Promoting public understanding
of electoral democracy
Friday 9 December 2016: Digital Democracy, citizen engagement and the pros and cons of electronic voting
Speakers: Areeq Chowdhury, Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy, and
Jason Kitcat, Head of Public Affairs at Crunch
About the topic: Is electronic voting a good way of engaging with citizens in the high-tech modern democratic age or does it create more problems than it solves? If so how do you address the problems? Areeq Chowdhury and Jason Kitcat debate the pros and cons of electronic voting.
About the speakers:
Areeq Chowdhury is Chief Executive of the think-tank WebRoots Democracy (the Institute for Digital Democracy). He has worked at the Foreign Office, the London Assembly, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and KPMG. He began researching the relationship between the internet and political participation when studying Economics and Political Science at the University of Birmingham and at the age of 21 founded WebRoots Democracy - which has been the leading campaign for online voting in UK elections.
Jason Kitcat is Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Crunch, the UK's first and largest online accountancy firm. He was previously the award-winning Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council. He has a long background in building digital services having been Head of Technology for Netmums, general manager at The Open Knowledge Foundation and before that led his own digital agency for a decade. With the Open Rights Group he observed e-voting in the UK and Estonia and has published numerous academic papers on e-voting.
Wednesday 9 November 2016: Is there a tension between Parliamentary Democracy and Referendums?
Nat le Roux, Strategy Director of the Constitution Society
There are no clear constitutional principles which govern the circumstances in which a referendum should be held in Britain, or how it should be conducted. In consequence, the referendum is a flexible and powerful political device, which government seems willing to deploy with increasing frequency. A referendum which is 'advisory' - rather than post-legislative - is potentially destabilizing in a parliamentary system because it creates an alternative source of democratic legitimacy which arguably empowers government to override or bypass the legislature. As current events seem to demonstrate, the paradox of competing legitimacies is compounded when a referendum seeks a binary answer to a complex question capable of multiple responses.
Video on YouTube here
Key messages from the Workshop
The UK has no rules to say when referendums should be held, although over the last years they have become increasingly accepted as legitimate, and it is becoming an accepted norm that some legislative changes require direct popular endorsement. The 1975 referendum, for example, focused on continued membership of the EEC; there was no referendum before joining the EEC in 1973, nor was there on the Maastricht treaty in 1992 although this treaty fundamentally changed the terms of EU membership. Referendums have commonly been used, or promised, to resolve intractable internal disputes within political parties.
In Britain, parliamentary sovereignty is traditionally regarded as the governing norm of the Constitution. In principle, it would seem to follow that a Parliamentary majority can always overturn a referendum result. The political reality may be different: those who voted with the majority will understandably assume that, while a referendum may have been merely advisory in law, Parliament should nonetheless defer to the ‘will of the people’. However, what happens when the ‘will of the people’ shown in the outcome of a referendum is at odds with the view of a majority of the elected representatives of the people, especially if the result of a referendum results in an irreversible decision?
It was not clear when Parliament voted to hold a referendum on continuing membership of the EU that this vote was also a vote to implement its result. The briefing paper from the House of Commons Library stated that the referendum was to be a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion. If MPs had been told at the time that a future government would interpret a Leave vote as a binding instruction to invoke Article 50, and to do so without a vote in Parliament, then the debate on the Referendum Bill might have been rather different.
What ought to be the role of referendums? Referendums can be successfully used for testing changes in social attitudes, for example, to same sex marriage, or in the case of Sunday opening in Wales. This is because in such referendums, each person’s views have equal value, may well be informed by personal experience, and where MPs may be out of touch with voters’ attitudes. All UK referendums have been on constitutional issues.
In the case of the 2016 EU referendum, there is asymmetry in the binary choice being offered in two ways:
a) The vote for change (Leave) was a vote for an irreversible change, whereas a vote for the status quo (Remain) was reversible as another referendum could be held later. It has been suggested that in such cases a threshold of e.g. 40% of the electorate voting should be applied, but this would certainly be challenged.
b) The outcome of a vote to remain was known (voters knew what being in the EU entailed) whereas the outcome of a vote to leave was unknown and unknowable; there was no blueprint for how leaving could be achieved, and anyway the Government assumed that the Remain vote would carry the day.
The referendum result tells us very little about what alternative arrangements the public would like to see.
Questions and comments included:
Was the government just naive in not setting a threshold or any restrictions on the EU referendum? Did they simply see it as a good idea which would get a difficult issue out of the way? It was pointed out that the Scottish National Party proposed an amendment which would have required a majority in each of the devolved nations as well as the UK as a whole, but this was not taken up.
Is the answer a written constitution? Some countries like Ireland have a constitutional requirement for referendums in specific cases, but most are held for the same “expedient” reasons referendums have been held in the UK. A written constitution would set the rules on how referendums would be conducted, but not stop governments calling referendums because they wanted to.
Where does the responsibility lie for “voter ignorance” about the issues? The education system no longer teaches constitutional matters – a written constitution at least ensures there is something to teach. But the responsibility also lies with the government not to pass on doing the difficult thinking (which it could be argued, they have been elected to do) by suddenly posing a really complex question to the electorate.
Often referendums give a choice between a tangible and short term versus intangible and long term future. Take for example road pricing; those affected by road pricing being enacted have a powerful reason to get out and vote. Road pricing affects a wider group of people in a less tangible way – better air quality, safer roads, and the lack of an immediate visible consequence means there is less incentive for those who might be in favour of it to vote, as well as this group being less cohesive than those who would be more immediately affected.
Tuesday 23 August 2016: Political Corruption – Elections and Beyond: Perspectives from Indonesia and Australia
Professor Denny Indrayana, Former Deputy Minister of Justice, Indonesia;
Maxine McKew, Vice Chancellor's Fellow with the University of Melbourne and former Federal parliamentarian, and
Alison Byrne, Director, NSW Electoral Commission’s Election Funding Unit
Centre for Indonesian Law Islam and Society, Electoral Regulation Research Network, Melbourne Law School and McDougall Trust, August 2016 at Melbourne Law School
Money in politics poses challenges to democracies across the world. An international study of elections held in 2015 has even reported that the most serious risks to free and fair elections stem from the failure to effectively deal with these challenges. This seminar looks at the complex ways ‘money politics’ works to subvert democracy in two very different systems in two very different societies, and asks what can be done to prevent it.
Tuesday 12 July 2016: A Comparative Analysis of the Deliberative Quality of Televised Election Debates in Europe
Dr. Stephen Elstub, Newcastle University, UK
Organised by Electoral Regulation Research Network (Australia) and filmed for McDougall Trust at the Australian National University
Televised debates have become a pre-eminent means of campaign communication in numerous countries and are becoming increasingly widespread in Europe. However, concerns have been raised repeatedly about the quality of these election debates. As a result of increased media logic, expressing controversial one-liners and waging uncivil attacks on one’s opponents is a successful strategy to gain media coverage. As a result, the quality of political debates in the media is argued to be in decline leading to a drop in political trust (Shea & Fiorina 2013). Yet empirical evidence on the quality of televised election debates is scarce and often focuses on single case studies. This study fills this void by investigating the quality of election debates in three European countries (UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium) using the Discursive Quality Index. This index meticulously follows the criteria of the ideal-speech situation developed in deliberative democracy theory (e.g. amount of respect, justification) and has repeatedly proven to be a reliable measurement instrument (Habermas 1981; Steenbergen, et al 2003). Preliminary analyses suggests variation in the quality of election debates as a result of the different media, electoral and political systems.
Thursday 7th July 2016: Why do people join political parties today, and what do they do for them?
Professor Paul Webb, University of Sussex and
Professor Tim Bale, Queen Mary University of London
In this workshop, Tim Bale and Paul Webb explained and interpreted some of the findings from their three year research project into party membership in the UK funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The third member of the team, Monica Poletti, was unable to attend the workshop. This project involves surveys in 2015 of the members of 6 parties, non-member partisans, and Labour’s affiliated trade unionists; in 2016, a survey of Labour’s new joiners, and in 2017, a survey of party leavers. See www.esrcpartymembersproject.org.
Key messages from the workshop
Paul Webb and Tim Bale addressed two key questions: Why do people join political parties - and why don’t they? And how do party members and non-member supporters (or partisans) compare in terms of the election campaign work they do for parties?
The long term decline in party membership is not unique to the UK, but seen across Western democracies; although in the UK there is evidence of a mini-surge in membership in at least the Greens, Labour, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats. This research project, comprising surveys and interviews, has been looking at the attitudes and behaviour of party members, but also those who are active within the parties and might reasonably be expected to join but do not (called “partisans” in the research), through asking similar questions of both sets of people.
Motivation for joining parties: based on Syed and Whiteley’s model of incentives, for all parties, incentives such as political identity, altruism, and collective policy reasons rate high, whereas social norms, which might in the past have been more of a factor, much less so. Outcomes such as career development appeared to be less of a factor, but in one-to-one interviews, there was acknowledgement that being a party member can contribute to skills sets which the member could take into his/her career. Partisans assumed that career development was more of factor for party members joining than party members felt themselves. Members also felt a higher sense of political efficacy (“you can get things done”) than partisans.
The survey also looks at the level of activity for members and partisans, looking at their involvement in low intensity activity (social media, sticking a poster up), medium intensity activity (leafletting or attending meetings), and high intensity activity (such as canvassing). Party members undertake more activity during elections than partisans, and this gap is greater the higher intensity the action: for low intensity actions, the gap is less than for higher intensity actions. But overall, the impact of campaign work undertaken by partisans is at least as great as that of members.
Questions and comments included:
As we seem to see a rise in people joining parties just after that party has done badly eg in the 2015 election, is one motivation “I must stand by my party at the difficult time” or there a sense of remorse “I could have done more”?
Why did more people join parties in the 1950s when individual members had less power? Party membership in the 1950s was driven by, but also drove, identity; more people were willing to attest to strong partisan sympathy. The decline in the two party system is also a factor as is the rise in other leisure and social options; political parties and clubs used to be one of the few avenues open for socialising. There is also some question about how accurate the numbers are for the 1950s.
What do the speakers know about the sort of people who have come into the Labour party in the post-election 2015 surge? These new members are not unlike existing members although fewer come from London than is popularly thought and one third had been members before. Many come from Southern England where there is a mismatch between the vote and the outcome in terms of seats.
A feeling was expressed in the room that newer members of parties are much less active and more inclined only to commit their membership fee, not their time. Across all the parties, a small number of members and partisans do all the work.
What stops people joining who are otherwise very active in the party? One element is the absolutist belief that you can only join if you agree with the whole manifesto, rather than seeing that you could join to change the manifesto. The perceived drain on time (taking time away from family life) of joining parties was felt by both members and partisans, but partisans identified this as being a greater deterrent than did members, a difference more marked for Conservatives, Greens and the SNP than for the other parties.
Wednesday 20 April 2016: Have the Polls Learnt Their Lesson? The Polling Miss in 2015 - and Beyond
Professor John Curtice, University of Strathclyde
In this workshop, John Curtice was speaking from a personal perspective, in presenting some of the findings of the Report of the Enquiry into the 2015 British general election opinion polls. He focused on what went wrong with polling in 2015, and what pollsters will be doing about this in the future.
Video on YouTube here.
Key messages from the Workshop
Unrepresentative samples were the primary cause of the polling miss in 2015. The tendency of pollsters to over-represent Labour voters and under-represent Conservative voters occurs right back to 1992. It is less evident when the election result is as predicted (e.g. Labour’s landslide in 1997) as there is less of a tendency for commentators to interrogate the results so closely. Polls also underestimated the age difference in the turnout – younger voters who were tending towards Labour were also less likely to vote. Young people are also underrepresented in the polling surveys.
The incorrect prediction of the outcome was consistent across the polls. The predictions were accurate for UKIP, the Green Party, Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, but quite small errors in forecasting Conservative and Labour vote share has a major effect in forecasting in a first-past-the post voting system. This is the case even though polling systems have changed over the years; more polls are online and there is less door to door interviewing. The methods change; the problems persist.
One answer is to move towards more random probability sampling which produces more accurate results. This is the method used by the British Social Attitudes and British Election Study and requires extended fieldwork periods, more call-backs to initially non-responsive targets, and a better mix of landline and mobile numbers for phone surveys. The key difference is that several follow ups are made to those selected through sampling – statistically Conservative voters are less likely to respond when first asked, but will do so after several asks. This is expensive, and takes longer – and therefore may not produce the sort of quick, frequent polls that fuel the news cycle.
The speed of the news cycle has other consequences: commentators are prone to overemphasising small changes in party shares between opinion polls, giving the impression that parties are doing better (or worse) than the evidence shows. There could be a place for quick polls underpinned by longer, more in depth. surveys, coupled with more circumspect reporting of the polls. Publication of the raw data would also allow better evaluation of media reporting of polls – is the reporting accurate, or have key headlines just been plucked out?
There are a number of recommendations:
BPC will issue a report and hold a seminar in 2019 to show how its members have adapted their methodology to take account of the report findings, well in advance of the 2020 General Election. The polling companies have all been completely cooperative in supplying their data to the survey, and it is expected this cooperation will continue.
 Market Research Society, British Polling Council, National Centre for Research Methods, March 2016
Workshops in 2015
21 October 2015: Who Can Vote? Does the UK Franchise Influence the Outcomes of Referendums and General Elections?
Dr Caroline Morris, Queen Mary University of London, and
Dr Alan Renwick, Constitution Unit, University College London.
The issue of the franchise - who can vote - became something of an issue before the referendum on independence for Scotland in September 2014 and remains so. Some of the issues include questions about the voting age, votes for (some) prisoners, votes for non-UK citizens living in the UK, votes for UK citizens living outside the UK and electoral registration arrangements. The workshop explores matters further in the context of future referendums and general elections. The speakers also look at what other countries do by way of comparison.
10 March 2015: The Rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Dr Matthew Goodwin, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.
Matthew Goodwin explains the rise of UKIP and its likely impact on the May 2015 elections.
21 January 2015: Whither (Devolved) Wales?
Professor Richard Wyn Jones, Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University.
With a wider devolution debate triggered by the outcome of the Independence referendum in Scotland, Richard Wyn Jones looks at what it could mean for Wales.
Workshops in 2014
20 November 2014: Prospects for the UK General Election 2015
Joe Twyman, YouGov.
Joe Twyman looks at prospects for Britain's political parties six months out from the May 2015 UK general election.
10 July 2014: European Election Results 2014
Professor Simon Hix, London School of Economics.
Simon Hix discusses the outcomes of the 2014 elections to the European Parliament and the implications.
5 June 2014: What if Scotland Votes No?
Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Kings College London.
Vernon Bogdanor considers what could happen if there is a 'No' vote in Scotland's September 2014 independence referendum.
27 March 2014: Where the Party Finance Debate Stands and Prospects for Reform
Professor Justin Fisher, Brunel University.
Justin Fisher reviews where discussions on the reform of the financing of Britain's political parties have got and the likelihood of reform.
29 January 2014: Party Rebellions in Parliament
Professor Philip Cowley, University of Nottingham.
The trend towards increased incidence of rebellion by MPs in Parliament has become marked in the past two or three decades. Philip Cowley looks at the issues and reasons behind this development.
Workshops in 2013
20 November 2013: A look back at the Police and Crime Commissioner elections of November 2012
Nan Sloane, Centre for Women and Democracy.
Nan Sloane reveals the findings of research into the organisation, conduct and results of the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections and highlights areas needing improvement for next time round.
25 October 2013: The German Federal Election of 2013
Professor Dan Hough, University of Sussex.
Electoral systems always influence election results, but this was more clear than ever when the Germans went to the polls on 22 September. The workshop analysed what this means for Germany going forward as well as for Europe more generally. Dan Hough is co-author of 'The Politics of the New Germany' and has written about the Party of Democratic Socialism and the Left Party. Dan is also Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption and his most recent book on the topic included analysis of Germany's (as well as five other countries') attempts to tackle the problem.
17 July 2013: The Tory Grassroots and their Views on Coalition
Professor Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London.
Tim Bale is a leading academic writer on the Conservative Party. He presents initial findings of research into Conservative party members' attitudes to the UK's Coalition government. His latest book is The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change.
9 May 2013: The Evolution of Debates about Electoral Reform in the UK Since 1945
Dr Alan Renwick, University of Reading.
Dr Renwick is a leading expert on the politics of electoral reform. His first book, The Politics of Electoral Reform: Changing the Rules of Democracy, was published in 2010 and analyses major cases of electoral system change in France, Japan and New Zealand. His second book, A Citizen's Guide to Electoral Reform, was published in the run-up to the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011.
Workshops in 2012
30 November 2012 (pm): The Politics of the Electoral Process: Is electoral administration in the UK becoming (more) partisan?
Lewis Baston and
Lewis Baston is a Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit. Ros Baston is a solicitor and political consultant and former Lead Adviser at the Electoral Commission.
30 November 2012 (am): What can we learn from the "Get Out The Vote" Experiments in the UK?
Professor Peter John, University College London.
Peter John is known for his work on public policy, local politics and policy evaluation. He is interested in how to involve citizens in public policy and management and in the use of randomized controlled trials. Recently, he directed the project, Rediscovering the Civic: Achieving Better Outcomes in Public Policy, which carried out a number of trials to find out what public agencies can do to involve citizens.
11 October 2012: Scottish Local Elections under the Single Tranferable Vote
Dr Alistair Clark, Newcastle University.
Dr Clark's research interests revolve around political parties, party organisation and electoral politics. Much of his recent work (with colleagues) examined the impact of the introduction of STV for Scottish local elections in 2007. He has also published on urban politics, citizen engagement with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the rise of minor parties in the UK and Ireland. He is currently working on two major projects: general election manifestos in Scotland and Wales; and electoral integrity in the UK.
17 July 2012: France's Elections of 2012
Michael Steed, McDougall Trust Chair and retired political scientist at Manchester University and now honorary lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent, as well as an authority on the French political process
29 May 2012: A Tale of two Referendums: Comparing the New Zealand Voting System Referendum of 2011 with British Alternative Vote Referendum
Professor Jack Vowles, University of Exeter.
Professor Vowles has led the New Zealand Election Study since 1996, serves on the Planning Committee of the Comparative Study of Electoral systems (CSES) and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand
17 April 2012: The New Electoral Boundaries (in England and Wales)
Professor Ron Johnston OBE, University of Bristol,
Professor Charles Pattie, University of Sheffield and
Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie are professors of geography at the Universities of Bristol and Sheffield respectively: they have been studying the work of the Boundary Commissions with David Rossiter for more than 30 years
27 March 2012: Zipping, twinning or all women shortlists? Electoral systems and the representation of women
Professor Sarah Childs, University of Bristol UK, and
Dr Rosie Campbell, London Birkbeck UK.
Professor Sarah Childs has published extensively on women's political representation in the UK since 1997, especially the feminization of British political parties and the recruitment of women to the UK Parliament, with monographs on both New Labour (2004) and the contemporary Conservative Party (forthcoming 2011). Dr Rosie Campbell is an expert on gender and political behaviour. She has written widely on gender and British general elections (2006), political participation and political recruitment. She is particularly interested in comparing the political attitudes of the political elite and the electorate (2010)
Workshops in 2011
29 November 2011: The Significance of Coalitions in European Union Institutions
Professor Simon Hix, Department of Government, London School of Economics UK, co-author of The Political System of the European Union, 3rd ed. 2011 (Palgrave) and co-editor of the journal European Union Politics
19 October 2011: The Irish National Election Study 2011: analysis of the mock ballot findings on how Ireland voted under PR-STV in the 2011 general election
Professor Michael Marsh, Department of Political Science and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, co-editor of How Ireland Voted 2011 (Palgrave)
28 July 2011: Election Monitoring: is it effective?
Michael Meadowcroft, former Liberal MP for Leeds West 1983-87 and election observer
3 June 2011: The Alternative Vote Referendum Survey Experiment Panel: some preliminary results
Professor Jack Vowles, Department of Politics, University of Exeter UK, currently a member of the planning committee of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems
19 April 2011: Ireland’s Sea-Change General Election of 2011
Professor David Farrell, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin Ireland, co-author of Political Parties and Democratic Linkage (forthcoming)
16 March 2011: Four Years On: reviewing Scotland’s experience with the single transferable vote in local elections
Dr. Alistair Clark, School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queens’s University Belfast UK, author of Political parties in the UK (forthcoming); and
Andrew Burns, Labour group leader, Edinburgh City Council
Workshops in 2010
9 December 2010: Hung Parliaments, Coalition Governments and Proportional Representation: the New Zealand experience
Professor The Honourable Margaret Wilson DCNZM, Professor of Law and Public Policy, Faculty of Law, University of Waikato New Zealand, former Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives 2005-08
4 November 2010: Equal Votes for (Nearly) All: drawing a new map of UK Parliamentary constituencies
Professor Ron Johnston, Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol UK, author of The Boundaries Commissions, From Votes to Seats and Drawing a New Constituencies Map for the UK
21 October 2010: What Difference Would the Alternative Vote Make to Westminster?
Professor Colin Rallings, School of Management and Elections Centre, University of Plymouth UK, co-author of the Media Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies and the annual Local Elections Handbook; and
Professor David Sanders, Department of Government, University of Essex UK, co-director of the British Election Study
22 July 2010: The UK General Election, 2010: outcome, coalition and prospects for the future
Professor Anthony King, Department of Government, University of Essex UK, author of The British Constitution
3 June 2010: House of Lords Reform: How to Elect an Upper House
Professor Iain McLean FBA, Nuffield College Oxford UK, author of What’s Wrong with the British Constitution?
17 March 2010: Prospects for the UK General Election of 2010?
Michael Steed, Chair, McDougall Trust, author or co-author of the statistical appendices to the Nuffield election studies of 1964-2005; and
Lewis Baston, currently at Democratic Audit and author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling
10 February 2010: Are Single-Member Constituencies Out of Date?
Dr Matthew Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Modern History, Sheffield Hallam University UK, currently researching a book on the Third Reform Act of 1884/85
Workshops in 2009
9 December 2009 The 2009 Japanese election - What will emerge from the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) victory?
Dr Sarah Hyde, Lecturer in Japanese Politics, University of Kent UK, author of The Transformation of the Japanese Left: From Old Socialists to New Democrats
11 November 2009: The 2009 South African elections - Prospect and retrospect
Professor Allison Drew, Department of Politics, University of York UK, author of several books on South Africa
15 October 2009: Reducing the number of MPs: How to do it and the implications
Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government and Director of the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Hull UK, former Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution
21 July 2009: The Politics of Electoral Reform: learning from experience from around the world
Dr Alan Renwick, Lecturer in Comparative Politics, University of Reading UK
16 June 2009: The Alternative Vote: a better alternative?
Lewis Baston, currently at Democratic Audit and author of ‘Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling’
24 March 2009: New York City Politics: Defining Democracy - electoral reform, global crisis and the struggle for power in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s
Dr Daniel Prosterman, Assistant Professor of History at Salem College, North Carolina USA