The Conservative story of support for election reform

The Conservative story of support for election reform

If one assumes that anything regarded as a timeless British tradition was invented at some point during the reign of Queen Victoria, one would not go far wrong. And so it is with our electoral system. It was invented in 1885 in a ruthless piece of practical politics by which the front benches of the Conservative and Liberal parties colluded on a ‘reform’ to cement a two party system in place. Before 1885, most constituencies in Britain (70 per cent) had two MPs and a handful had three – but an1885 Act sliced most of them up into single-member districts, creating subdivisions of boroughs for the first time. After 1885, multi-member constituencies were a rare breed (returning only eight per cent of MPs), and they finally became extinct in 1950. The option not taken then was to retain multi-member seats and build on a limited experiment that had started with Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867 of providing for minority representation within them – this time on a better thought-out basis through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR). Many of the earlier advocates of PR were Conservatives; the desire for minority representation accorded with Lord Salisbury’s scepticism about majoritarian rule. But the party professionals, then at the height of their power in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, preferred single member seats because they were easier to manage and control, while multi-member seats would make MPs less dependent on the party organisation and more inclined – the horror – to disagree with and compete with MPs in the same party. In 1882, Gilbert and Sullivan proclaimed, in Iolanthe: “That Nature always does contrive/ That every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!” But two-party politics was artificial rather than natural, and even in the high days of the Victorian two party system there were challenges and ambiguities. Gilbert’s Law (a much stronger version of Duverger’s Law, whose illustrious author died last month aged 97) certainly did not apply in Ireland, where Home Rule supporters had swept a majority of seats since 1874 and formed an influential nationalist parliamentary bloc that, when the parliamentary arithmetic permitted in 1885-86, could make the larger parties dance to their tune. Then there was Labour. The Liberals had, more or less, caged the Labour Party before 1914: several by-elections had demonstrated that causing three-way contests was a recipe for Labour candidates coming third and often throwing the seat to the Conservatives (see my July piece on this site here). The possibility that Labour might escape the uncomfortable embrace of the Liberal Party led to the consideration of an...

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Carry on polling: can George Osborne keep it up until May?

Carry on polling: can George Osborne keep it up until May?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Before Christmas, I wrote a piece for Conservative Home about the polling landscape six months out from the general election and what one can tell about the situation from historical precedents. The findings were not entirely encouraging for Labour: Labour oppositions tend to poll worse in the election than they do in the polls at this stage. Steve Fisher does similar things in a somewhat more rigorous fashion and his last look at the charts in December suggested that the likeliest single outcome is for Labour to be the largest single party in a hung parliament, which is more or less what most of the prognosticating classes seem to expect. Despite frequent warnings about how unpredictable it all is, there is a strong convergence in forecasts of the overall results. Where things get complicated is at the level of individual seats, where we can expect some peculiar variations in behaviour among seats based on region, demographics and relative susceptibility to the appeals of Liberal Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence party, the Green party and the Scottish National party. To strain a scientific metaphor, while all sorts of weirdness might happen at micro level, the macro level national picture will probably not be that far away from the Newtonian world of uniform swing. In this piece, I shall look in more detail at one piece of the national picture – economic optimism. Conventional wisdom is that the ‘feelgood factor’ helps governments win elections, but I am not quite so sure either that it works that way, or the causation is in that direction. Economic optimism is not independent of the political environment. A curious pattern in polling history is the strong link between elections and spikes in economic optimism. Past Conservative governments have seemed able to manufacture big bounces in economic optimism just in time for an election. The only Labour government to have managed this was Tony Blair’s in 2001 – perhaps significantly, the election at which Labour enjoyed its highest support from the press and at which Alastair Campbell was at the height of his powers. Even dead-in-the-water Tory governments like John Major’s in 1997 can manage it. The Conservatives are trying this trick again, but one may note that in the much-mocked new ‘road ahead’ poster, the gap in the dark hills on the horizon was produced by the wonders of Photoshop, not the actual landscape. The optimal time for the Conservatives to have held an election might have been autumn 2013; the change in economic optimism from net -30 in March to net +23 in September was a very rapid turnaround. Usually, the British public usually settles into its...

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Is it worth campaigning in the Summer?

Is it worth campaigning in the Summer?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. The ‘dog days’ or ‘silly season’ are nearly upon us. The prime minister has had his reshuffle, restoring the sensible pattern of John Major’s premiership that new ministers should be given the summer to read themselves into the new job and know what they are talking about by the time full-scale politics resumes, and that the team presented at conference is the one that will be in office afterwards. The Commons broke up on 23 July, and the Lords did so yesterday. The political year ends with public opinion looking rather like it has done for months on end – Labour consistently but rather narrowly ahead of the Conservatives, Ukip doing very well and the Liberal Democrats embarrassingly badly. The government is modestly unpopular, and people think Labour’s heart is in the right place, but the Conservatives still have their strengths in key issue areas like leadership and the economy. What can we expect to happen to public opinion during the summer lull? The conventional wisdom is that governments tend to improve their opinion poll ratings during the summer. Warm weather and holidays are supposed to make people feel better about life in general, and the government’s performance benefits from a more indulgent and rosy perspective. More concretely and cynically, politics is often about mishaps and it is easier to look competent when there is nothing much going on and the usual scrutiny mechanisms are disarmed, with parliament in recess and much of the media class camped out in Tuscany along with the politicians. While plausible in theory, there is no decent evidence that governments actually do improve their fortunes during the summer. Your correspondent, with the invaluable assistance of Mark Pack’s spreadsheet of opinion poll results, has trawled through 50 years of voting intention polls to prove this point. The table shows the net swing to the main government party from the main opposition party over the summer, based on the differences between their mean voting intention measured in July and September (i.e. approximately covering the mid July to mid September lull). The mean pro-government swing between the average poll in July and the average poll in September is a measly 0.2 per cent, which given that polling figures are imprecise anyway effectively means that there is no summer effect whatsoever. Looking only at poll figures from the first 15 years of this series (1964-79) it looks as if there might once have been something in the theory, possibly, but the most recent years show small movements with no consistent pattern. Summers, as anyone of my generation will recall, were more idyllic back then, anyway. The apparent end of the pattern...

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