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The death-knell of first-past-the-post?

Posted by Matt Walker on April 26, 2010

All of this talk about a hung parliament is making me giddy. Every year I teach electoral systems almost apologetically, as students wade through the advantages and disadvantages of first-past-the-post (FPTP), weighed against the options for reform. Thanks to the current election campaign, electoral reform is so sexy it might even make its way into Hello! Magazine.

The current debate being played out in the campaign is worth paying attention to, as it really does illuminate the pros and cons of the electoral reform debate. The Conservative argument is that a hung parliament will be indecisive, lead to instability in government, chaos on the financial markets, and an inability of government to take firm action and make decisions. Ironically, David Cameron has been forced into talking about the decisiveness of FPTP because there might be a hung parliament. In other words, because FPTP isn’t always decisive!

The Liberal Democrats have understandably been rather scathing about FPTP. They have complained that it would be ludicrous if Labour were to come third in the popular vote, but first in seat distribution. In other words, FPTP is not electorally representative and sometimes produces bizarre results. It also, according to Nick Clegg, is a system which props up the  two “old parties” and limits voter choice. Interestingly, several people I have talked to do refer to their vote being ‘wasted’ because they live in a particular constituency.

Whether the Conservatives like it or not, the British public no longer want the two-party system which is delivered by FPTP. In fact, over the past 30 years or more, the combined Tory-Labour vote has been declining. And if opinion polls are remotely accurate, the public will actually vote for a three-party system on May 6th. Perhaps electoral reform is unavoidable.

What do you think? What are the key points for you?

Q&A: Calls to change the UK  voting system


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Nick Clegg: Britain’s next prime minister?

Posted by Matt Walker on April 17, 2010

In the early 1980s, David Steel told the Liberal/SDP Alliance to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.” This was the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity and Labour were in complete disarray, putting the so-called Alliance on 50% in the polls. In the 1983 general election, they actually won a creditable 25% of the vote, just behind Labour. But they won only 3% of the seats. Good old first-past-the-post!

Since the first leaders’ debate on Thursday, the political world seems to have been turned upside down. That’s what is so great about an election campaign. Nick Clegg’s performance has been said to have ‘electrified’ the campaign and has turned the latest opinion polls on their heads.

A YouGov poll published today in The Sun has The Tories on 33%, Lib Dems on 30%, and Labour on 28%. According to this much esteemed publication, Labour are now in disarray, and apparently, Brown has ‘blown it’. I suppose you’d expect The Sun to take this line, given their support for the Conservative Party. But how accurate are they?

Well, if we use Electoral Calculus to help us, the result would be interesting. Assuming similar voting across all constituencies, including the marginals, this poll suggests that Labour would become the biggest party in a hung parliament, 9 seats ahead of the Tories, but 63 seats short of a majority. It is clear that both main parties could lose out if the Lib Dems do very well, but as this latest poll shows, if the gap between Labour and the Conservatives narrows, Cameron could well be the main loser. Indeed, some have argued that he was the big loser in Thursday’s debate because Nick Clegg stole his thunder as the charismatic voice of change.

There has even been talk this morning of the Liberal Democrats winning the election, which quite frankly is ludicrous. And of course, we should be cautious when analysing a single poll. There will be more for us to look at tomorrow. However, for political train-spotters like me, this is all very exciting!

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It’s the economy, stupid!

Posted by Matt Walker on April 9, 2010

What is it that determines the outcome of elections? This is a difficult question to answer but undeniably a key determinant is public perception of a party’s economic competence. During the 1992 US presidential election campaign, Bill Clinton’s slogan summed this up perfectly: “It’s the economy stupid!” This was less the case in 2001 and 2005 when the UK economy was doing well. In 2010, it is as true as it ever was.

The first four days of the 2010 campaign have been taken up with taxation, public spending and the economy. Whether both parties planned to focus so much attention on Labour’s proposed national insurance increases, or whether circumstances have prevailed, it is hard to tell. But election campaigns are a bit like that. A particular issue catches fire, one party runs with it, and the rest have to follow, either rebutting their opponents’ claims, or going on the offensive.

Why has Labour’s proposed national insurance increase become such a key election issue? On the one hand, it comes down to trust. Who will the electorate believe? On the other hand, the parties want to use this issue to tell the public something important about themselves. For Labour, they can claim that Tory talk of cutting the budget deficit lacks credibility because they also want to cut taxes, or alternatively they will have to immediately cut public spending and will damage frontline services. For the Conservatives, they can argue that the government is wasting money, which should be used for cutting taxes, whilst simultaneously arguing that raising national insurance will damage the recovery. In fact, Labour and the Conservatives accuse each other of threatening the recovery.

The Lib Dems are playing their usual card of suggesting that both the main parties have got it wrong, though at the moment they are turning most of their firepower on the Tories, suggesting that the national insurance cut will be paid for by an increase in VAT, something David Cameron denies.

The effect of all of this is difficult to judge. However, none of the parties can afford to lose the argument on an issue which is probably the most important at this election. What do you think?

Conservatives outline plans

Labour steps up attack

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FAQ: what do the parties believe?

Posted by Matt Walker on April 7, 2010

What do the political parties believe in? And what are their policies? Well, very soon they will publish their manifestos, outlining the policies they would implement if they were to win the general election. One of the beauties of studying politics is its vibrancy and capacity for constant change. One its problems is trying to keep yourself up-to-date for the exam.

Below is a link to the BBC News website which provides a simple breakdown of party policy across a wide range of  areas. This is very much recommended reading and you should use this when revising for the summer exam. If you want to be really sophisticated, why not use this list and your textbook, and identify where each policy fits into a particular party’s ideological traditions. For example, which of Labour’s current policies could be seen as Old or New Labour?

Of course, the BBC will no doubt up-date this list of policies once the manifestos have been published.

BBC News: where they stand

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Brown calls the election for May 6th

Posted by Matt Walker on April 6, 2010

Gordon Brown has finally announced that the date of the general election is May 6th. As he said himself, it was the the worst kept secret in British politics. Being the political trainspotter that I am, I sat mesmerised by BBC News 24 for several hours today, watching the morning’s events loop round and round. By 2pm, I knew the opening salvos of the party leaders off by heart!

So what did we learn this morning? Well, the prime minister launched his campaign outside 10 Downing Street, and behind him stood the Cabinet. Brown emphasised that he belonged to a team. He might as well have said, “I know you don’t like me but look, you’re voting for these guys too”. He also emphasised that anything other than a vote for Labour would risk the recovery. He then went to Kent to meet and greet people in a supermarket. Labour are going to run a non-glitzy campaign, trying to get ‘closer’ to the people.

David Cameron’s approach was very different. He stood across the Thames with Parliament over his shoulder, suggesting to voters that he was an outsider who could reform and change British politics, society, and economy. Gone was the negativity of the Conservative Party conference last October. Rather, there were sunny uplands to be had, as long as the country ditches Brown. Unlike Brown, Cameron stood alone – the one-man band; his party’s greatest asset. Cameron then went to visit a Birmingham hospital, trying to bolster his party’s position regarding the NHS.

Nick Clegg chose to launch his campaign at Liberal Democrat headquarters, with his party’s greatest asset, Vince Cable, standing next to him. With Cameron pitching himself as the outsider and the man for change, journalists have been challenging Clegg on how he too can pose as such. Clegg emphasised how the Lib Dems were different, and would pursue different policies to the ‘same old’ Labour-Tory club. But of course Clegg can also play the ‘man-of-change’ card.

So we have 30 days to go. Those who analyse elections (poshly known as psephologists) often write after elections that the campaign did not make much difference to the result. This election may be different. Not only are the polls close but they are also volatile. Many people simply haven’t made up their mind. Furthermore, with the leaders debates to come, no one quite knows what impact this will have.

Anyway, it would be nice to have a constant stream of discussion during the campaign so please leave comments throughout.

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The election campaign starts here!

Posted by Matt Walker on March 29, 2010

It’s been a while, but this blog is back! Things may be slow to start with, but hopefully I’ll be up and running at full pace before too long. So let’s make this a quick one before I get a nose bleed from the effort.

Make sure you tune in to Channel 4 at 8pm tonight. Alastair Darling, George Osborne, and Vince Cable are going to participate in a live debate about the economy. Although Gordon Brown hasn’t announced the election yet, there is no doubt that the campaign kicks off here, and that this will be an important debate.

Make sure you leave a comment afterwards giving your opinion on how it went.

Posted in Elections, Political Parties | 2 Comments »

Poll update: who will finish first-past-the-post?

Posted by Matt Walker on February 5, 2010

Electoral SystemsA number of recent polls suggest that no party will  have an overall majority after what is now expected to be a 6th May general election.

A YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph shows a slight fall in support for the Conservatives (38%) , and a slight rise for Labour (31%), with the Liberal Democrats (19%) up as well.


According to Electoral Calculus, this would leave the Tories 24 seats short of a majority.

Despite a consistent poll lead for many months, David Cameron will know how tough it will be to gain a majority at the next election. If the Tories are only just short of a majority it will be difficult for his new government, but with a politically and financially broken Labour Party, probably going through a leadership election, he should still be able to set the political agenda, try to to establish his competence for government, then call another election maybe 18 months later.

Labour on the other hand will hope that the polls continue to narrow. According to Electoral Calculus, if we average out recent polls, the result is a Tory victory, two seats short of a majority. It would only take roughly, 2% of Conservative support to shift to Labour for the latter to be the biggest party in the Commons. This of course, will be Labour’s hope. They still, however, have to deal with the fact that many voters would simply prefer anyone but Gordon Brown as their prime minister.

What strategies do you think Labour and Tories should pursue in order to win over more support?

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Electoral reform

Posted by Matt Walker on February 2, 2010

brown Gordon Brown has announced that next week Parliament will discuss the prospect of electoral reform. Specifically it would discuss the  passing  a Bill paving the way for a referendum by the end of October 2011.

Brown is offering to replace the current first-past-the-post system with the Alternative Vote (AV), a system currently used in Australia. Elections would still take place in constituencies as with our current system, but voters would need to rank each of the candidates in order of preference. If a candidate does not win 50% of the electorate’s first preference votes,  then the second preference of the bottom candidate would get redistributed to the other candidates. This continues until a candidate reaches 50% support.

How this would affect the outcome of elections is difficult to say.  It is not a proportional system and could still deliver large majorities to parties. It would however ensure majority support for MPs. It would also allow people to vote with their conscience with their first preference of candidate, and then vote tactically on their later preference.

Whether MPs will support Brown’s proposal is another matter. The Conservatives have rejected it because they don’t want reform; the Lib Dems don’t like AV because the reform does not go far enough.

Other reforms were supported by Brown, such as elections within Parliament for select committee chairmen, as well as the use of e-petitions.

What do you think – a good idea, an unnecessary reform, or too weak a reform to bother with?

Gordon Brown outlines plans to reform UK voting system

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Alastair Darling gets his way

Posted by Matt Walker on January 15, 2010

Last summer Gordon Brown intended to shift Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling out of the Treasury into another job, and replace him with Ed Balls. Darling was having none of it, threatened to resign and Brown backed down.

In November’s pre-budget speech Darling said very little about reducing the budget deficit. It was rumoured in the press that he had wanted to, but that Brown had over-ruled him for fear that it would lose Labour votes.

Last weekend, Darling stated publicly that even if Labour win the next election public spending will be the “toughest” for 20 years. Shadow Chancellor George Osborne was quick to pounce on this, saying that the government was in “complete confusion”.

Although Gordon Brown saw off last week’s attempted plot to unseat him, it seems that the price Alastair Darling extracted for his own support was this admission regarding public spending. His motive for doing so is unclear, but it has been suggested in the past that he is concerned to maintain his reputation for honesty in the wake of expected defeat at the next election. It could also be to do with logic – everyone knows cuts are going to happen, so it’s pointless to deny their scale.

Whatever the reason, where does this leave Labour now? How are they to differentiate themselves from the Tories? If the line is, “trust us to not cut frontline services”, then the current government will need to specify where these large cuts are going to take place.

Alastair Darling warns of tough spending cuts

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What is a ‘core vote’ strategy?

Posted by Matt Walker on January 13, 2010

brown A couple of days ago I wrote about the most recent challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership and pointed out that many cabinet ministers were unhappy with Brown’s seeming preference to pursue a core vote strategy. But what does this actually mean?

A party’s core vote are those people who will support that party through thick and thin, and are very loyal to that party.  Put more academically, this is described as partisan alignment. It could be argued that Labour’s 25-30% level of support in the polls are largely  these people – its core vote.

Clearly, to win an election a party needs to move beyond its core vote and attempt to win support from floating voters, those people who lack loyalty to a single political party. They can do this by offering policies which have a wider appeal.

In recent months it has seemed that Brown was trying to win support from Labour’s core voters at the expense of a strategy that might win over more floating voters. Arguably, refusing to admit that large public expenditure cuts is a reflection of this.

Why would Brown wish to pursue such a strategy? Well, it is tantamount to admitting defeat at the next election; an attempt to avoid total meltdown at the polls by hanging on to as many seats as possible. The Tories pursued a core vote strategy in 2001 by focussing on immigration and saving the pound. They lost the election heavily.

Do you think this is the right strategy for Brown to pursue?

Posted in Elections, Political Parties | Tagged: | 2 Comments »