Promoting public understanding
of electoral democracy
30 July 2017:
THE ELECTORAL CLIMATE IN 2016-17
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)
From The Electoral Climate in 2015-16 McDougall Trust's Annual Review, July 2016
McDougall Trust operates in an environment in which short-term, sometimes frenzied, political developments sometimes disguise, but can also reflect, significant long-term changes. The Trust attempts to identify those which matter most to its central concern with public understanding of the way elections work and contribute to democracy.
UK General Election, 7 May 2015
The most significant event during McDougall's 2014-15 financial year was the unexpected outcome of the May 2015 UK general election. The unexpectedness owed much to the apparent failure of the opinion poll predictions, which had pointed (with remarkable consistency across different polling methods and over the period of the campaign) to a House of Commons in which no one party would have a majority. The discrepancy required explanation, the subject of the Trust’s research workshop in April 2016.
Sampling issues, which turned out to be the main reason for the discrepancy, also highlight how rapid changes in technology and society are rendering obsolete methods devised when social structures and ways of communicating were different. The problems faced by opinion pollsters have their parallels for political parties, campaigning groups or individuals pursuing a political career.
On the face of it, the outcome of the May 2015 election looked in the other direction, restoring a familiar feature of the party landscape – the production of a one-party majority in the Commons from the interaction of party competition and the voting system. The political atmosphere of the previous five years, with its discussion of coalition and of multi-party politics, appeared to dissipate suddenly in this return to “normal”.
Of the main domestic constitutional changes on the 2010-15 political reform agenda, only one had stuck: fixed-term parliaments. Yet the detail of the way people voted in May 2015 showed that much more had changed; there was not a real return to normality.
The Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 had produced a clear, though not substantial, majority for maintenance of the United Kingdom with only limited change, taking the form of further devolution of powers to Scotland. Yet eight months later, the Scottish people’s vote, with the independence-seeking party winning all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats, sent shock waves through the UK’s party system as well as raising unexpected further questions about how its electoral system worked.
Another consequence has been renewed interest in devolution within England, especially to the major cities of the North. The November 2015 special issue of the Trust’s journal Representation examined the devolution project in Greater Manchester. The Trust suspects that a deeper and more comprehensive debate about territorial government throughout the UK is likely, and perhaps necessary, before long.
That what is now the third largest party in the House of Commons - the Scottish National Party - is only the fifth party in the popular UK vote is not the only part of the May 2015 election result to raise a question; no party has ever in the past won a vote anywhere near UKIP’s 12.6% only to be rewarded by a single MP (the rise of UKIP was the subject of the Trust's March 2015 workshop).
Furthermore, the working of the system as between the two largest parties suddenly changed. From 1974 (when in February the Conservatives were ahead in votes but Labour won more seats), analysts and parties had accepted that there was a technical bias in the way the electoral system worked, sometimes ascribed to constituency boundaries.
The Trust has in the past examined this issue, and the process of constituency boundary drawing. In May 2015, without any change in boundaries or the rules, the bias switched radically to favour the Conservatives rather than Labour – a switch whose impact has yet to be widely acknowledged.
Party leadership election - Labour Party, Summer 2015
Summer 2015 saw another unexpected development in the way electors within the UK are enabled to participate in politics. The election of the Labour Party leader by a new process involving registered supporters as well as party members carried wider implications about how political parties reflect and stimulate democracy. Forty years ago in 1976, the Liberal Party kicked off a process of change by switching the election of its leader from its MPs to its members. This change has been since followed by all UK parties in a series of trials which have sought to balance the role of MPs and a wider electorate. The Labour experiment of 2015 not only produced the widest electorate yet to elect a party leader in the UK; its outcome announced a stark discrepancy between the preferences of its MPs and those of its members. The implications for both the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy and the role of political party members demand careful consideration. The Trust’s July 2016 workshop accordingly focused on the motivation and contribution of those who join parties.
The Trust is conscious that this change in the UK is an instance of what is happening across mature democracies. The largest-scale open primary yet held in Europe, the selection of the Socialist Party/Left candidate for the French presidential election in 2011, when some three million people voted, was subject to scrutiny at a Trust workshop in July 2012; there are now plans by the French Centre-Right for a parallel open primary in November 2016.
Primaries developed much earlier in the United States of America, and the enthusiastic public involvement in the recent presidential primaries is notable. The Trust considers it is well-placed to draw on expertise on such changes, and to examine lessons from them for UK audiences.
UK Referendum on the European Union, 23 June 2016
As this report was being finalised, the vigorous June 2016 referendum debate about the UK’s membership of the EU raised further questions about democracy in the contemporary world. Although the leading issues presented in the referendum campaign (e.g. economics and migration) lie outside the Trust’s remit, the widespread concern about whether the European Union was, or could by its nature be, democratic is relevant to the Trust’s purpose, while the actual outcome of the referendum itself in favour of Leave has left the UK’s familiar political (and economic) order badly shaken.
Many questions, both theoretical and practical, have been raised by the result not least concerning the capacity of democracy to operate across national frontiers; the nature of the UK’s future institutional (and economic and social) relations with the EU; the equivalent future arrangements between the five main component parts of the British Isles (including the Irish Republic); the potential for constitutional conflict arising from the clash of principles of parliamentary sovereignty and deliberative, representative democracy (exemplified by the House of Commons) on the one hand against expressions of the popular will through direct democracy (in this instance exemplified by use of the referendum device) on the other; and in light of the unsettled reactions within the main UK political parties to the result, the relationships between party leaders, their party members and the wider electorate.
All these questions and more arising from the (largely) unanticipated referendum outcome will provide an abundance of material for study in years to come by thinkers, writers and scholars in political science and a variety of associated disciplines. McDougall Trust will hope to encourage and support such study and to share the findings of such research with a wider audience.
An independent body, operating as a charitable trust, can have a valuable role in providing a forum for analysis, discussion and reflection amongst those wishing to understand better and so to improve the way democracy operates. We are confident that the Trust is well-placed to play such a role, and that the need for this role will augment.
The Electoral Climate in 2015-16 McDougall Trust's Annual Review, July 2016 here
McDougall Trust's Annual Report and Accounts 30 September 2015 (July 2016) here