Tuesday 27 April 2010

Fact-checking Cameron's first-past-the-post mythology

"I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office", David Cameron told The Observer.

This is the "line to take" for Conservatives, constantly repeated on Question Time, Any Questions and in press conferences.

It is somewhat odd that having first "invited" everybody in the whole country to join his government, the man who wants to be PM now insists that a Hung Parliament would be pure chaos as he hates the idea of his negotiating or sharing power with anybody at all.

At least he wants to make it easy to vote him out again. Or so he says.

But fact-checking his claim suggests that it's nonsense, so I hope that other media outlets will look in the detail at the claim and challenge it when repeated.

(1) The British have changed governments only twice in 35 years

It set me wondering why, having been born in April 1974, I've only seen the British government change twice in my 36 years on earth. Nor is that unusually low. Twenty-seven British general elections since 1900 have seen nine changes of government at the ballot box: we would have an above average rate of voting governments out in the post-1975 period were Labour to lose this time. (The 1945-79 period of the pendulum stands out as exceptional).

(2) There would have been as many British governments kicked out under AV or AV+

Cameron is simply wrong to claim that alternative systems would stop voters from kicking governments out. Nor does the evidence suggest it would be more difficult.

The Jenkins report sets out that both the Alternative Vote and AV+ would have seen a similar rate of government turnover in post-war British elections, or perhaps slightly higher, as they would also have led to a Hung Parliament rather than John Major's re-election in 1992. AV is a majoritarian system; AV+ a more proportional system which would still have given majority governments in most post-war elections. (Peter Kellner looks in detail at likely post-war AV outcomes in his submission to Jenkins).

Voting behaviour would change under different systems. But it is ludicrous to claim that electoral reform would stop voters being able to vote the government out. If anything, the international evidence suggests it could become easier.

(3) Britain is bottom of the international league for kicking governments out.

David Cameron has a particular focus on claiming that FPTP allows voters to remove the head of government at the ballot box, and that other systems can't do this. He seems confused: his main argument is that the system won't work if people vote for the candidate and party they want to.

He is also simply wrong, as the international league table shows.

Kicking the rascals out? heads of government/governing parties defeated at the ballot box post-1975

Ireland (Parl, PR): six (1977, 1981, 1982, 1982, 1987, 1997)
Sweden (Parl; PR): five (1976, 1982, 1991, 1994, 2006)
Canada (Parl; FPTP): five (1979, 1980, 1984, 1993, 2006)
Australia (Parl; AV): three, or four (1983, 1996, 2007)
Spain (Parl; PR): three (1979, 1996, 2004)
USA (Pres; FPTP): three+ [five*] (1976, 1980, 1988 + 2000, 2008)
Italy (Parl: PR/mixed): two+ (five*) (2001, 2006) (1994, 1996, 2008)
Germany (Parl: PR): two (1998, 2005)
Japan (Parl: FPTP; mixed FPTP/PR post-'93): two (1993, 2009)
Britain (Parl; FPTP): two (1979, 1997)
France (Pres; FPTP): one+ (two*) (1981) + (1995)

France has changed its PM in parliamentary elections more often too (eg 1986, 1988, 1996, 2002) though the table shows Presidential results.
[a] Would be four if Whitlam 1975 counted as a government defeat: the PM was dismissed for a caretaker government, with an election 4 weeks later.
+ Incumbent PM/president defeated at polls;
* Incumbent party defeated at polls (under new leadership), eg Al Gore in 2000.

(4) Britain has a long history of incumbency.

Many voters have no chance to vote anybody in or out, as Mark Pack has shown.

Three in ten Commons seats have not changed hands since 1945.

50% of English seats have been held by the same party since 1970

Cameron opposes all efforts to deal with safe seats, including the relatively modest (Alternative Vote) proposal that each MP should at least need to seek 50% of their constituency vote. He (implicitly) argues this lack of democracy at the constituency level is a price worth paying because it makes it easier to change the government overall. There is, however, no evidence to back up his claim.

On the long view, in British political history since 1900, there have been five decades in which no government was voted out by the electorate, and only two decades saw more than one government defeated at the ballot box.

Government defeats at British General Elections by decade.

2000s: None
1990s: One (1997)
1980s: None
1970s: Three (1970, 1974, 1979)
1960s: One (1964)
1950s: One (1951)
1940s: One (am counting defeat of PM's party in 1945, to party which was part of the national governing coalition)
1930s: None
1920s: Three (1923, 1924, 1929)
1910s: None
1900s: None (1906 landslide somewhat similar to a government defeat, but new Liberal government took office in 1905).

In fact, there are two somewhat contradictory arguments for first-past-the-post.

The traditional argument stresses stability and strong government: this is consistent with the tendency not to throw governments out or make that easier.

By contrast, Cameron's new argument seeks to appeal to anti-politics claiming that it is easier to kick governments out, despite the lack of evidence for this.

Can you guess which argument genuinely appeals most to David Cameron, and to his press cheerleaders in the Sun and the Daily Mail?


What Cameron is trying to oppose is the (clearly exaggerated) idea that electoral reform - especially PR - means that governments don't change at the polls, but in parliamentary manouveres between elections.

For example, in Germany there was a change of government in 1982, which the voters then accepted (or could have rejected in the 1983 General Election). And he overlooks the fact that exactly the same thing can happen in British system, and could be quite common in an era of multi-party politics.

Examples include the major changes of British government ahead of the 1906, 1918, 1922 and 1931 general elections, each of which then voted for the new administration to continue.

Post-war Germany is an unusual case, because political elites on both sides retained a very strong post-war concern about democratic instability right up to the 1990s, though democratic power did shift between right and left under Adenauer/Erhard, Brandt, Schmidt, Kohl, Schroeder and Merkel, including straight election defeats (1998), changes of Chancellor (1969; 2005) and shifts in the make-up and direction of government (2009) at general elections. And governments have been thrown out at the polls in PR elections elsewhere, rather more often than in Britain.


Bill Kristol-Balls said...

All well and good but The Sun have a young lady called Becky saying that although she likes Italian food, she wouldn't want the Italian system of government.

Oh and she's topless.

I fear that you may win the argument but not the battle.

_______ said...

If Clegg were to approach Cameron for a coalition government on the condition of a referendum on PR, that implies that Clegg would do coalitions with Conservatives in the future, under PR.

Sunder Katwala said...

Simon's point is very well made. If you have the answer, let me know.


I can't myself see a Tory-LibDem coalition working, because it would need an EU policy, and the 'being open' to electoral reform is very contentless. But I can imagine a 'supply and confidence' arrangement not to bring down a Tory minority government. I doubt they could get a referendum for that, unless they were particularly strong and the Tories pretty weak.

If we had PR, of course, over time there would be centre-right and centre-left coalitions: that seems to me pretty much inevitable, unless we developed a regular pattern of preferring minority governments, on the Scottish model. (There might also be eg red-green and/or even Tory-Ukip options either involving or not involving the yellows)

When, for example, the major party vote was 40-30 one way or the other (eg 1983, 1997) then the centre would most often join the winning party, or let it govern alone. In the early/mid-80s, a Tory-Alliance coalition was surely more likely than a Labour-Alliance one, given both the levels of support and policy programmes of the parties at that time.