You are here

Lessons for the UK; The Canadian Election and Voting Systems

On May 2nd Canada held a Federal election, contested primarily by the governing Conservatives, the opposition Liberals and the New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Quebecois. The election was called because the ruling Conservative Party suffered a motion of no-confidence, subsequent to the electoral commission found that the Conservative Party had contravened the Elections Act five years prior. The Conservatives promised to re-introduce warrant-less Internet surveillance legislation along with a bundle of crime-related bills emphasising punishment, in contrast with preventative measures suggested by the opposition. The Conservatives promised to purchase no less than 65 F-35 attack jet fighters, whereas the NDP preferred a more defensive naval orientation. The Conservatives claimed that they were economically responsible, successfully steering the country through the financial crisis. The Liberals countered this, claiming that they had left the country with a $13 billion surplus which was now in deficit. The Conservatives wanted to cut company tax down to 15%; the NDP wanted to increase it by 1.5% and double the pension plan.

During the election the Conservatives expressed fears that there would be a left-wing coalition between the Liberals, the NDP, Le Bloc and the Greens. Prior to the poll, there was an enormous swing to the New Democratic Party, but most of this came from the Liberals and Le Bloc. This was replicated on polling day; the Conservatives, with a mere 39.62% (+1.96%) of the vote, have achieved a majority government with 167 seats (+24). The progressive vote was split between the New Democratic Party (30.63%, +12.44%, 102 seats, +66 seats), the Liberals (18.91%, -7.36%, 34 seats, -43), Bloc Quebecois (6.04%. -3.94%, 4 seats, -43) and the Greens (3.91%, -2.87%, 1 seat, +1).

This is the second election is succession won by the Conservatives with the range of left-leaning opposition parties achieving around 60% of the vote each time. This is absolutely maddening for the majority of Canadians who, once again, have to put up with a government that the majority does not support and will implement policies that they are opposed to. The reason for this alienating outcome is quite simple; Canada, like the United Kingdom, uses a first-past-the-post electoral system, which ultimately means for each seat (or "riding") that victory is given not to the majority, but to the biggest minority regardless of preferences or proportionality, a fact quickly pointed out by Fair Vote Canada.

Of course, many Canadians have some understanding of this. Not surprisingly, the NDP has strongly argued for mixed-member proportional representation. The Conservatives are certainly aware of the popular desire for electoral reform, but will not support any method that creates large ridings (which basically means opposing MMP) whereas the Liberal Party has consistently taken no position. When taken to referendum however, a single-transferable vote proposal received majority support but failed to reach the required 60% support in British Columbia in 2005, and MMP options failed to receive even a majority in Prince Edward Island, also in 2005, and Ontorio in 2007. Notably in the latter case those most of those who were aware of the issue were going to support the case for change, but over half the population were not.

A significant part of the problem does lie with the Liberals, who have consistently failed to display any leadership on the matter. This is poor politics on their part, obviously living in hope of dominating the centre and left-of-centre party, as they have done in much of Canada's history. But circumstances have changed, and the Liberals have not, and as a result of this lack of leadership they are now not even the main opposition party, when they could have found themselves in coalition government with the NDP. A similar situation also applies in the UK; there elements of the opposition Labour Party have also supported FPTP, primarily because they see the opportunity to colonise the entire left-of-Tory vote and partially because they fear that preferential voting will lead to left-wing Labour voters placing the party behind the far-left parties.

Which makes the opposition of various far-left parties to the Alternative Vote referendum utterly bizarre. The Respect Party, the Communist Party of Britain. the Socialist Party of England and Wales, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the major GMB Union. Apparently unable to engage in the most basic democratic political calculation (i.e., counting votes), they are seemingly unable to realise that the Thatcher government would have almost certainly been defeated after one term under prefential voting and possibly never elected in the first place. The supposed 'alternative' offered by such groups is abolishing capitalism is more important than an improved democracy. Worker's Liberty, for example, argues for items that aren't in contradiction with either FPTP or AV, points out the litany of problems with FPTP, and then recommends a 'no' vote because - quelle surprise - it means a distribution of preferences and that major parties will have to engage in discussion with minor parties - un scandale!

Not that any of this is meant to heap great praise on the Conservative side of politics; it is just that they have been more clear-sighted and more disciplined on this issue than the various liberal and left political forces. They have realised that if you have the biggest minority against a fractured majority, then plurality voting will provide power, and in reverse that if you're part of a fractured majority then preferential voting is your best option. It can be readily assumed that if the situation was reversed, both the Canadian and UK Conservatives would be promoting preferential voting with equal vigour. In all probability the UK Labour and Canadian Liberals would remain as they are now; undecided. Congratulations can also be given to the UK Conservatives for letting the Liberal Democrats carry the can on this issue as well; they have already become the scapegoat for the government's more distasteful policies.

Why can such an assumption be made? Because of the utterly disingenous arguments that have been made by opponents of electoral reform. To claim that preferential voting breaks the principle of "One Person, One Vote" or that "[p]eople who vote for the fringe parties... can have their vote counted several times" can only be made by a person who is stupid, or a liar - and there's been plenty of that in this particular campaign. It is a single transferable vote. It might be physically counted multiple times in the distribution of preferences, but with the exclusion of each candidate it still only counts once. Little wonder that a former leader of the UK Liberal Democrats has realised that the party has become a willing patsy.

Ultimately it comes down to the question of what one wants from a voting system. Putting aside equally important issues such as constituency size, recall provisions, and suffrage issues, if one is dedicated to the principle of majority rule plurality voting cannot be supported, as it does not ensure this eventuality and, over time, ensures a two-party system. In this sense both preferential and proportional voting systems are vastly superior. From the two alternatives, preferential voting makes sense for single-member electorates and single-transferable vote representation for proportional multi-member electorates; it is right to combine these as a means to represent both local interests (preferential representation) and general interests (proportional representation). Because in democratic politics, it is bad enough to be in a minority and having put up with a government of the majority. But it is always worse to be in a majority and to be governed by a minority. That is the lesson that Canada can send to the UK.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on July 6, 2011.


Dream that never dies: what now for electoral reform in Britain?

Charles Richardson writes:


The results are all in, and Britain's referendum to introduce optional preferential voting, or "AV", went down to the crushing defeat that was expected: 67.9% voted no to reform. Every region of the country voted against the change -- even Northern Ireland, which already has preferential voting in its own elections.

Much has already been written -- and no doubt much more will be -- on what this means for the Liberal Democrats, for Nick Clegg their leader, and for party politics generally. But just as interesting is the question of what it means for the future of electoral reform in Britain.

The idea that there is something unsatisfactory about first-past-the-post voting is not a new discovery. Reformers have been agitating for change for 150 years; John Stuart Mill advocated a move to proportional representation in the 1860s, based on the ideas of Thomas Hare (later immortalised as half of the Hare-Clark system).

And most democracies have heeded the lesson. Only four major countries continue to use the old system of first-past-the-post and single-member districts, all (loosely speaking) members of the "anglosphere": Britain, the United States, India and Canada.

India, with its vast geographical diversity, usually manages to produce a roughly proportional result (although not always -- 1999 was something of a rogue). The United States runs a creaky 19th-century electoral system, but it manages to avoid the iniquities of first-past-the-post by effectively mandating a two-party system -- on the rare occasions that that breaks down, problems ensue. And Canada just last week gave an awful demonstration of just why its system desperately needs change.

That leaves the UK, where the old system hangs on in all its absurd unfairness -- apparently with the support of a large majority. The Conservatives are triumphantly claiming that this settles the question of voting reform for a generation.

They may be right. The size of the defeat is certainly dispiriting; even Australia's referendum on the republic in 1999, facing a not dissimilar scare campaign, managed a yes vote above 45% and almost carried one state.
Moreover, unlike the case of the republic, there was no serious suggestion that defeat of this proposal might lead to the formulation of a new and better one. It was clear that no meant no.

And the interest of the Conservative Party is the big thing counting against change. The Conservatives are in much the position that our ALP was in the middle part of last century: reliably the largest single party, but with no natural allies among the variety of parties opposed to it. In both cases, first-past-the-post was obviously to their benefit, and the Conservatives last week made little effort to pretend that their position was based on anything other than naked self-interest.

But self-interest can change over time. The ALP, now heavily reliant on Greens preferences, has become the party least likely to support first-past-the-post voting. It's not impossible that some comparable shift may happen in the British party system.

Nor is it a criticism of the electorate to say that most voters have essentially no understanding of or interest in voting systems themselves. They vote the way they do either to support or oppose a particular party, or
to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the way things are going. Change happens when that dissatisfaction becomes strong enough to overcome the forces of inertia.

That's the way New Zealand changed from first-past-the-post in 1993 -- adopting, incidentally, a system immeasurably fairer than what was on offer last Thursday. It may happen in Britain, if the forces of conservatism (not
just the Conservative Party, since much of old-school Labour was opposed to change as well) are sufficiently discredited by bad government or unpopular policies. So far, however, there's no sign of that happening.

The issue is unlikely to go away entirely. Reform of the house of lords, an equally long-running saga that is next on the government's agenda, will again cast doubts on the voting system, since even a semi-reformed House of
Lords is likely to look more democratic than the house of commons. But it will be a long time before anyone will want to try their luck on another referendum.

The advocates of reform have had to get used to waiting. It might not be 150 years this time, but it certainly looks as if another long wait is in store.

From "To Speak of Pebbles" on Pollbludger

Some numbers to muse over (apologies if this is out of place or already covered in detail).

Australia in 2010 if under FPTP (assuming everyone votes the same, not tactically):

Coalition: 81 seats (54%) total vote: 43.62%
Labor: 66 seats (44%) total vote: 37.99%
Green: 0 seats (0%) total vote: 11.76%
Other: 3 (2%) total vote: 6.63% (FYI: that’s Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor)

(2PP: Labor: 50.12% Coalition: 49.88%)

Actual result:

Labor: 72 seats (48%)
Coalition: 72 seats (48%)
Green: 1 seat (0.67%)
Other: 5 seats (3.33%)

And, just for extra interest information, the seat result had it truly reflected the vote proportions:

Coalition: 65 seats
Labor: 57 seats
Green: 18 seats
Other: 10 seats

The “first past the post” system which so helped Thatcher win is now shaping as a disaster for the Tories.

2010 – election result
Tories 37% = 307 seats
Libs 24% = 57 seats
Labor 30% = 258 seats
UKIP 3% = 0 seats (think One Nation)

2015 on current polls
Tories 28% = 221 seats
Libs 9% = 30 seats (paying price for going with Tories)
Labour 36% = 371 seats (majority in own right)
UKIP 18% = 0 seats

They probably should have backed proportional representation.