Friday, May 7, 2010


A bit of postmortuming on the Brit election...first, some political science links.  Eric Voeten at the Monkey Cage explains what's known about minority governments (and asks for more, so check back to comments there -- don't forget that the Monkey Cage gets great substantive comments).   Then head over to Enik Rising, where Seth Masket speculates about Duvreger's Law

(Hey, we get great comments here, too -- no offensive to the regulars, and thanks for your comments). main interests in the election have been (1) the entertainment value, which I have to say it delivered on pretty well; and, (2) the first-past-the-post/PR debate and other questions in democratic institutions, parties, and representation.  I posted about that before the election, and Hedrick Hertzberg, p.r. supporter, responded by giving a stripped down version of his case for proportional representation.  As I said originally, my position is mostly neutral, and cautious (and this morning I saw David Butler, the British political scientist, make almost the exact same case on the BBC; as he said, all such systems have their strengths and weaknesses). 

What I really don't understand is how proponents of proportional representation -- and multiparty systems -- get around how problematic post-election maneuvering to form a government can be.  Of course, the two are not identical, as shown by not only yesterday's results but the general failure of any UK party to reach 50% for a long time.  Still, first-past-the-post does, usually, yield a two-party system and therefore majority governments, while proportional systems tend to yield multiparty systems, with no party able to organize government on its own. 

Which results in a situation such as the one now in the UK, or the one now in Iraq -- election over, votes are counted, and all that's left is for the elites to bargain with each other about, well, who gets to be a winner and who gets to be a loser.  Obviously, it's not as if the voters had no say in the whole thing, since their votes do set the stage for the current process.  But after that...well, as far as I can see, the election results could yield any number of things about which I've seen speculation:
  • A Tory minority government;
  • A Tory-LibDem coalition government;
  • A Labor-LibDem coalition government;
  • Or, an all-parties government.
Moreover, as the price for forming such governments, it's possible that Britain could wind up with an entirely new electoral system, or one of the party leaders might have to be cashiered, or who knows what kinds of policy deals might be made.  All of which, again, could happen -- one of which will happen -- without any further input from the voters.  To me, it's just astonishing that people find that sort of arrangement clearly, inherently, more democratic that what the United States has (or what the Brits would have if they slimmed down to two and a quarter parties, instead of, what is it now, two and two-thirds?). 

And that's not the only trouble with proportional systems, just the one that strikes me as particularly problematic.  There's also the potential for minor parties to hijack the system (the Israel problem), the potential for serious instability (the Italy problem), and one I'll include just for Matt Yglesias -- the complexities of voting when it's not a binary choice between the "ins" and the "outs."  (Of course, the American system, as Yglesias never hesitates to point out, manages to make such distinctions impossible even with only two parties).  But none of those really bothers me; it's the post-election negotiating that I just can't work my way around.

Once again: I'm not arguing that single district, simple plurality electoral systems are necessarily better; they have their problems, too, and as I've said, I'm agnostic about how the relative strengths and weaknesses balance in the abstract, and so my inclination is to be hesitant about change.  I just, really, don't understand why enthusiastic proponents of proportional systems don't see post-election coalition formation as deeply problematic as far as democracy is concerned. 


  1. Interesting point about post-election negotiations.

    But isn't that arguing against PR on the basis that it would hypothetically lead to the result that the status quo already has?

  2. It's not seen as deeply problematic because you're not stuck with that coalition for several years. I don't know which PR systems also have fixed-term elections, but my understanding is that there's usually some mechanism for dissolving the government or otherwise starting over if the coalition collapses. Since parties can pull out of coalitions, the supporters of the member parties don't feel that the bargaining that creates the coalition is forcing them into an arrangement they'll be stuck with even if the coalition starts doing things that they and their party find unacceptable.

    Also, the four options listed above aren't the only options available in the UK. There are various interparty arrangements ("confidence and supply," etc.) that have coalition-like features without being full coalitions, and it could be they'll even invent something entirely new just for this occasion. The point is, although people talk of "minority" governments, a true minority can't govern because somebody's got to be able to put together 50%+1 of the vote if anything's going to get done (including standard, unavoidable operations like budgeting). Without either a new, more decisive election or some kind of interparty agreement, the leader of a "minority" government would, in effect, have to spend most of his time creating a new, ad hoc coalition for every major vote. You know, kind of like the US President and the leaders of the House and Senate.

  3. Evan,

    As far as I know, no one likes the idea of first-past-the-post with three major parties (plus the regional parties). But it's not really clear that the Brits really have that; it might just be a fluky election, and they'll go back to two and a half parties (plus the regional parties) next time. Really, this isn't supposed to happen; that's the whole point of Duverger's Law.


    Yes, there are a variety of other slightly different arrangements possible, but I think my simplified version captured enough of that; YMMV. I understand your fixed-term point, which is a fair one, but I don't really think it knocks down my argument. After all, there are lots of costs (to parties) in risking a no confidence vote and a new's not quite as easy as "if you don't like it, you can always back out," because getting in changes the incentives. Anyway, the overall point is just that post-election bargaining really reduces the connection between elections and who takes office, which I'd guess is pretty important to most people.

  4. I'd much rather have the wrangling involved creating a government that gives itself a clear, accountable set of goals than the issue-by-issue wrangling involved when two "ideologically-broad" parties battle it out in the US Senate.


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