Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Hung parliaments are now more likely than ever

Fascinating bit of research here from top psephologist John Curtice who makes the point that hung parliaments are now quite likely to keep happening, even under First Past the Post.

He cites three preconditions for FPTP to be able to regularly deliver overall majorities:

If first past the post is to be a reliable instrument for delivering single party majority government to whoever comes first in votes, three conditions have to hold. First, the system should dissuade most voters from backing third parties on the grounds that doing so constitutes a wasted vote. Moreover, when votes are cast for third parties they should indeed receive little reward in terms of seats.

Second there needs to be plenty of seats that are marginal between the two main parties so that when the nation swings a point or so in one direction of the other, many seats change hands. That way, even a party with a relatively small lead in votes should still be able to establish a clear lead in seats.

Third, the system needs to treat the two largest parties equitably. If one of those parties would secure an overall majority of, say, 30 seats if it had a two point lead over the other in votes, then the same should be true of the other party if it had a similar lead. Otherwise the system could deliver a majority to the wrong winner.

None of these conditions now hold with sufficient force to ensure that hung parliaments could not become a regular feature in Britain even if the first past the post system were to be retained.

He then goes on to explain how those preconditions no longer hold. It's well worth reading the full article for the details underpinning this but he concludes:

...the system can no longer be relied upon to give either Labour or the Conservatives an overall majority if they only have a narrow lead in votes. Meanwhile the Conservatives cannot secure a majority even if they secure quite a substantial lead — such as the seven point lead they obtained on 6 May.

Doubtless those who campaign in the forthcoming referendum against switching from first past the post to the alternative vote will do so on the grounds that the change would make hung parliaments more likely. That is undoubtedly true. The only problem is we are likely to be stuck with them in future anyway.

I think what is fascinating about Professor Curtice's final point is how it may well undermine one of the major planks of opposition to proportional electoral reform, never mind AV. Even defenders of FPTP will often concede some of the major drawbacks but then counter with the crucial "fact" that it produces overall majorities. Earlier this month that was shown not to be the case and the research above shows that that is probably not a freak occurrence but instead a likely regular feature in future elections.

The proponents of change can quite credibly claim that if we are going to have hung parliaments anyway then we might as well have a fairer system.

I await the counter arguments to this with interest.

Hattip to John Rentoul for drawing my attention the the research.


James said...

you only have to look at Canada for evidence of this...

Ian Eiloart said...

That third condition seems irrelevant. Sure, it's a condition for bringing an overall majority *to the winner*. But it's not a condition for producing an overall majority if you don't care which of the first two parties get it.