Saturday, June 13, 2015

Britain and the US: Two-Party Politics and Winner-Take-All Elections

The surprising results of the recent national elections in Britain have generated some interesting commentary from British political observers.  Given that the US and the British tend to move in similar directions, politically, socially, and economically, many of the observations are relevant to issues of importance to the US.

From a US perspective, the observation that the Conservative Party (Tories) won a sufficient number of seats to form a government on its own and the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties lost a significant number of seats suggests that the British electorate is becoming more conservative, and that progressive or liberal ideas are falling into disfavor.  Such a conclusion is particularly troubling to those with liberal leanings given the results of the 2014 mid-term elections.  Geoffrey Wheatcroft has produced an article for the New York Review of Books that warns us that such simple assumptions are dangerous because the situation is much more complicated.

Wheatcroft’s concern is not so much the unexpected dominance of the Conservative Party as the political stability of Great Britain itself.  To express his fears he titled his essay Britain: The Implosion.  He provides some illuminating voting data on the conservative/liberal issue.

“….a 6.5-point lead for the Conservatives, who had 36.9 percent of the popular vote to Labour’s 30.4. Labour had in fact slightly increased its overall vote from five years before, and increased it more than the Tories increased theirs, but that’s small comfort. The only thing that counts is which party wins the most votes in each parliamentary constituency. The Tories won 331 seats, Labour 232.”

“Cameron ought to be chastened by the knowledge that fewer than four votes in ten were cast for his party, and less than a quarter of the whole electorate voted Tory. The overall Tory vote increased by only 0.08 percent since the last election, while Labour’s increased by 1.4 percent. But his party will not be chastened at all.”

What actually occurred should have led to a small increase in Labour representation in an electoral system where representation is proportional to the percentage of votes received.  Neither Britain nor the US has such a system.  The person who receives the most votes in a given district is the representative of that district.  The British seem to refer to this as a “first-past-the-post-system,” while in the US it is more usually referred to as a “winner-take-all” system.  It is this aspect of electoral politics that allows small changes in voting results to produce large changes in representation.  The most significant result from the British election was the sweep of seats by the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland, an area that is definitely left-leaning.  The movement of liberals in Scotland to the SNP and the fear of Scottish independence in other parts of Britain combined to lower vote totals for Labour and other liberal parties.

It is often said that winner-take-all electoral systems can only support two significant parties.  For much of its recent history British elections were determined by competition between the Conservative and Labour parties.  That has begun to change.  In 2010, Cameron’s Conservative Party was forced to form a government in an alliance with the Liberal Democrat Party which won 57 seats.  In 2015 it won only 8 seats.

“We have had periods when third parties held the parliamentary balance, as the Irish party did in favor of the Liberals after 1910, or when there was true three-party politics, as in the 1920s, with Labour coming up to overtake the Liberals. But if, as A.J.P. Taylor said of that time, the British electoral system ‘was ill adapted to cope with three parties,’ how much less adapted is it to cope with electing a Commons where eleven parties are now represented, five of which campaign throughout the whole country, and six more of which are from the ‘Celtic fringe,’ Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?”

Wheatcroft seems to be concerned with the demise of a single liberal alternative to the Conservatives, and with the potential for chaos and perhaps even the dissolution of the United Kingdom, from the rise of nationalist parties like the SNP. 

What is of greatest interest to us in the US is whether or not the devolution of two dominant national parties into multiple issue-focused parties might be a good thing or a bad thing in terms of running a government.

In the US, it is easy to interpret stories of countries where multiparty accommodations are being made to form a functioning government as a sign of ultimate weakness in governance, if not incompetence.  But is that true?  Or might it indicate a more advanced and more productive means of governing a complex society?

David Runciman addresses this issue directly in comments on the recent election that appeared in the London Review of Books.  He summarizes the conventional wisdom in this manner.

“….few people dissent from the line that it is better to have a government that can pass legislation and take decisions when it needs to than to be stuck with one that stumbles on hand-to-mouth from vote to vote. We seem to prefer certainty to confusion.”

He then proposes that a single party majority (the US equivalence would be one party controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency) has historically not proven to be more efficient at governance.

“What evidence is there that majority governments are better at governing? The fundamental long-term problems this country faces – inequality, a struggling education system, growing health costs, changing employment patterns, environmental threats – are ones that a series of majority governments (and I include the coalition, which had a big parliamentary majority) have failed to address. This is not just a left/right issue. Blair didn’t tackle them, despite his massive parliamentary ascendancy, any more than Thatcher did.”

Rather, the evidence supports the notion that political systems that incorporate proportional voting and thus encourage multiparty governance have been more efficient.

“The two countries that have seen the greatest rise in inequality over the past couple of decades are Britain and the United States. Both have a first-past-the-post system designed to offer a clear choice between two main parties. Yet whichever of the two parties wins, the drift towards inequality has been inexorable. This contrasts with continental Europe, where there are barriers in the way of vastly unequal distributions of wealth and power and where there also happen to be proportional representation systems that force multiple parties to negotiate for influence and outcomes.”

Britain and the US face complex problems in a complex world over which they have little control.  They must deal with this environment in an arena in which special interests, feeding off the increased inequality, have ever more resources with which to purchase the allegiance of a given party.  A majority party is not so much better able to make decisive decisions as they are more easily bought.

“Majority governments flatter to deceive. They are not more decisive. They are just more biddable.”

“Decisive, single-party governments are not the way to resist these forces, because their freedom of manoeuvre makes them easier to buy off without anyone else being able to hold them to account. What national democracies need is not more autonomy but more barriers in the way of any single political faction or grouping being able to call the shots. The presence in government of multiple parties representing multiple interests helps to give democracy a measure of defence against the whirlwind of money that swirls around it. It makes it harder to sell out, because it makes it harder to do anything reckless. I realise that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of democracy. But for now it’s the best one there is.”

One might expect that majority governments will feel free to proceed boldly in implementing policy.  Runciman believes that history suggests otherwise.  One is free to be bold only if one is free of worry about being reelected.

“What single-party governments do, instead of making the messy compromises that might offer their populations some real protection, is focus their attention on the areas where their freedom of action can make an immediate difference….It is no coincidence that first-past-the-post states also tend to turn into national security states: their governments have the capacity to take aggressive action against immediate threats that appear amenable to massive concentrations of firepower, regardless of the long-term consequences….Unencumbered executive leaders worry about being lumbered with the blame for any failures of national security, because their autonomy leaves them exposed to carrying the can. Majority governments spend more time avoiding the risks that impinge on them than mitigating the risks that threaten the rest of us.”

How do such considerations apply to the US?  One might argue about the level to which political parties are under the control of plutocratic interests, but clearly money buys influence and power in our country.  The Supreme Court has gone so far as to declare that the purchase of political power is a perfectly acceptable attribute of our political system, and any attempt to enforce equality of political opportunity is unconstitutional.

One suspects that the voting public fears—perhaps subconsciously—the consolidation of too much power in a single party.  It seems to be content with the notion that control of congress and the presidency should not reside in a single party.  One also suspects that the closeness of national voting in presidential elections arises from some political dynamic rather than any similarity in attractiveness of the particular candidates.  If Runciman’s cynicism is accepted, one could conclude that as soon as one party acquires enough power to pursue a specific agenda it demonstrates its ineffectiveness, incompetence, or recklessness and drives the electorate back towards the minority party—a form of political equilibration.

Even the politicians themselves recognize the danger that exists in single-party governance.  The much-maligned filibuster option incorporated in the rules for Senate deliberations were not determined by constitutional mandate, but by a mutual recognition that “we are not to be trusted.”  This single procedure has been very effective in limiting the power of the majority over the minority that Runciman recommends. The party in power complains about the filibuster rule but maintains it because it knows it will soon be out of power.

One might embrace the minority veto power that exists in the Senate as a good thing.  In a spectacularly diverse country like the US it would be highly unlikely that a relative handful of politicians, or a handful of technocrats, would be able to assess complex social problems and come up with an optimal solution for the nation as a whole.  While the national government frets about its inability to take action, we have state and local governments performing what might be referred to as social experiments.  Let these various experiments play out and compete for social approval.  Those that can demonstrate sufficient effectiveness to obtain broad acceptance can then be canonized as national law.  This is the process gay marriage and minimum wage legislation are following. 

Would the US have a more effective means of governance if it possessed a multiparty system?  We will probably never know.  It is extremely difficult to create a new party capable of gaining representation under our current winner-take-all policy.  We have a number of parties that gain a place on ballots but they almost never win a seat in government.  Occasionally, a charismatic individual will make a run for the presidency as a third party or independent candidate and gather a significant number of votes, but this movement dissipates as soon as the leader retreats from the battle.  The best opportunity to create a viable third party arose when the Southern states tried to protect their racial policies from being dismantled. This was a regional issue in which a majority of voters in that region could be expected to vote for the party candidate, similar to the situation in Scotland.  Ultimately, the Southern politicians decided that their best strategy was to move their block of votes from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

One advantage of a multiparty system would be a shorter and simpler election process.  In many countries one votes for the party of choice not the candidate of choice.  In multiparty environments, the views of the candidate are defined by the political platform of the party, otherwise he/she would not be the candidate.  In our nominally two-party system, the Democratic Party would harbor environmentalists, union supporters, gay-rights advocates, feminists, and a few socialists; the Republican Party would provide a home for states-rights advocates, Christian evangelists, libertarians, and advocates of corporate interests.  Each of these subgroups could, in principle, be represented by their own party.  Since they are not, then the public has no way of knowing what the specific beliefs of a Republican or Democratic candidate might be from merely their party label.  This is one reason why our election campaigns are so long; a candidate must try to sell himself/herself to all these specific subgroups and that can take a long time.

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