Tag Archives: May 2015

The aftermath of the UK election might look a bit Canadian

David Cameron’s intention to declare victory tomorrow even if he can’t command a majority of the house, forcing Labour to join forces with the SNP to bring him down, takes us into uncharted territory as far as UK politics goes. But there is a recent international precedent for this situation with some striking similarities.

Canada’s political system is similar to the UK’s in many ways – in fact, it’s modelled on it. They have a House of Commons with 308 members, each representing one electoral district and each elected on a first-past-the-post basis. But in some ways it seems like they are further down the line in terms of the evolution of this system. While the SNP looks set to dominate elections in Scotland for the first time, the Bloc Québécois has been doing it for years in Quebec. And while the UK may be looking ahead to years of minority governments and coalitions, the Canadians have been there for a while now. So it seems that Canada might offer a glimpse of the UK’s future.

And the 2008–09 Canadian parliamentary dispute might offer a glimpse of the UK’s immediate future. Following elections in October 2008, the Conservatives formed a minority government. But when the government tried to table its budget six weeks later, a left-leaning coalition led by the Liberal Party, backed by the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party, signalled its intention to hold a vote of no-confidence and bring down the government.

The coalition commanded a majority in the house and the Conservatives would certainly have lost this vote, so they were keen to avoid it. The Prime Minister approached the Governor General – the Queen’s representative in Canada – to grant a prorogation of parliament. This means shutting down parliament for a period of time without dissolving it (which would trigger new elections), and in this situation it would allow the government to temporarily avoid a vote of no-confidence while they tried to find a way to hold onto power more permanently.

According to Wikipedia, the Governor General granted the request amid concern that if she didn’t, and instead allowed vote of no-confidence to go ahead, then:

the Conservative Party would launch a public campaign painting the new government and, by extension, the actions of the Governor General as illegitimate, creating “a crisis of confidence in Canada’s political system.”

Sound familiar? It gets better. After the prorogation was granted, the Conservative Prime Minister went on TV to address the nation and

outlined the steps the government had taken to address the economic crisis and attacked the Liberals for forming a coalition with the Bloc Québécois. [Prime Minister] Harper said: “at a time of global economic instability, Canada’s government must stand unequivocally for keeping the country together. At a time like this, a coalition with the separatists cannot help Canada. And the opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen

Did I hear someone say con trick? I have to say I am finding this a bit spooky, almost like the Tories are modelling their approach on what happened in Canada. And why not? In the end the Liberal Party had a change of leadership during the prorogation and agreed to support the Conservative budget, in exchange for some concessions.

Could a hung parliament in the UK pan out like this? There are a number of differences that suggest it might not be an exact parallel.

First, the Canadian dispute arose six weeks after the election when the Conservatives had already been allowed to form a government and take power. I imagine that the dispute in the UK would be more immediate.

Second, while I am not an expert on these matters, I am not sure that the Queen herself would grant a prorogation in the UK case*. According to the Parliament website:

Queen Victoria prorogued Parliament in person regularly between 1837 and 1854, after which she ceased to attend, allegedly because she disliked the ceremony.

This was the last occasion on which the Sovereign prorogued Parliament or gave the Royal Assent in person, and was also the last time the Speaker made a speech at prorogation.

And third, the Canadian situation was resolved when the main opposition changed its leader and agreed to work with the minority government, which in turn agreed significant concessions in its budget. I find it hard to imagine Labour voting for a Tory budget or the Tories making significant concessions to Labour. But then again, we are heading into uncharted territory.

An afterthought

One final extract from Wikipedia gives us an idea of what Canadians thought about all this. A poll just after the prorogation was granted found that

40% of respondents agreed with the statement “The Conservative party does not deserve to continue in government,” while 35% agreed with “The Conservative party deserves to continue in government,” and 25% were “not sure.” On the question “Should the opposition parties get together and topple the Conservative minority government headed by Stephen Harper?”, 41% responded No, 36% Yes, and 23% not sure. If the government was defeated in a no-confidence vote, 37% of respondents would support a coalition of opposition parties taking power, 32% favoured holding a new election, 7% favoured an accord rather than a coalition among opposition parties, and 24% were not sure.

So Canadians thought (by a slim majority) that the Conservatives shouldn’t be in power, but also thought (by a slim majority) that no one should do anything about it. Although if they did do something about it, they should be allowed to take power without another election. So that’s clear then.


* Although today’s Times takes a different line.

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Why lefties shouldn’t vote Green

Chris Dillow is voting for the Green Party and he gives some good reasons for doing do. As he points out:

The Greens are opposed to fiscal austerity. Labour’s promise to “cut the deficit every year” unconditional on the state of the economy is a capitulation to mediamacro deficit obsession. Granted, they might well be insincere in this – but there’s a danger that lies become the truth.

Fair enough. Labour has caved into the nonsense that the government talks on public finances and this alone makes it reasonable to prefer the Greens, even if, as Chris says, some of their policies are questionable and their leader has failed to inspire.

That said, Chris, and I imagine many other people who are planning to vote Green, prefers Labour to the Tories and “very much wants Ed Miliband to be our next PM”. But since he lives in a safe Tory seat his vote won’t affect the number of MPs each party has, so he assumes it won’t affect Miliband’s chance of being PM and he is free to use it to “express [his] disdain for how Labour has kowtowed too much to economic illiteracy and reactionary prejudice”.

But with David Cameron announcing that his intention to  declare victory if he gets the most votes and/or seats – even if he can’t command a majority in the House of Commons – this assumptions looks a little shaky. Cameron’s plan is presumably to force Labour to team up with the SNP to bring him down, then spend the next five years denouncing the Labour government as illegitimate, lacking a mandate and stooges of the Scottish nationalists. Even better, this prospect may be so terrifying to Labour that they bottle it and decide to endure a Tory minority government.

This is a novel strategy to say the least, and sounds almost like an admission of defeat. But while political insiders recognise that this strategy has no constitutional or legal basis, a majority of the public seems to think otherwise. If Cameron (and Tory-supporting sections of the press) can create a strong enough case that he is the only legitimate winner, then Miliband taking office might be an unpopular move.*

This strategy is unlikely to work, though, unless the Tories get both more seats and more votes than Labour. If Labour can respond to Tory claims of legitimacy on the basis of having the most MPs by pointing to their larger share of the popular vote, then the Tory case begins to look weak. And every vote cast for the Greens instead of Labour increases the chances of the Tories getting the largest vote share. Even if this doesn’t affect Miliband’s chances of entering number 10, it could weaken his position once he gets there.

It’s not ideal that we have a voting system in which it is so often rational to vote tactically, rather than for the party you prefer. But given the system we have, lefties like Chris should vote for Labour on Thursday, even if they live in a safe seat.**


* What we are seeing here is the gap between how our voting system actually works and how most people think it works beginning to impinge on reality. We have been brought up on a diet of two-party politics where there is a winner and a loser, and the winner becomes Prime Minister. This time, in part because of the nationalist bias in our electoral system, there will not be a winner – but the public is still looking for one. This allows politicians to play off public opinion against legal and constitutional facts. A system that relies on these sorts of games is one without clear and objective rules, leaving voters confused and disenfranchised. If hung parliaments are going to become the norm in future elections then either our voting system, public opinion or both need to change.

** It goes without saying that potential UKIP voters who prefer Cameron to Miliband should take the same advice and vote Tory, even if they live in a safe seat.


UPDATE: while Cameron’s strategy might be novel to Brits, it is old hat in Canada.

How to draw public finances

Here’s a chart from the OBR that I really don’t like:

Total public sector spending and receipts (OBR)

The OBR's chart showing UK government spending and receipts

I don’t mean to attack the OBR here, which I think generally does decent work. I’ve seen this sort of chart reproduced by all sorts of otherwise reputable people. But it is horribly misleading. It’s not that there is anything wrong in the chart. It’s just that the way it’s constructed and the patterns that jump out at you feed a narrative that is both wrong and pervasive.

Try looking at the chart without reading any of the text. What do you see? A blue line and a yellow line that jump around a lot but sort of follow each other; and two points where the blue line shoots up. And what’s that blue thing that shoots up? Public spending.

Except public spending didn’t actually shoot up. These two points are the biggest recessions in modern history, and while recessions do lead to increased spending thanks to automatic stabilisers, they mainly lead to lower GDP. That’s kind of the definition of a recession.

The chart shows the ratios of spending and receipts to GDP. In many situations this is the best way to think about spending and receipts, but in this case it leads to a visual representation of the right data that tells the wrong story. The blue line shoots up even though spending doesn’t; and the yellow line stays the same even though tax receipts have collapsed.

This may sound obvious and, of course, the people who make these charts know all of this. But when the government and large sections of the media are pushing a narrative that public sector spending was and is out of control, communicating the facts clearly is important.

So how could we do this better? Something along these lines would be a good start:

UK public finances and GDP

A better way to draw the UK's public finances

This chart shows spending, receipts and GDP in real terms (13/14 prices), as well as total public debt as a share of GDP[i]. This shows three important things about the recent financial crisis that we can’t easily get from the OBR chart.

  1. Although spending rose a bit relative to trend when the financial crisis hit, the much more pronounced effect was that receipts collapsed. This was a more important cause of the deficit.
  2. The reason for the collapse in receipts was a collapse in GDP. Receipts broadly follow GDP, since government policy pretty much directly sets what proportion of total output is collected in taxes. Spending policy (at least in the short term) is set in pounds, so it doesn’t follow GDP as closely.
  3. Public debt was a lower proportion of GDP on the eve of the financial crisis than it was a decade earlier when Labour came to power.

This stuff is all pretty basic, but this narrative is largely missing from the mainstream media and instead confined to economics blogs. Maybe this is because of media bias or ignorance. But maybe it’s also partly because we aren’t doing a good enough job of presenting the data that we have.

[i] As I said, it’s usually a good thing to think about public finances as a share of GDP, except when it’s not.

 

 

 

An electoral system that favours nationalists

One of the supposed merits of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system is that it delivers strong governments – that is, it gives disproportionate representation to bigger parties, which until 2010, tended to ensure that one of them had an overall majority.

This is why smaller parties don’t like it. The Liberal Democrats have always been against it and as part of the coalition agreement in 2010 they secured a referendum on switching to an alternative vote (AV) system. After some quite strident campaigning against this change from the Prime Minister among others, the public voted pretty decisively against, condemning smaller parties to many more years of under-representation.

But not all smaller parties. There is one smaller party that is set to get a huge bonus in May thanks to first-past-the-post, ending up with twice as many seats as it would under a proportional system. That party is the SNP.

According to the latest projections on may2015.com, the nationals are set to get 4.08% of the vote in Great Britain, but claim 55 seats, or 8.46% of the total. This is because first-past-the-post doesn’t just favour big parties – it also favours those that are more geographically concentrated.

We can see how this works by building a simple model that distributes a given vote share across different geographical areas, with some random fluctuations and a fixed victory threshold. The chart below shows the number of seats that the model predicts for parties concentrated on Great Britain, England and Scotland, compared with the projected results of the major parties. Although the model is crude, it matches up pretty well with these projections.

How many seats a party would win for a given share of the Great Britain vote, by geographical coverage, and the latest projections from may2015.com for the main parties

First past the post favours nationalists

With votes spread evenly across the whole of Great Britain (think Labour and the Conservatives) you need quite a large share before you are likely to win any seats at all. If you are concentrated in England only (think UKIP) the threshold is a bit lower, but it’s still looking tough with anything less than 20% of the vote. Smaller parties mainly focused in certain areas of England (like the Lib Dems) do a bit better. But if you are entirely concentrated in Scotland, you can get a decent number of seats in Westminster with a tiny proportion of the total vote.

The SNP presumably like the first-past-the-post system now, but ’twas not always thus. In 2011, in the run-up to the AV referendum, a party spokesperson said:

Faced with a choice between the fundamentally unfair first-past-the-post system and a step towards a more democratic system, the SNP’s National Executive has agreed that the SNP will support a Yes vote in the AV referendum.

At that time the SNP were small even in Scotland and had just 6 seats. But now they are big in Scotland – they are projected to get 48% of the Scottish vote – and are forecast to cash in with a whopping 55 seats. Will they use their newfound influence to continue their push for electoral reform?

Contrast this with the fortunes of UKIP, who command much greater support overall and are expected to win more than three times as many votes as the SNP, but will walk away with a measly 5 seats. All of which goes to show that you don’t need to be a big party to reap the benefits of the first-past-the-post system, you just need to be big somewhere.

If the SNP do go on to win this number of seats, and if the Union and our parliamentary system survive the arrival of the Nats in Westminster, could this have consequences for other regions? If localised parties can secure a good share of the vote in one region, they can secure disproportionate representation in parliament and use it to push local issues / sabotage the union from within / whatever else they want to do. The London Party anyone? (We are the richest region in Europe and it’s time we stopped subsidising the rest of the country!) Or perhaps the Cornish Assembly, or the People’s Front of Tyne and Wear?