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[personal profile] malsperanza
I hardly post here anymore, do I? Well, I have some questions for the UKers on my flist. I've been watching the election from here (NYC) with more than usual interest, not least because I think we in the US can expect some of the same mixed messages in our fall congressional elections.

I watched the BBC reporting all night on election night, which was not exactly painful because it just meant staying up til about 1:00 am, which I often do anyway. And today's reporting has made the whole business considerably more exciting again. Kudos to Brown for having the sense to GTFO. And fingers crossed that Clegg and the LD will be able to forge a real coalition with Labour.

But I realized that I know less about the current UK parliamentary system than I thought I did, and that it's not as close to the EU parliamentary systems as I had thought. I'm more familiar with how things work in Italy, France, and Germany--especially Italy.

So, question the first: UK constituencies vary greatly in size. How are lines drawn, and how often? Are there constituencies that stay the same because of historical precedent or tradition, or is there a system in place for reviewing the whole shebang? If this bit of the system were reformed, and a full system of proportional representation were to fail (eg, if the Tories gain and keep power), would that be sufficient to alter the current ingrained voting patterns of safe districts?

In the US we redraw the lines for congressional districts every 10 years, based on the decennial census. Naturally, there's a lot of conniving and gerrymandering in the process, but it does mean that some degree of proportionality is achieved--and corrected a bit if the party in power when the census is done is different from the party that was in power the previous time. Which happens quite often. That said, we too have a large proportion of safe districts. In my view, in the US that's not a bad thing. With such a large lower House, we need longterm returning Congress members who have experience, as it is very easy for districts to elect newbies and dingbats. Congress is full of both.

Question the second: I don't think I had realized that in the UK coalitions of smaller and larger parties have been rare. It's so common in continental Europe for minor center-left and left parties to join the biggest one, and ditto for the right, that I sort of assumed the same was true in the UK. But I gather not? Is the idea of a coalition of 2 center-left parties a radical departure? It's fascinating to see the LD, having actually reduced its margin and its number of MPs, find itself in the role of kingmaker.

In the US, the coalition-forming process occurs during the campaign. That's the purpose (unstated and unacknowledged) of our excruciating system of year-long campaigns with endless state-by-state primaries and a lengthy endorsement process. Each party develops a loose coalition of interests that are not party-affiliated but have a tendency to lean left or lean right. Many of those interests are smack in the center and up for grabs. For example, blue-collar whites voted in large numbers for Reagan in 1980, despite the fact that trade unions always endorse Democrats. This system is in place because our structure of White House being separate from the houses of Congress means that there's no chance whatever of a third party ever having a shot at anything but being a spoiler. Which takes me to

Question the third: Did the LD draw more votes away from Labour, from the Tories, or was the split about even?

Question the fourth: The debate about proportional representation has now merged with the debate about whether a coalition government can be stable vs. whether a minority government can be stable. Both perspectives seem to be accusing the other of creating a new electoral structure that depends on back-room horsetrading and deals made out of the public eye. Why is this thought to be new or different from how governments are always formed when the margin of victory is narrow? What am I missing?

Thanks to anyone who cares to respond!

ETA: Here's how tomorrow's Wall Street Journal headlines the news that Brown is stepping down:

Britain Now Sleepwalking to Disaster as Brown Plots Coalition of the Absurd

Not that the WSJ has a horse in this race, or is owned by Murdoch, or anything. I take this as a hopeful sign: If the WSJ is foaming mad, then perhaps a Lib-Lab coalition could actually pluck a government from the flibbering claws of the Tories.

God, I love politics. Some days, I can't wait til the fall election season. Then I look at the INSANE people running our conservative party these days, and I start hoping summer will never end.

Date: 2010-05-11 10:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hm. Well, I'm far from an expert but I'll try...

1) Constituency boudaries do change, but it's not something that happens to every constituency at a fixed point in time. It's possible that they're looked at every so many years, but left as they are, but we do get the odd change here and there from time to time.

2) Coalition governments here are rare. The last time it happened - which I think was in 1974 (I was 13) it didn't last more than a few months and another election was called. I know it works in many European countries, but we seem to be entrenched in this adversarial system. The thing is, that while the consensus seems to be that the British electorate (or the 60-odd percent of it that bothered to vote) has voted for change, and that a Hung Parliament was predicted, the same electorate doesn't really seem to have had much of an idea as to what would happen when it, well, happened!

Interestingly, one of the LD's main aims has been to reform the voting system over here and have us adopt some form of Proportional Representation. And of course, if we are to do that at some point, we're going to end up in this situation - with no outright winner - more often. The percentage of the vote went, IIRC 34% Tory, 29% Lab and 23% LD. Labour have about 260 seats and the LDs under 60 - but with only 6% less of the vote than Labour took. And that's both crazy and wrong. But with PR, their representation in parliament will definitely increase, but we're still going to be in the same boat.

3) According to the BBC News website ( the Lib Dems actually LOST 5 seats overall, and you can see the other gains and losses by the other parties there.

4)Ah, I've said some of that in point 2) I think the difference is that the back-room horse-trading is being done in order to give one party the overall majority (326) of MPs which is needed for that party to be able to pass their legislation. Yes, of course there are always more deals to be done, and on a free vote, MPs of any party are free to vote however they want. But at other times of course, they're brought into line by the whips who ensure that they'll vote the way the party wants/needs them to, which I know also happens in the US. But what's happening now is a way of trying to ensure that whichever party ends up being the majority in the coalition is still able to pass whatever they need to without being blocked at every turn and ending up with a stalemate that is no good for anybody. Basically, they need the 326 as a starting point.

A Lib-Lab coalition won't cut it, as they still won't have enough votes to get anything through on their own. Labour is going to have to rely on what the news is calling a "rainbow coalition" which will also involve the smaller parties, like the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists, all of which have their own agendas. And of course the more parties are involved, the more cracks there are likely to be. The argument that is currently running is this; in Scotland, most of the seats were won by the SNP and Labour, so it’s not fair on them to have a Conservative led government when hardly anyone in Scotland voted for them. But most of England voted for the main three parties, and it’s not fair on them to have important matters that affect them as much as anyone else be decided by the SNP. And of course that brings the whole West Lothian Question ( into play, but that’s another discussion!

I'm not a fan of the Tories (I voted LD) - but they still got the largest number of votes. If we go by a "majority rules" rule most of the time, then it's only fair and democratic that we do the same here, regardless of how much I'm not keen on the idea. They didn't get an outright majority, so they need the Lib Dems, and if they can hash something out, we'll have a right-of-centre-with-left-leanings government. Which might not be too bad a thing!
Edited Date: 2010-05-11 10:37 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-05-11 04:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you! It's always much more illuminating to hear these things described by a voter than by the pundits. I'm fascinated by the fact that the Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties lean left (presumably because of their hatred of the Tory tradition of empire) and the NI nationalists lean right (presumably because of their hatred of the IRA and love of the the Tory tradition of empire).

It is beginning to look like a caretaker govt will be formed to get the country through the summer, til a new election can be called.

Date: 2010-05-11 05:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The way things are looking right now, we'll have a Con/LD government by the end of the day. The Tories didn't actually need the LDs - they could have managed with bringing one of the smaller parties on board, but they've done the right thing by recognising that they needed to listen to the public who did, after all give 23% of their votes to the LDs.

I heard on the news just now that they're talking in terms of a 3-4 year deal. If they can do that and make it work it would be quite something.

Date: 2010-05-11 10:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Historically, the UK has been in effect a two-party system - Labour vs Conservative, for about the last 120 years - before that it was Whigs vs Tories, roughly equal to Lib vs Con. The only exception to this was the Second World War, when Churchill headed a coalition.

This works well when one party is able to get an overall majority - this has become more difficult, however, with the rise of a number of smaller parties. Though the LibDems are the largest of these, there are also Welsh, Scottish and Irish nationalist parties - and more than one Irish one, a complication I won't go into here. Then there is the occasional Independent candidate and, this time around, the first Green MP.

So that's one pressure - but the more important one is that there is far less ideological difference between the two big parties than there once was. After Blair's modernisation of the Labour Party led to the 1996 Election victory it was clear that the party was moving away from its old corporatist, trade-union driven structure and reinventing itself as left of centre. The Conservatives have been through a similar process, dropping the extremes of Thatcherism for a more caring image, though this remains to be tested in power.

Therefore, Con, Lab and LibDem are all fighting over much the same turf, just as small, issue-driven parties are becoming more powerful. Hence the mess we now have.

The last time there was a serious attempt at a two-party deal was back in the 70s, when Labour made a pact with the Liberals. It wasn't a great success. The two parties quarreled for a few months, then there was another election and Labour got a majority of 4, which was further eroded as older MPs died and there were by-elections. By the end of that Govt every vote was a drama, with people being wheeled in on their deathbeds by the Whips.

As you've noted, in this respect we do differ from other European countries, and it doesn't help that we tend to muddle through on custom and precedent rather than have a constitution. This whole sorry mess, in the opinion of many, myself included, shows that the rules have changed and it's time for a rethink. The effect of the TV debates was underestimated. Far from turning it into a Presidential-style race focussing on the party leaders, it seems to have galvanized people into taking an intelligent interest. Turnout was high - so much so that the Electoral Commission screwed up and in some constituencies the polls closed while hundreds of people were still queuing to vote. So, that was one shibboleth down the drain. Hopefully the one that we don't do coalitions in the UK will be next to go.

Though I'm a Labour supporter, I don't want to see a deal where the party clings to power by courting Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish nationalist votes. It's already been pointed out that this would focus the brunt of the inevitable cuts in public spending on the English. Northern Ireland in particular has a huge public sector, since their economy tanked during the Troubles, and they would fight hard to escape the cuts.

Cynical though it sounds, I'd much rather see Cameron get into No 10, do everything that has to be done and make the Tories so unpopular that they don't get re-elected for 20 years. Labour would never have had such a run of election victories if it hadn't been for people's memories of Thatcher. I think that if Labour muddle through and cling to power we are in for a rocky ride as one public sector union after another calls out its members on strike as they attempt to delay the inevitable cuts in wages, employment and pensions.

Sorry I didn't get onto electoral boundaries, I have to go to work now.

Date: 2010-05-11 07:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you!


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