Wednesday 3 February 2010

Electoral reform is a class issue

So, at long last, after much to-ing and fro-ing and walking to the edge and walking back again, Gordon Brown has committed the government to legislating for a referendum on electoral reform.

The proposed reform is, of course, the Alternative Vote (AV) and not, as many of us have argued for, a system of Proportional Representation (PR). Still, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Labour party's 'AV centre' in this debate. When they are not being hassled by PR enthusiasts like me to their left, they are up against a stone wall of conservatism, resistant to any change, within the Labour party itself.

Thus, in today's Guardian report, we hear Tom Harris MP telling us that electoral reform is 'an issue for half a dozen Guardian readers in [my] constituency.' In other words: this is a middle-class issue of little interest or relevance to working-class people.

All those in the Labour party who oppose electoral reform, and especially PR, should take time out from reading The Guardian to take just one look at that sparky publication, The American Political Science Review. They should look at an important paper by the political scientists David Soskice and Torben Iversen. Its called ‘Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others’, published in the American Political Science Review 100 (2), 2006, pp.165-181.

The gist of the article is that PR systems give you higher social spending and lower economic inequality than Westminster-style majoritarian systems (controlling for other variables). It thereby demolishes – or at least seriously challenges – the assumption that I suspect underlies a lot of opposition to PR in Labour ranks: the assumption that prospects for progressive policies are maximised in the long-run by having an electoral system in which Labour has a fighting chance of forming a parliamentary majority. That’s a piece of Labourist romanticism which – so Soskice and Iversen imply – has no basis in fact.

As I argued in an earlier post, the case for PR is not only that it is fairer in the way it apportions seats in relation to votes. I agree with Peter Kellner and others that this is not necessarily a decisive consideration. It is also that it has better long-term consequences for policy outcomes than majoritarian electoral systems. That, at least, is the finding of the Soskice-Iversen study.

For those of us who support PR, Brown's proposed referendum on AV puts us in an awkward position. I don't know whether to laugh, cry or cheer. On balance, I am currently inclined to agree with Lisa Harker's analysis at Liberal Conspiracy and support the proposed referendum as offering an improvement on the present system. I also understand Sunder's argument that it could help to pave the way for a more proportional system. However, like some commentators in the thread at Liberal Conspiracy, I also think it entirely possible we will get stuck with AV and that yet another chance to change the political system fundamentally in a progressive direction will be squandered.

If it is squandered, then Labour's opponents of reform will bear a large share of the responsibility. So, to those in the Labour party who want to present electoral reform as an issue of relevance only to bourgeois liberal Guardian-readers (like me), I say: how dare you oppose a system that – on the evidence of Soskice and Iversen’s study – is better for social spending and economic equality, for the material interests of working-class people?



For those readers who are unable to access the APSR article directly, I include here a further description of its contents from my earlier post, 'Why we should endorse PR':

'The main result of Iversen and Soskice's analysis is striking. They find that, controlling for other relevant factors, PR electoral systems generate more redistribution and inequality reduction than majoritarian systems. (Australia, with its AV system, is included in the analysis as a majoritarian system.) The effect is substantial and statistically significant. (The chance that the statistical association they find is pure fluke is less than 5%.)

Why is this? Well, a large part of the answer is that PR systems simply generate more years of centre-left government on average than majoritarian systems. To be sure, left-wing parties rarely govern alone in PR systems; they hold office in coalitions with other parties. But periods of government by coalitions with gravity to the centre-left are far more common in PR systems than are periods of single party rule by the left in majoritarian systems.

Iversen and Soskice explain this finding in terms of a theoretical model which looks at how different electoral systems affect the possibilities of cross-class/cross-party governing coalitions. The basic intuition is that under PR systems, middle-class centre parties are drawn to coalitions with left working-class parties, making for centre-left political domination. By contrast, under majoritarian systems, the same middle class group tends to prefer straight right-wing parties to straight left-wing parties - this tending to be the restricted choice on offer. This produces a politics in which the centre-right is dominant.'


Unknown said...

Interesting, but is there not an argument that this is causal inversion? That states whose political culture is more firmly wedded to ideas of social solidarity are also wedded to political pluralism and that the latter does not directly cause the former?

I suppose my point is, how do we know that the UK would end up like Sweden, rather than Poland?

The Provisional BBC said...

I'd be interested to read this paper, although I'll take a lot of convincing. Is it available to read for free anywhere on the web (your link comes up with "apologies: we couldn't find the page you're looking for") or will I have to find it in my local university library?

Stuart White said...

Provisional BBC: very, very annoyingly, I am not sure if there is a version of the paper that is outside of a paywall.

I have changed/fixed the link to the American Political Science Review homepage. However, it may well block your accessing the paper if you don't have a subscription - I am a lucky academic who can access it because my university subscribes to the APSR.

There is also a version which David Soskice wrote for Prospect magazine in May 2007. It is at

Again, though, the full article is apparently behind a paywall.

Failing these two outlets, my earlier post, 'Why we should endorse PR' - which I link to above - contains a much fuller account of the paper's contents and argument.

This might also address Nick's point about direction of causality. Soskice-Iversen not only have the data I refer to in the post above, but also an explanation of the data in terms of the way electoral institutions affect incentives for cross-class and cross-party coalitions. This isn't absolutely conclusive, of course, but it means that their article is doing more than just pointing to a correlation - they do give us some reason for thinking the direction of causality runs in a certain direction.

Cantab83 said...

Quite frankly I'm getting a bit sick and tired of hearing people like Tom Harris MP telling the rest of us that electoral reform is "an issue for half a dozen Guardian readers in [my] constituency." You could presumably make the same claim about Quantitative Easing, but that is not a valid reason not to do it. If electoral reform produces a better politics, then people will eventually support it.

It is also not surprising that many current MPs are opposed to electoral reform, given that they are the ones with most to lose from it, particularly those in safe seats. However, this policy of holding a referendum on AV appears to be designed to fail, as I pointed out in my blog four months ago when Gordon Brown first suggested it. I am worried that by asking people to vote in favour of an imperfect system, the reform proposals will be an easy target for their opponents, and therefore the forces of political conservatism will ultimately win the day. Personally, I believe electoral reform will only happen when we have a party leader and PM who is ideologically committed to it, and that is what we should be striving for - a political leader with a clear vision who is prepared to lead.

On another point, while I strongly support electoral reform, it continues to alarm me that a few others do not appear to consider the proportionality (and thus the fairness) of the electoral system to be of over-riding or critical importance. Surely a country is only truly democratic if all the laws that it passes either have the support of the majority of the electorate, or are passed by a quorum of elected representatives that can justifiably claim to represent that majority? These are clearly two tests that FPTP has failed to satisfy for over half a century, but it is unlikely that AV will be any better in this respect either.

As I pointed out in my blog in October, AV (or AV+) only has any real merit when it is combined with another voting system in a bicameral system. As I stated: cannot judge the merits of a proposed electoral change for the House of Commons without considering how such a change interacts with the electoral process for the upper chamber (assuming we ever get one). The two bodies should be designed to work in unison, with each complementing the other and each compensating for the deficiencies of the other, not merely reproducing the political balance or composition of each other. A bicameral system only serves any real purpose if it introduces a separation of power or powers, and creates constitutional checks and balances. If each of the two arms of the legislature is a carbon copy of the other then all you are doing is adding extra cost for no additional benefit.

So, in my opinion, we can't discuss AV in the Commons without first deciding what we intend to do about Lords reform. And then we need to ponder the interaction of these two chambers, and that means altering or repealing the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949.

Born Today said...

You do realise that to the causal non-politician this Gorden Brown's support of AV (or any system) doesn't matter.

It just looks like he's changing the rules - because he's loosing the game.

Stuart White said...

Cantab83: I think you are right about the interdependency of electoral reform for the Commons and reform of the Lords. I think some of the people pushing for AV for the Commons see it as part of package that would also see a wholly elected Lords - or Senate - using STV or some other form of PR. That's Sunder's view, I think, and also the view of my colleague Iain McLean in his book 'What's wrong with the British constitution?' Whether this is a good or the best package overall, I am not sure....I'm quite attracted to unicameralism with PR.