Promoting public understanding
of electoral democracy
Our key observations plus some questions arising from the UK EU Referendum and US Presidential election
1 The year 2016 is widely seen as one of momentous challenge, whether for liberal democracy itself, for Europe as an entity or for the leadership of the West. Variously, a sudden upsurge in populism, the overturning of a too-complacent elite, and a threatening return of xenophobia, have been identified. It will be for future historians to assess those and other judgements, and to place the undoubtedly dramatic electoral upsets of this year in a broader context. McDougall Trust’s central concern with electoral democracy means that while it cannot ignore such wider debates, it should, if it is to offer a useful contribution, identify what is most relevant to its particular focus.
2 Two unexpected outcomes, the referendum on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the rest of the European Union and the presidential election in the United States of America, have understandably received most attention. We will consider some questions arising from these two events later in this review, but first it is appropriate to look at the range of electoral results.
3 The most widespread feature of recent elections in established democracies has been the frequency with which long-existing moulds of party dominance have been broken. The 2011 Irish election (the subject of two McDougall workshops in 2011) saw the biggest swing against a governing party in the Republic’s history, as that party, Fianna Fail, dropped to third place from what had seemed a permanent position as the country’s largest; the February 2016 Irish election saw some recovery in Fianna Fail’s support but confirmed a political landscape radically different to the pre 2011 one. The British Labour Party’s dramatic loss of its lengthy dominance of Scottish representation at Westminster in 2015, followed by its dropping to third place in the 2016 Holyrood elections, is a similar example of the shattering of established voting patterns. The April 2016 Issue of McDougall Trust’s journal, Representation (Volume 52 no 1), examined a little-reported example of such an upset from India: the victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man’s party) in the 2015 Delhi Assembly election, where it took 67 out of the 70 seats, trouncing both India’s historic dominant party (Congress) and its current ruling one (the BJP). The example of the 2015 Canadian election, in which the Liberals shot up from a lowly third place, with just one-tenth of the seats, to an overall majority in Parliament, has received more attention – but the sharp contrast between the political character of this numerically larger Canadian upset and the smaller 2016 upsets in the UK and the USA has perhaps been overlooked.
4 None of these upsets fits easily into a simple view that the victorious 2016 campaigns in Britain and America are typical of what is happening generally. Parties such as Fine Gael, the Scottish Nationalists, Aam Aadni and the Canadian Liberals hardly belong in the same category as those two victors. Some other European elections do fit better. The Italian constitutional referendum in December 2016 had clear echoes of the anti-establishment flavour of the UK’s June 2016 one. Few can doubt that votes cast in the two presidential elections in Austria, with their high level of popular support for the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) candidate, did reflect rising xenophobia, anti-immigrant feeling and euroscepticism. Yet the fact that the candidates of the two parties which until recently dominated Austrian politics came fourth and fifth suggests that Austria also fits a pattern of disillusion with established parties. The repeated failure of elections in Spain to produce a working majority, with two insurgent parties Podemos and Cuidanos frustrating the pattern of alternance between two established dominant parties, also fits.
5 The innovative citizen primaries in France in November 2016 (the right-wing parties) and January 2017 (Socialists) also both produced dramatic upsets. Francois Fillon won the first easily despite having been fourth in the polls in the summer, while a more populist rival lost badly; Benoit Hamon unexpectedly snatched the Socialist nomination from two better-known rivals. Both Fillon and Hamon fought serious, policy-heavy primary campaigns, which included lengthy national television debates with big audiences. Following these, having listened to the arguments put, voters upset predictions. However, although both Fillon and Hamon had the backing of long-established party organisations, neither prospered in the presidential election itself. Instead both the ultimate victor, Emmanuel Macron, and the candidate who emerged as strongest on the Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, fought as candidates of brand new political movements, very reliant on modern campaign technology.
6 The common thread of this wide range of recent election outcomes is that people in established democracies, with what used to be well-established party systems, campaign habits and communication channels, are behaving much less predictably. Political parties and the traditional media are losing the control they have long exercised over the political agenda. There is not much sign of a crisis in the idea of liberal democracy, but there are strong signs of a crisis of confidence in the political class (in its widest sense) which has been making it function.
7 McDougall Trust can hope to make a small contribution to understanding this crisis, to assisting participants (of all types) in the political process to reflect on their performance and contributions, and to enabling liberal democracy to prosper in these changing times. It offers a space, neutral in terms of rival democratic political forces, and some very limited resources of its own to that end.
Some questions arising from the UK EU Referendum and US Presidential election
8 McDougall Trustees are well aware of many important questions, which are outside the remit of McDougall Trust’s concern for electoral democracy; arguably the major implications of these two events have crowded out some questions which should still be asked:
8.1 The electorate: in both countries arrangements for electoral registration were at issue. More modern, more inclusive methods would have produced larger registered electorates and might possibly have produced a different result.
8.2 The qualifications: The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was held on a significantly wider franchise than the 2016 EU referendum; how can this be justified in a democracy? The question of who should have the right to vote was considered at a McDougall workshop in October 2015.
8.3 The electoral system, whereby the victor in the popular vote in the US presidential election was not elected president by the Electoral College, is essentially the same as used for elections to the House of Commons (or which would still have been used if the 2011 referendum in the UK had modified that system) – victory does not so much go to the person or party preferred by the voters, but to the one whose support is in the right location. How far is this acceptable?
The “hung parliament” outcome in the UK 2017 general election raised another issue: amongst smaller parties, the electoral system favours those with concentrated local support. Hence the Democratic Unionist Party won ten seats for 0.9% of the total vote, while the 10.6% of voters who supported Britain-wide small parties, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP, were represented by only thirteen seats. Is it democratic that when a larger party has to look for allies, the electoral system should hand power to parties with concentrated local support rather than to larger nation-wide parties?
8.4 The use of primaries, which played a particular critical part in the outcome of the US election, is spreading in Europe – particularly for some candidates in French presidential elections. Are there lessons in how they are conducted and regulated? How far do they encourage participation and improve the functioning of democracy? Or how far do they offer avenues for buying votes?
8.5 The campaigns: many commentators have raised profound questions around propaganda which undermines truth and invents facts - in both campaigns. Questions about whether and how the information on which voters rely can be checked or regulated raise further questions of freedom of speech as well as of how to protect democracy from manipulation.
8.6 The constitutional status of the UK EU referendum vote, officially advisory to Parliament but taken by many British political leaders to have been decisive, raises fundamental questions.
8.7 The character of the United Kingdom: the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016 was different in each part of the UK, with a striking contrast between the large Scottish majority (62%) for Remain and the narrow English majority (53%) for Leave. How should a common UK outcome be defined in this situation? How far does it matter if, in effect, this English majority is imposed on Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar? What other models for future relations between the different parts of the United Kingdom should be considered?
9 McDougall Trustees believe that the examination of these, as well as other, questions arising from 2016, the year of electoral drama, can benefit from McDougall's status as an independent body, operating as a charitable trust, and its focus on the forms, functions and future of electoral democracy.
Extracted from McDougall Trust's Annual Report and Accounts 30 September 2016 (July 2017)