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News Analysis: this week's elections

Big elections in Canada and the UK this past week; context and analysis. But first, the Canadian election in stick figures! Some annotation required. (Potatoes?)

In Canada, Harper's Conservative party (actually conservative) had a minority government, as the biggest party in Parliament in a country that doesn't believe in coalition majorities, governing as long as he didn't piss off the other parties enough for them to risk pissing off the voters by defeating his bills and having another election, which happened Monday. The Liberals (a centrist and traditional governing party of no set principles) decided to risk it. Initial expectations were that nothing would really change. This turned out to be completely incorrect.

Other parties of note are the New Democratic Party (NDP) (social democrats) who traditionally have their votes diluted by a primitive electoral system, the Bloc Quebecois (left-leaning separatists) who usually punch above their weight (e.g. 7% vote, 14% of seats) and the Greens (environmentalist pot-legalizing neo-liberals maybe, not sure) who don't get seats at all even though they might get 6% of the vote (see again, primitive single-member districts legislature). Parties going into the election were Cons > Libs > BQ > NDP.

Coming out of the election, we have Cons > Libs >> NDP > Green. The BQ was nearly wiped out, going from 10% of votes to 6, and 50 seats to 4. The Greens also lost votes but by concentrating their efforts got their leader into her seat. The Liberals went from 26% vote to 18%, and are down at 34 seats out of 308. Most of all those missing votes went to the NDP, which surged from 18 to 30%, and over 100 seats; the fourth-place leftist fringe is now the official Opposition, and the traditional governing-or-opposition Liberals are a rump.

All of which would be great news for social democrats, but for what happened with the Cons. They only got a couple percent more votes, still under 40%, but vote splitting between NDP and Liberals gave the Cons a whopping 54% of the seats, which combined with strong party discipline means Harper can basically run or ruin the country as he sees fit for the next 4 or 5 years.

So a party with actual principles gets the chance to be the Opposition, though it's a fragile mandate that could easily be lost again to voter shifts, Quebec seems to have opted for a federalist party, and Canada will be increasingly run out of the US Republican playbook. I half anticipate Canadian liberals swearing they'll move to the US after the next election.

The UK also had an election this week, a couple days ago. Context here is three main parties, the Conservatives who had the largest plurality after last year's election, Labour who'd been in charge for too long and have come a long way rightwards from "almost socialist" to arguably centre-right, and the Liberal Democrats for the idealistic fringe. They're a merger of the Liberals, who used to be the non-Conservative party a looong time ago, and were liberal aka moderate libertarian back when libertarianism was progressive, and some social democrats. Apparently this merger currently takes the form of liberal "markets in everything" leadership and a social democratic base, which combination doesn't sound problematic at all.

Note the context-dependent definition of liberal: as an American I casually used it above to refer to Canadian leftists, or even normal Canadians, but outside North America, liberal is closer to its older meaning: individual freedom (but really! without the social conservatism), free trade, fairly free markets.

Unlike in Canada, the UK Conservatives entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, having some shared liking of markets (at least with the leadership) and ostensible opposition to Labour's trampling of civil liberties in the construction of a panopticon state. A lot of the LD base wasn't very happy about this coalition, especially when it led to voting for an increase in tuition fees, and the possible privatization of the NHS, but a big promise was electoral reform, which the LDs need to compete fairly. Specifically what they want and need is some form of proportional representation (PR).

So the leader Clegg arguably sold the party soul, or least party base soul, for:

  • true PR, which the Lib Dems need, and which Parliament could do by majority fiat
  • a referendum on PR, to at least make a case for change to the people
  • IRV/AV, which might help slightly though probably not
  • a referendum on IRV

That's right, a referendum on Instant Runoff Voting (or Alternative Vote, as they call it), which wouldn't even change the fundamental district-based flaw of the system, and which by theory and Australian experience actually encourages two-party systems just like plurality. Unsurprisingly, between fear of change, packs of lies from the anti-AV crowd, and lack of enthusiasm from the LD base, this referendum on something no one actually wanted went down in flames. As did the Liberal Democrats, as the election included not just the referendum but various local elections, especially those for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The Lib Dems in London are still 'safe', but the regional ones got sent home. Social democratic base is not happy with liberal leaders cuddly with Conservatives. (Why do they have liberal leaders? I have no idea. US primaries are perhaps underrated.)

And the big unexpected result of all that was in Scotland. The left-leaning separatist BQ got wiped out, but the left-leaning separatist Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) got handed an outright majority, despite being one of four parties in a PR system. The voters really didn't like the alternatives, I guess. Having gone from minority government to majority, the SNP will likely have an independence referendum in the future, though I expect the main result if any will be getting even more powers devolved down from London rather than true independence. (If Scotland *did* get indendence, it would probably become an EU member about five seconds later.)

What makes the referendum seem even stupider to me is what I learned yesterday. See my mention of Scottish PR up there? Yeah, let's make a list:

  • Scottish Parliament, elected by Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), a PR type of Additional Member System (AMS)
  • Welsh Assembly, MMP
  • London Assembly, MMP
  • Northern Ireland Assembly, elected by Single Transferable Vote (STV) another form of PR, also used in Ireland and the Australian Senate.
  • European Parliament elections, party list PR.

Everyone in the UK except English not in London (granted, English not in London are more than half the country) already uses PR for some important local election; everyone uses it in possibly unimportant European elections. Scotland, Wales, and London are all using a form well suited to introducing PR to people used to having single-member districts. Yet the LD leadership settled for a referendum on IRV, burning a lot of political capital advocating for a system that was both novel (hence scary) and inadequate for their own needs. Why? Well, Cameron, the Conservative leader, wouldn't easily agree to more -- but then, no one was forcing Clegg to go form a government with him.

(ETA: It's been pointed out to me that the SNP got about 45% of the vote, and 53% of the seats; with 129 total MPs, 73/129 of which are elected by plurality in districts, I guess MMP is only approximately proportional. The other parties tended to get slightly fewer seats than they should have by votes -- still generally better than none -- and the surplus gives the SNP a majority they don't quite deserve. The Greens didn't even run in districts, got 4.3% of the party vote, got 3.6% of the party seats, and 1.6% of all the seats. There's built-in mathematical bias against very small parties, coming from both the D'Hondt method of allocating party vote seats, and the fact that those seats are allocated in each of 8 regions, rather than across the whole of Scotland. So you have to be able to earn 1 of 7 seats in a region, rather than 1 of 56 in Scotland. Wales has similar problems. It's still much fairer than the traditional plurality system.)

Adding insult to injury, the Conservatives, who campaigned strongly against the referendum calling it too complicated, themselves use exhaustive balloting (multiple rounds, eliminating the weakest candidate each time) to pick their leaders, which IRV is basically a simulation of.

Side note: the Scottish Nationalist Party is a left-leaning immigrant-friendly party who now have majority support in Scotland. The British Nationalist Party is a racist anti-immigrant party with low support even in England. Don't get them confused!



Damien Sullivan

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