provinces can be under-represented.

The effects of the new constitution

The first election under the new constitution took place in 1989, for the Presidency. A large number of candidates contested the election. Governor of the small northeastern state of Alagoas Fernando Collor de Mello ran as the candidate of the centre-right National Reconstruction Party came first in the first round with 36% of the vote, while Luiz Inaco Lula de Silva of the left-wing Workers Party came second, with 16.7%. In third place came Leonel Brizola, of the left-wing Democratic Labour Party, with 16%, and Mario Covas of the Social Democrats came fourth with 11%.

In the second round, between de Mello and de Silva, de Mello came first, with 53%, an improvement of 17%. de Silva won 47%, a gain of 30%. de Silva's more significant gain was due to more fragmented smaller left-wing parties uniting to support him in the second round.

The first legislative election under the new system took place in 1990. Data is not consistent regarding this election, but it seems to have produced a heavily fragmented parliament, which was not helpful for de Mello, a president already facing a serious economic crisis.

In 1992, Parliament introduced impeachment charges against de Mellor, who was accused of offering influence in government affairs for money. A report showed that the President was likely guilty, and the Chamber of Deputies allowed the trial to proceed to the Senate.

Before he could be tried, however, de Collor resigned, and was replaced by Vice President Itamar Franco, a member of the PMDB. Despite his resignation, the trial of de Collor in the Senate went on, and he was found guilty almost unanimously. He obviously could not be removed from office, but he was banned from running for any election for eight years.

During Itamar's term, a referendum was held on a change in the political system. This was part of a deal in the Constitutional Assembly, where a number of members who supported the previous military regime were willing to back a new constitution if voters had the opportunity to choose between a monarchy and a republic, and a parliamentary and presidential system.

In this referendum, the status quo won easily. In the monarchy vs. republic contest, republic won with 86%, while in the presidentialism vs. parliamentarism contest, presidentialism won with 69%. The monarchy contest was relatively unsurprising, given that Brazilians were used to presidentialism and were uncertain about monarchy, but the defeat of parliamentarism was probably due to a connection between the system and the coup.

Itamar was fairly popular, but chose not to run for election in 1994. The 1994 Presidential election was comfortably won by centrist Social Democrat (PSDB) candidate Fernando Cardoso, with 54% in the first round, compared to just 27% for the nearest candidate, Luiz da Silva of the Workers' Party. No other candidate managed 10%, but PMDB candidate Orestes Quercia won 4.4%

Despite this landslide for the presidency, the Social Democrats did not do especially well in the Chamber of Deputies. The PMDB came first, with 20% and 107 out of 513 seats. The PSDB came second, with 14% and 62 seats, a relatively weak position for a presidential party. Despite winning only 13%, the Liberal Front won 89 seats. The Workers' Party won 12.8%, and 49 seats. No other party won more than 10%.

The effect of the PMDB, a vague, catch-all party with little support when they stick to one candidate (in Presidential elections), but with more significant support in elections where there are multiple candidates (Chamber of Deputies elections) is rather interesting. One could perhaps consider the PMDB a 'party of independents', given that the party is not ideological and rather factional.

The general weakness of the major parties in the legislature makes the PMDB's support essential, and this is where the party's lack of ideology becomes useful. The party is able to deal with whoever is in power, thus allowing presidents to pass bills through the legislature. Often, this comes from pork-barrelling for PMDB members from the president; given that the President of Brazil has decree powers, he is able to build projects in PMDB-voting areas.

This may have something to do with the legislature's electoral system. Open list systems tend to allow parties with many factions to do well, as voters do not have to vote for a pre-determined list, the writing of which can lead to political conflicts. Rather, voters can vote for the candidate which most aligns with their factional affiliation. This has happened in Italy, where an open list system created heavily factional parties with politicians needing to pander to their local interest groups.

In 1998, Cardoso was easily re-elected again, with 53% to 31% for de Silva, and 11% for centre-left Socialist People's Party candidate Ciro Gomes. In the Chamber of Deputies, the Social Democrats came first, in terms of votes, with 17.5%. However, they came second to the Liberal Front in terms of seats; the Social Democrats won 99 seats (out of 513), the Liberal Front 105. The PMDB lost ground, winning 15% and 83 seats, and the Workers' Party won 13% and 58 seats.

During Cardoso's second term, the Asian economic crisis took place. As a result, cuts to public services were made, and unemployment increased. As a result, the Social Democrats lost support, and three-time Workers' Party Presidential candidate Lula de Silva won the presidency in 2002, with 46% in the first round (to 23% for Jose Serra of the Social Democrats, 17% for Anthony Garotinho of the Socialist Party, and 12% for Gomes of the Socialist People's Party). In the second round, Serra was hammered 61-39, with the leftist de Silva winning the presidency.

The Chamber of Deputies results were, again, relatively disconnected to the presidential contest. The Workers' Party did come first, but only with 18.4% and 91 seats, while the Social Democrats came second, with 14.3% and 71 seats. Not far behind was the Liberal Front, which, once again, won fewer votes than another party (13.4%), but won more seats (84). The PMDB continued their slide, winning 74 seats, and 13.4%.

de Silva was re-elected in 2006, but the election was much less fragmented. In the first round, de Silva won 49% to 42% for Social Democrat Geraldo Alckmin. However, most of the other candidates in the first round were leftists, and de Silva was easily re-elected 60-40.

The Chamber of Deputies results were more interesting. The Workers' Party lost ground, a change due to leftists moving to more radical left-wing parties as a consequence of de Silva's centrist shift, and a number of scandals under the government. The Workers' Party fell to 15%, and won 83 seats. For the first time since 1994, the PMDB came first in terms of seats, winning 14.6% and 89 seats. They had endorsed de Silva in the presidential race, however, thus making it likely that he would get their support. In the same election, the Social Democrats won 13.6% and 65 seats, drawing even with the Democrats, who won 10.9% and the same number of seats.

The 2010 election was rather interesting. It was the first presidential election under the new constitution in which Lula was not a candidate, and as a result was the first in which the Workers' Party didn't have an easy candidate. Former Minister for Energy and incumbent Presidential Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff was chosen, and ran against Social Democrat Sao Paulo governor Jose Serra.

In the first round, Rousseff won 47% to 32% for Serra and a surprising 19% for Green candidate Marina Silva. Silva's support went relatively equally to the two candidates, and Rousseff won in the second round 56-44.

The legislative elections were comfortably won by Rousseff's coalition, which comprised the Workers' Party (which regained the status of largest party, winning 17% and 88 seats), the PMDB (which won 13% and 79 seats), and, rather oddly, the right-wing Republic Party, which won 7.6% and 41 seats. Most of the other parties were small leftist groups. The inclusion of the Republic Party does show how broad Brazilian coalitions can be, and how ideology can be bent in order to make political deals.

The opposition Social Democrats came third, with only 12% and 53 seats, while the Democrats won 7.6%. Unlike the government coalition, the opposition was relatively ideologically coherent, but was weak, only winning 26.5% of the total seats. The Greens did not repeat their impressive performance from the presidential elections, winning only 4% and 15 seats.

The 2015 elections were the closest ever. Rousseff ran for re-election against Aecio Neves, a governor of Minas Gerais and a Social Democrat. Marina Silva made another crack at the office, but this time as a candidate of the centre-left Socialist Party, originally for the Vice Presidency. However, the Socialist presidential candidate Eduardo Campos died in a plane crash during the campaign, and Silva was chosen to replace him.

In the first round, Rousseff won 42%, Neves won 34%, and Silva won 21%. Silva, rather oddly, endorsed the centre-right Neves for the second round. This made the second round extremely competitive, but in the end, Rousseff won 52-48%.

The legislative elections resulted in a majority (59% of seats) for the pro-Rousseff coalition, with losses from the Workers' Party and PMDB being cancelled out by the addition of a new party, the Social Democrats (but different Social Democrats from the old ones). The opposition coalition didn't change much, winning 25% of seats while Silva's coalition won 10% of seats, making them a significant presence in the parliament.

What impact does the electoral system have on Brazilian politics?

You would be forgiven for thinking Brazilian legislative and presidential elections were from different countries. The extreme fragmentation in the legislative elections is an interesting contrast to the relatively closed competition in the presidential elections. This is probably due to the formation of coalitions around certain candidates for the presidential election for parties that are unable to endorse a candidate with strong support.

The open list system is most interesting. At the moment, Brazilians vote electronically, by putting in a number for a candidate. As noted before, this can be a useful feature for parties with relatively broad ideologies, like the PMDB. They do not need to draw up lists, which can be polarising.

Also as discussed before, the open list system usually leads to fairly candidate-based politics, rather than party-based politics. The relatively high proportionality of this system means that many parties can enter parliament, making it relatively easy for new entrants to enter the lower house.

It would be interesting to see how Brazil would work with a parliamentary system. The incentives for voting would obviously be different, and it is plausible that there would be a change to a more majoritarian system. If governments were dependent on current parliaments, Brazil would be far more unstable. It seems likely that some of the left and right parties would merge, while the PMDB would stay as a centrist party in a 'kingmaker' role.

Brazil is fairly politically stable, and the fairly powerful office of President is able to balance out a fairly fragmented legislature. The question of how the two branches balance in presidential systems around the world is an interesting one, but it seems that the current Brazilian balance is fairly prudent for that country.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Japan local elections 2015-the power of (a specific) one

Over the past few days, Japan has held some of its regional elections, to little international media attention. This lack of attention was somewhat justified, as the election results were extremely unexciting. However, they do give some insight into to the support levels for Shinzo Abe, and the significant crisis of support for the opposition.

Japanese local government

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, which are the highest form of local government. They have powers over things like education and police, but these powers are only delegated by the central government. As a result, these elections are relatively low stakes.

Prefectures are led by a directly elected Governor. Budgets and laws have to be approved by an elected Assembly.

As a result of this, these elections are relatively low-stakes, in terms of political control. Of course, it is better for the government to control regional governments, as this means that governmental decisions can be taken more efficiently at the local level, rather than having thorny debates with opposition local government members.

The local elections are more important as a political event, however. They allow  elvoters to send signals about the national government, and can often lead to destabilisation for that government. A poor result in the 2011 elections for the incumbent centre-left Democratic Party, and was one of the factors that led to the downfall of incumbent Prime Minister Naato Kan.

The elections this year take place against a backdrop of strong support for the incumbent government. The centre-right Liberal Democratic government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, won a very comfortable victory in the 2014 election. More importantly, the opposition Democratic Party polled poorly, meaning that there is no single opposition party or alternative government.

The results

Japanese local elections are traditionally predictable and boring, given that most governors run against only token opposition. This seems to stem from the idea that governors are non-partisan figures that should not have to enter into political battles to retain their offices. The Communist Party has a policy of contesting all elections, but they rarely win single-member offices, especially when they are opposing a candidate with unanimous support from the non-communist parties.

Traditionally, some areas have had relatively hotly contested gubernatorial elections. The major cities of Tokyo and Osaka have had close elections, as well as the large island of Hokkaido.

Tokyo, however, did not have an election for governor this year. Due to the resignation of former governor Shintaro Ishihara, an early election was held, thus throwing the schedules out of whack.

As a result, ten governorships were up for election. In all these cases, the incumbent was reelected. Incumbents were almost all supported by Liberal Democrat/New Komeito (Buddhist) coalitions. Certain governors ran with the support of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, centre to centre-left). In one case, an incumbent governor ran with not only the support of these three groups, but with the support of the Social Democrats (left-wing) and the Japan Independence Party (right-wing nationalist led by someone who just can't keep his mouth shut). In only two cases was a sitting governor opposed by a DPJ candidate; in both cases, the sitting governor prevailed.

Regional assembly results were similar, although there was a bit more competition there. Liberal Democrats won 1153 seats out of 2284, while the DPJ won just 264. New Komeito won 169 seats (and apparently contested 169). The Communist Party managed 111, Japan Innovation won 72 seats nationwide, and became the biggest party (albeit without a majority) in Osaka.

What does this tell us?

First of all, it tells us that Shinzo Abe is still popular. Abe looks set to be a long-term leader of Japan, something rare in a country with a revolving-door culture of Prime Ministers such as Japan. No one can tell what the future holds for the incumbent government, but it looks like it will take quite an event to knock Abe off his pedestal.

Second of all, it suggests that the Japanese opposition is in serious trouble. It's true that the Japan Innovation Party and the Communist Party are doing well, but these are ideologically extremist parties that are unlikely to win government. The Democrats have a centrist policy profile, but they clearly left bad perceptions behind from their term in government. This perception is not helped by the fact that their leader Katsuya Okada is a former Democrat leader, and a former deputy prime minister.

Finally, something I left out from above: turnout. On average, turnout was 47%, down from 52% in the 2014 national election, 59% in 2012, and 69% in 2009. Clearly, Japanese voters are becoming less interested in politics. This seems to spring from weakness of the opposition, which makes elections a foregone conclusion.

This threatens to create a vicious cycle for the Japanese opposition, particularly the Democrats. The party's weakness stems from poor election results, which reduces turnout amongst opposition voters who see elections as a foregone conclusion, thus reducing Democrat support, thus reducing turnout. It is unclear what it will arrest this decline, but at the moment it looks like Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democrats will rule Japan for the forseeable future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Electoral Systems of the World-Requests

Electoral systems, the way votes are transferred into positions of power, are an extremely important part of the democratic process. Many countries have different electoral systems, and over the next few months, I intend to profile some of the electoral systems of the world; the origins of the system, how it works, and the impacts that the system has on a nation's politics.

This post is really for people who would like to read a profile of a certain country's electoral system. The comment section is below, and if you wish to request a country, please leave a comment. All reasonable requests will be accepted.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

UK election 2015:Why first-past-the-post?

In a previous post, I provided an outline of the parties contesting the UK election. For this post, I would like to discuss a particular aspect of the election: the electoral system. (For those that don't know about electoral systems, these posts might be helpful)

The single-member plurality system is used in the United Kingdom. This system is extremely simple; parties nominate candidates, voters vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. However, the system has complicated implications for voters and politicians, and a significant debate has taken place regarding it.

Where does it come from?

Plurality systems have been used in the UK since the beginning of elections. The system would have been considered the 'natural' way to hold elections; indeed, the only challenges to plurality were first considered in the 18th century, and systems of proportional representation were only developed around the start of the 20th.

However, single-member plurality systems are relatively new for the UK. During early electoral competition for the House of Commons, most electorates elected two members, using an electoral system where voters voted for two candidates, and the two candidates with the most votes won. Under this system, the party with the most votes usually won both seats

During the late 19th century, some electorates switched to the Limited Vote system. Under this system, some electorates were changed to elect three members, but voters still had two votes. The three candidates with the most votes won. This system created a problem for parties, as they had to divide their votes between their candidates in order to maximise their seats. However, they eventually manage to master this, making the Limited Vote ineffective in preventing single-party domination for electorates.

In the first decades of the 20th century, single-member constituencies were introduced, and by 1950, all electorates in the UK were single-member.

What does it do?

The single-member plurality system is fairly disproportional, and tends to favour large parties. It usually produces majority governments (with obvious exceptions). For these reasons, UK governments tend to be dominant in Parliament.

The system discourages the formation of national small parties, as these parties are unlikely to win seats. Parties like UKIP and the Greens are disadvantaged. However, small parties can win seats if their support is concentrated in a specific region. This is how the SNP, Respect, and Plaid Cymru can win seats, even with small nationwide votes.

For example, at the 1983 general election, the Conservative Party won 397 seats (out of 650) with 42.4% of the vote, the Labour Party won 209 seats with 27.6%, and the Social Democratic-Liberal alliance (the predecessor of the Liberal Democrats) won 23 seats with 25.4% of the vote. To put this another way, it took 0.11% of the vote to elect a Conservative MP, 0.13% to elect a Labour MP, and 1.1% to elect a Social Democratic-Liberal MP.

Why is it good?


Simple! (Andrew Reynolds)
Under single-member plurality, voting and understanding how votes transfer into seats is very easy. This is one of the key reasons that single-member plurality is advocated over systems of proportional representation or other majoritarian systems that are accused of being complicated. 

However, some have suggested that simplicity may not be important in electoral systems, on the basis that it is not necessary for voters to understand exactly how votes are transformed into seats: they just need to understand the basic ideas of the system. Nonetheless, certain experts are unwilling to accept this, and thus simplicity remains a popular idea.

Stable government

Single-member plurality tends to produce single-party government, at least in the United Kingdom. Unlike coalition governments, which can be unstable and indecisive, single-party governments are relatively unified, and majority governments are able to be decisive as they have control over Parliament. This has been used as an argument against the introduction of alternative voting systems, as it is feared that non-single-member plurality systems will endanger the stability of governments.

In some cases, this is right. Countries with overly proportional systems of proportional representation, like Israel or the Netherlands, tend to have unstable governments. However, this is not the case for all countries with proportional representation; Germany, for instance, has had reasonably stable government with proportional representation.

Also, some of the electoral systems proposed for the UK have not been proportional. For instance, the Alternative Vote/Instant Runoff system has been suggested. This system, while being somewhat more likely to produce minority governments, seems unlikely to produce more minority governments if Australian experience is anything to go by.


Another argument for the use of single-member plurality is that it allows politicians to stay accountable to voters. Under single-member plurality, all MPs are directly accountable to a constituency, and the voters of that constituency are able to remove that MP easily. This is in comparison with some party list systems, where senior party members are unable to be easily removed. Under SMP, voters can (and do) remove senior party members. 

This also means that (in theory) local members are required to pay attention to their constituency, and even ministers need to ensure that their seats are happy with their representation. However, this does not always happen: members that take their seats for granted can still be re-elected. Other electoral systems also provide this accountability, so this feature is not unique to single-member plurality.

Why isn't it good?


The single-member plurality system is extremely disproportional. Proportionality, in an electoral system, means how closely shares of seats are matched to shares of votes. This is measured using the Gallagher Index. Under single-member plurality, the candidate with the most votes wins, whether he wins by one vote or by fifty thousand. This creates an extremely weak link between votes and seats. It means that parties can win shares of seats far above or below their vote shares, and in some cases win all seats in a parliament with far less than all the votes. In other cases, a party can win a majority of seats with fewer votes than another party, if that other party has won large amounts of votes in safe seats.

Regional vote variations usually prevent extremely anomolous results in the UK (not so much in certain other countries that use or have used the same system). However, such results are neither impossible nor uncommon; plenty of local government elections have resulted in single-party councils.

Small parties with consistent levels of support nationwide (in the UK, those would be the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and UKIP) do worst out of single-member plurality. Regionally based parties (SNP, Plaid Cymru) can do well, while large parties with consistent support nationwide (Labour and/or Conservative) also do well. At some points in history, Labour or the Conservatives have fallen back on their regional strongholds when their national support became too low to win many seats.

One of the alternatives proposed to single-member plurality, the Alternative Vote, is also disproportional. Most of the alternatives proposed, however, have been an attempt to inject proportionality into the system.

Safe seats

One of the other problems with single-member plurality is that it can create safe seats for certain parties. A safe seat is a seat held on such a significant margin that one party is certain of winning it.

The problem with safe seats is that it reduces political participation. In a safe seat, opposition parties as well as the party holding the seat make less effort to campaign, thus meaning that people are less likely to vote. Those that do will vote for the better known government candidate, thus making the seat even more safe, thus ensuring that the opposition will campaign even less. This is borne out by the evidence; in the 2010 election, marginal seats had turnout 9.2% higher than safe seats.

It is true that the Alternative Vote system may not solve this problem; however, certain proportional systems have been shown to reduce the instance of safe seats.

"Tactical voting"

The idea of tactical voting is relatively unusual to Australians. Basically, tactical voting entails voting for a candidate that is not your favourite in order to stop  a candidate you strongly dislike.

For example, let's take a hypothetical Green voter in a marginal constituency with three candidates: Labour, Conservative, and Green. This voter most strongly supports the Greens, doesn't really mind Labour, but loathes the Conservatives. Now, during the campaign a poll comes out saying that the Conservatives are on 48%, Labour are on 45%, and the Greens are on 7%. Who does this voter vote for? Voting Green will be true to your ideology, but voting Labour will help you defeat the Conservatives.

This is a serious dilemma for minor party voters, and it is used in campaigning in tight seats. It is not unique to the UK: in the 2000 United States presidential election, a contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, supporters of Green candidate Ralph Nader faced the same dilemma. In the US, it is called the 'spoiler effect'.

There is a reason that Australian voters haven't heard of this. Under the Instant Runoff/Alternative Vote system, you can vote for your favourite candidate first, thus giving him/her your support, and put the candidate you hate last, ensuring that he/she will never get your support. 

What's been done about it?

Non-single-member plurality systems were rare in the UK for a long time. The Single Transferable Vote was used for Northern Ireland's devolved parliament and local government from 1973 onwards, and for Northern Ireland European elections from 1979 elections onwards. 

Under Tony Blair's government, however, proportional representation received a large boost. Mixed-member systems were used for the Scottish, Welsh, and London parliaments, while party-list proportional representation was introduced for European elections. An inquiry into a change from single-member plurality for the House of Commons was set up, but the government failed to act on the recommendations. Directly-elected mayors were introduced, elected using the supplementary vote. In 2007, the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish government introduced the single transferable vote for local elections.

The referendum

The first concrete step towards electoral reform took place after the 2010 election, when the Liberal Democrats set a referendum on electoral reform as a condition for entering government. The Conservatives promised that they would hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote.

This referendum was held in 2011. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP all lined up in favour of the change, while the Conservatives and British National Party lined up against it. After the referendum was announced, support for the switch was high.

However, the Conservative campaign was very successful. The No2AV (as it was known) campaign recruited the support of some Labour MPs, and played off a general sense of uncertainty about how the system would work. It was claimed that under AV, voters for small parties would have their votes count multiple times (conveniently ignoring, of course, that under AV voters for all parties have their votes counted multiple times). Antony Green's blog has more detail on this.

As a result, the referendum was lost. 68% voted No, while only 32% voted Yes. Only nine counting districts out of 440 recorded a Yes majority.

What does the future hold?

It's hard to say. UKIP and the SNP are vague on electoral reform, but both supported AV. In the case of the SNP, they are likely to benefit from single-member plurality, so they may not want to press electoral reform too hard. The Greens  and Liberal Democrats explicitly support proportional representation. Labour supported AV, but it is unlikely that proportional representation is on the cards under a Labour majority government. The Conservatives view electoral reform of any sort as a Satanic plot. 

Were the Liberal Democrats to hold the balance of power, they would probably want another referendum on electoral reform of some sort. If UKIP and/or the Greens win a significant amount of votes but not many seats, this referendum may succeed, but it depends on the proposal.

It is true that political parties without the power to change electoral law have the will to change it, while parties with the power to change the law don't have the will. However, the 2015 election may be able to produce anger against single-member plurality that forces parties to change their attitudes.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

United Kingdom election 2015

The United Kingdom will be holding a parliamentary election on the 7th of May. The incumbent government is a coalition between the centre-right Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, and the centre to centre-left Liberal Democrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. The opposition Labour Party, which is led by former Secretary for State for Energy Ed Miliband. A number of smaller parties, including the Greens, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the Scottish National Party.


The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, and has had universal suffrage since the 1920s. Before 1910, elections were mostly between the centre-right Conservatives (Tories) and the centrist Liberals (Whigs). These two parties alternated in government. However, in 1895, the Independent Labour Party contested 28 seats, but only won 1% of the vote. In 1900, Labour improved their vote slightly, and won two seats.

Over the subsequent years, the Labour Party improved their vote consistently. However, this was rarely at the expense of one single party. The Liberal Party split in 1918, with some members joining the Conservatives and some staying independent. This led to the Liberals declining dramatically over that period, to the benefit of both other parties. The Conservatives formed government after this, but lost their majority in 1923. Because neither of the other two parties wanted to deal with the Conservatives, the first Labour government was formed in coalition with the Liberals, under the leadership of Ramsay McDonald.

The McDonald government did not last, and an election was called later that year. The result was a dramatic loss for the Liberal Party, and a somewhat smaller loss for Labour. The Conservatives won a landslide majority.

While the Liberals made slight gains at the next few elections, the party split again coming up to the 1931 election. At this election, the Labour Party also split into factions supportive of a coalition with the Conservatives (led by Ramsay McDonald) and an independent party. The independent party won only 46 seats (out of 615), down from 287 at the last election.  The Liberals did poorly, winning only 33 seats; this was the first step in what would be a long decline for the party. The Conservatives, running in coalition with the various Labour and Liberal spinoffs (under the banner of 'National Government'), won a landslide 554 seats.

At the 1935 election, Labour made some gains under the leadership of Clement Atlee, while the Liberals continued their decline. General elections were postponed because of the Second World War, but an election was held in 1945. To some surprise, the wartime government of Conservative Winston Churchill was handily defeated, with Labour winning 393 seats (out of 640). The Conservatives won only 197, while the Liberals continued to decline.

The Atlee government was controversial, and lost some seats in 1950. In 1951, an election was held due to the slim majority of the government. The Conservatives won this relatively comfortably. This election was also notable for the poor Liberal performance; the Liberals only managed 6 seats, later reduced to 5. If a political party in a 625 member assembly can hold its meetings in one car, that party has serious problems.

In the next few elections, the Labour Party lost seats, and the Conservatives gained some. A significant change took place in 1964, when a hard-fought campaign resulted in a narrow Labour win, with a 2-seat majority. Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, became Prime Minister. The Liberals gained three seats, meaning that a large people mover would be required for party meetings.

Wilson was unsatisfied with his narrow majority, and called an election for 1966. This resulted in significant gains for Labour, at the expense of the Conservatives. Labour won a 46-seat majority. The Liberals gained three, while the Conservatives lost 52. One seat was won by a 'Republican Labour' candidate in Northern Ireland, one of the predecessors to Sinn Fein.

An election was called by Wilson for 1970. This election took place against a relatively gloomy economic background, and the Wilson government was defeated. Conservative leader Edward Heath took office with a majority of 14. This election was also notable for a halved Liberal seat tally of 6, and the first Scottish National MPs elected in a general election. Northern Ireland elected four members from local parties.

The 1974 election was somewhat remarkable. Strikes, trouble in Northern Ireland, and a stagnant economy reduced support for the government. Both parties were led by the same leaders as in 1970. Labour won 301 seats, becoming the largest party; however, 318 seats were needed for a majority. The Conservatives won 297. The Liberals won 14 seats, the SNP won 7, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party won 2, and one independent was elected. All Northern Ireland seats were won by local parties.

The resulting government was a minority Labour government, led by Wilson. This government did not last, and Wilson called another election for later that year. He won this, with 319 seats: a majority of 1.

Poor economic conditions reduced support for this Labour government, and even after Wilson resigned and was replaced by Chancellor (Treasurer) James Callaghan, the government continued to tank in the polls. Conservative leader Edward Heath was defeated by Margaret Thatcher, and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was brought down due to a scandal. After the Labour Party failed to form a coalition with the Liberals, a no-confidence motion brought down the Callaghan government, and an election was called for 1979.

The Conservatives won the 1979 election comfortably, with 339 seats. Labour won 269, the Liberals won 11, the SNP won only 2, Plaid Cymru won 2, and as before, all Northern Ireland seats were won by local parties.

During the 1979 parliament, the Labour Party elected a left-wing leader, Michael Foot. This led to certain members of the party leaving and creating the new Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the Liberals. This alliance did relatively well in the polls due to the lack of support for the Thatcher government. However, as the 1983 election approached, the Thatcher government gained support, and won comfortably. The Labour Party polled poorly, winning just 27.6% and 209 seats. The SDP-Liberal Alliance polled relatively well, winning 25.4%, but won only 23 seats.

The Conservatives won re-election comfortably in 1987, with Labour under the leadership of Neil Kinnock. However, in 1990, Thatcher resigned due to a number of policy controversies. By this point, the Conservatives were relatively unpopular. Thatcher was replaced by John Major, the Chancellor. Major led the Conservatives to the 1992 election, which he was expected to lose. However, Major won, but with a reduced majority in the Commons of 10.

The 1992 parliament went very badly for the Conservatives. A number of scandals, a poor economic situation, and divisions over Europe dramatically reduced Conservative support. At the same time, Labour was led by popular Tony Blair, who was successful in removing the more stridently socialist bits of the Labour policy. The 1997 election resulted in a Labour landslide, with Labour winning 418 seats out of 659. The Conservatives won just 168, and the Liberal Democrats won 46.

The Labour Party's first term in office was relatively successful, and Conservative leader William Hague failed to make much of a mark. Labour only lost 6 seats in the 2001 election.

However, the second term of Labour government was somewhat more controversial. The Iraq War, a number of scandals, and controversies regarding Labour's handling of immigration and healthcare led to the first significant increase in Conservative representation since 1983. Labour won 355 seats, the Conservatives won 198, and the Liberal Democrats won 62.

Blair resigned in 2007, and was replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. While Brown polled relatively well in his first months, a number of scandals involving ministers and a serious economic downturn dramatically reduced the support of his government. In the 2009 European elections, the Labour Party came third, behind the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP); Labour won only 15.7%. In the Henley by-election to fill the seat of London mayor Boris Johnson, the Labour candidate won 3% and came fifth, behind not only the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates, but the candidates of the Greens and the far-right British National Party.

In the leadup to the 2010 election, Conservative leader David Cameron was widely expected to become Prime Minister. However, after a televised debate (the first of its kind) which didn't go as expected, the Liberal Democrats received a polling surge. While the surge was relatively short-lived, it took enough momentum away from the Conservatives to prevent them from winning a majority.

The results were 306 for the Conservatives (with 326 needed for a majority), 258 for Labour, and 57 for the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats chose to go with the Conservatives, seeing that a Labour-led government would be relatively unstable.

This has dramatically reduced Liberal Democrat support. Opinion polls have put them behind UKIP, and the 2014 European election resulted in them winning no seats. In the Rochester and Strood by-election, (which resulted in UKIP winning a seat), the Liberal Democrat candidate won 0.9%.

The electoral system

The electoral system of the United Kingdom is the 'first-past-the-post', or single-member plurality system. It is relatively simple: voters have one vote, and they cast it for a party candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins. This happens in every district nationwide.

A colour-coded map of the UK's electoral districts from the 2010 election (Wikimedia) Blue=Conservatives, Red=Labour. Orange=Liberal Democrat, Yellow=SNP, Light green=Plaid Cymru
This electoral system is fairly majoritarian, and tends to favour the two largest parties. The Liberal Democrats have had a consistent parliamentary presence, but their vote share has been consistently below their seat share. This goes for the other political parties, including the Greens. It also happens for the SNP and Plaid Cymru, but given that they are regionally based parties, they do better.

There have been proposals to replace the system with a more proportional one. The Electoral Reform Society has put forward proposals to replace FPTP with the Single Transferable Vote, a system already in use in Scottish local government and Northern Irish regional and local elections. As part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, a referendum took place on introducing the Alternative Vote; while the proposal led in the polls in the lead-up to the campaign, a Conservative-led fear campaign led to the proposal's defeat by a significant margin.

The electoral system is likely to have a significant impact on how the government is formed. In 2005, the Labour Party won a majority off just 35%, and it is possible that a majority government may be formed off a lower amount.

Another factor will be that the Labour Party is able to win more seats off fewer votes due to lower turnout in less well off safe Labour districts. This means that there is the possibility that the Labour Party can win a majority off a relatively small share of the vote.

Party prospects

Conservative Twitter account

The Conservatives have been accused of making overly harsh cuts to public services during their term in office, and generally trailed in the polls from early 2012 by significant amounts. During this period, they were not only losing votes to Labour, but also to the United Kingdom Independence Party; traditional eurosceptic Conservatives have been angered by Cameron's relatively conciliatory stance on Europe and immigration.

The Conservative opening party political broadcast (in the UK, TV political paid advertising is banned, and parties are given free airtime)

However, in recent months, Conservative polling has picked up, mostly at the expense of Labour. This may be due to somewhat more optimistic economic forecasts, or due to Labour losing support to the SNP. Nonetheless, it has made the 2015 election more competitive, and it looks unlikely at this point that either party will win by a significant margin.

Incumbent Prime Minister Cameron, the Conservative leader, is relatively popular personally. However, he has announced that he will not serve a second term as Prime Minister, providing reasonably fertile ground for a Labour campaign based around leadership candidate speculation


The Labour Party are likely to make gains at this election. The party has moved significantly to the left under the leadership of Ed Miliband, who defeated his brother David in a leadership ballot following the resignation of Gordon Brown after the 2010 election loss. The Labour Party led in the polls for a significant amount of time, but have recently dropped back.

One of the reasons that the forecast for Labour is looking less optimistic is the lack of support for Labour in Scotland. Traditionally a Labour heartland, the pro-independence Scottish National Party has increased their support significantly since the independence referendum in 2014, which, ironically, was a setback for the Scottish pro-independence community. This may be because the Labour Party has alienated their (not insubstantial) pro-independence wing by strongly backing the No campaign in the referendum.

However, Labour's task is not insurmountable. For a start, it is possible that they could deal with the SNP to form a government (the Conservatives are making hay with this, so their polling must be suggesting that it is unpopular). As discussed before, the Labour Party is able to win more seats with fewer votes, so that will work to their advantage. 

Miliband is not an especially popular leader, however. Opinion polls have put his approval rating consistently below 30%, and it looks unlikely that he is the main reason for his party's success.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats, a centrist liberal party, are going into the 2015 election with little chance of doing well. Five years of coalition with the Conservatives have dramatically reduced their support, and opinion polls have put them below both UKIP and the Greens. Leader Nick Clegg, who was the beneficiary of a polling boost going into the 2010 election, looks likely to lead the Liberal Democrats to an extremely poor result. Clegg's own seat of Sheffield Hallam is in peril, with opinion polls showing Labour ahead.

However, it looks unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will be wiped out. Incumbent MPs that have built up a personal profile might be able to hold their seats, and it looks likely that the Liberal Democrats will remain the largest nationwide party outside the Conservatives and Labour. Clegg is extremely unpopular, with opinion polls showing him to be the least popular UK party leader; however, he has been challenged for that title by Miliband several times.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

UKIP are a right-wing populist anti-EU party, whose main policy is the removal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. They were formed from the Referendum Party, a party supporting a referendum on EU membership which contested the 1997 election. They are opposed to immigration, but are left of centre on economic issues.

The party has performed well in European Parliament elections, coming first (albeit with only 27% of the vote) in the 2014 elections. Despite this, they have been weak in general elections. In the last general election, under the leadership of former Conservative Lord Pearson, the party managed just 3%.

In the 2010 parliament, traditional Conservative (and Labour) voters have become disenchanted with what some see as an unaccountable and opaque European Union intent on removing Britain's powers. These voters have switched to UKIP. However, UKIP voters are spread across the UK, meaning that they will struggle to win many seats under single member plurality.

UKIP hold two seats in the Commons; both are hold by former Conservatives, who defected to UKIP, resigned, and won by-elections in their old seats. Mark Reckless, the UKIP member for Rochester and Strood, won with a 7.3% majority, while Douglas Carswell holds Clacton on a 35% majority. Both seats are in the traditionally conservative South of England. Given that these MPs are incumbents, these results are not strictly representative, but they do suggest that when looking at UKIP polls, it is important to look at regional results.

Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party is a left-wing nationalist party founded in 1934, after the merger of two nationalist parties. The party's influence was marginal until the 1970s, when the discovery of oil in the North Sea led to an upsurge in support for Scottish independence. This led the Labour government to be forced to hold a referendum on the establishment of a Scottish government. While a majority voted for devolution, a turnout requirement meant that the referendum was lost. The devolution issue went on the back burner for a decade, but in 1997, the Labour Party was elected, and a referendum to implement a Scottish government was won.

The SNP came second in the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999: well ahead of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with around 28% of the vote. However, they did not repeat this success in the general election in 2001, with only 20% and 5 seats out of 72.

In the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP won the most seats: 47 seats to 46 for Labour. The party formed a minority administration with the support of the Greens. Despite this success, the SNP's performance in 2010 was lukewarm; only 6 seats.

The SNP's support in the Scottish Parliament hit a high in 2011, with the SNP winning 69 seats. This was the first overall majority for any Scottish party in the Scottish Parliament. Even that did not give the SNP's national polling a significant boost. 

However, the independence referendum seems to have polarised Scottish politics. Labour's strong campaign against independence has meant that pro-independence Labour voters seem to have switched to the SNP. The party has relatively consistent support across Scotland, meaning that it will be likely that the SNP will be the largest party in Scotland, and it is possible that they will enter a coalition with Labour.

The others

The Greens have been a relatively marginal influence in UK politics for a long time, but they won a record 15% in the 1989 European elections. The usage of single-member plurality for these elections meant that they won no seats, and they failed to repeat this success in the 1992 general election. However, they have improved their support recently, and Caroline Lucas, the former party leader, was elected to be the member for Brighton Pavillion. Their leader, the Australian Natalie Bennett, is reasonably popular, but it looks unlikely that the Greens will win many more seats.

The far-right British National Party received a boost in the 2009 European election, winning 2 seats. However, they did not repeat any of this in the 2010 General elections, winning just 1.9%. They lost their seats in the European elections, and look almost certain to do very poorly in the general elections.

George Galloway's Respect Party is a rather odd outfit. Galloway is a former Labour MP from Scotland, who was expelled from Labour in 2003 after making controversial statements about the Iraq War. He formed a new party, called Respect, and won the immigrant-dominated seat of Bethnal Green and Bow from Labour. He contested the seat of Poplar and Limehouse in 2010, but lost. He managed to win the seat of Bradford West in a 2012 by-election with a large swing. No polling has been done in this seat, so it is uncertain if Galloway will be elected, especially considering his controversial comments on Israel and Julian Assange.

Plaid Cymru is a centre-left Welsh nationalist party that supports independence for Wales. They are a significant presence in the Welsh parliament, but are weaker then the Scottish nationalists. They hold three seats in the Westminster parliament, and their polling shows that they have little chance of winning many more.

Overall picture.

It is still far too early to make any solid predictions about the UK election. However, if the polls are correct, a significant amount of votes will be cast for parties that will win few seats. This does not bode well for the future of the UK two-party system, and suggests that a switch to proportional representation may be possible.

However, it is too early to say whether this will happen. A change that large would require a referendum, and judging by the campaign waged against AV in 2011, that would be a hard referendum to win.

Nonetheless, this election is one of the closest, and one of the most interesting elections in UK history. I will be posting further on this election in the future, so please follow this blog for updates.