Who Benefited from the Collapses? A Comparison of Labour and Conservative gains from UKIP and the SNP

This June’s British election saw a surprise as Theresa May’s Conservatives, who were expected to increase their majority at the beginning of the campaign, lost their majority and almost lost government altogether. The election was seen as a success for Corbyn’s Labour party and an utter failure for May’s Conservatives. What is notable, however, is that the vote for both the Conservatives and the Labour party went up compared to 2015. May’ proportion of the vote was 5.5 percentage points higher than Cameron’s in 2015 while Corbyn’s was an impressive 9.6 points higher than Milliband’s. In contrast, both the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) lost large numbers of votes. May did not lose the Conservative majority because she won fewer votes than Cameron, she lost because Labour was able to increase their vote share to a greater degree than the Conservatives were.

This suggests that Labour was able to take votes from the collapsing UKIP. UKIP had a disastrous election, losing its only seat and dropping over 10 percentage points in the popular vote. Part of the narrative around Labour’s rise and UKIP’s collapse is that Labour was able to win back working class, anti-immigrant voters who defected in 2015. A look at where UKIP lost votes and where Labour and the Conservatives made gains, however, suggests that the Conservatives benefited more from UKIP’s decline than Labour did. The more UKIP lost in a riding, the closer Conervative gains where to Labour ones.

The graph below shows compares the gains of both Labour (in red) and the Conservatives (in blue) to UKIP losses. Each x marks the change in percentage points for either Labour or the Conservatives in a particular riding, while the line provides the overall trend. Labour tended to pick up votes in a riding regardless of whether UKIP suffered significant losses. There is a slight increase in the Labour vote share as UKIP losses increase, but it is only slight. In contrast the steeper trend line for the Conservatives shows that the more UKIP lost in a riding the more successful the Conservatives were. Where UKIP lost 0-10 percentage points the Conservatives tended also to lose support (though there were a substantial of ridings where UKIP losses were close to 0 and the Conservatives made substantial gains). In contrast, almost all of the ridings in which UKIP lost more than 10 percentage points saw Conservative gains, many of them quite substantial.

Labour and Conservative Gains Againt UKIP Losses

This is not to say that Labour did not make gains in ridings in which UKIP suffered substantial losses. Like the Conservatives, Labour only suffered losses in a couple of ridings in which UKIP lost over 10 percentage points of the popular vote. There is, however, a much larger gap between the two parties in the ridings where UKIP losses are low. The more UKIP losses in a riding, the closer the Conservatives come to catching up to the Labour party’s gains. In the vast majority of ridings the Conservative gains never fully catch up to Labour’s gains (though the one riding in which UKIP saw losses of over 30 percentage points, Clacton, saw a much larger Conservative gain than a Labour one).  The gap between Conservative and Labour gains is much smaller, though, in ridings where UKIP lost over 15 percentage points than in ridings where the UKIP vote dropped by fewer than 15 percentage points.

While this suggests that Labour might have taken votes from UKIP, the UKIP decline was more important to Conservative success than Labour success. The fact that Labour made large gains regardless of whether riding saw a substantial UKIP collapse suggests that Labour was able to take votes from other parties (or that they were able to mobilize large numbers of previous non-voters). Indeed, UKIP’s collapse may have done more to hurt Labour than to help it. Had UKIP not lost large numbers of votes, the Conservatives may not have been able to make the gains that they did in the ridings where UKIP vote declined by more than 10 percentage points. A larger gap between Labour and Conservative gains in these ridings may have handed a number of seats that Conservatives won over to Labour.

The same dynamics do not appear to apply to the SNP in Scotland. The graph below shows that the Conservatives made substantially larger gains than Labour regardless of how much the SNP lost in a riding. Labour did slightly better in ridings where the SNP did worse as compared to ridings where SNP losses where limited, but the increase in Conservative vote share appeared to be unaffected by SNP losses. The result is a reasonably consistent gap between Conservative and Labour gains throughout Scotland.

Labour and Conservative Gains Against SNP Losses

The Labour party’s success in the 2017 election was remarkable. It is particularly notable that Labour did not need to see large UKIP losses in a riding in order to make significant gains. This suggests that, while Labour probably did win over some former UKIP voters, they also had other sources of support. The Conservatives, meanwhile seemed to be much more reliant on making gains from UKIP losses, suggesting that the fortunes of UKIP have a much greater impact on the Conservatives than on Labour.


The Declining Left: Mainstream Left Parties across the Industrialized World Are Seeing Declining Vote Shares

The results of Dutch elections this year have brought liberals and progressives a great deal of relief. Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom was defeated by the centre-right VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) led by Mark Rutte. Lost in the discussion of this election has been the poor performance of the Dutch Labour party. Once a significant competitor for government, the party won less than 10 of the 150 seats available in the Dutch parliament and just over 5% of the vote. The Labour party is not likely to be the only mainstream left party that will see its vote decline this year. In France, the Socialist Party looks unlikely to make it through the second round of Presidential elections, despite the fact that current President Francois Hollande is a member of the party. Mainstream left party vote share has been declining across industrialized countries from 1980 through to today.

To understand trends in mainstream party vote share I looked at left and right party support in elections across a number of industrialized countries. Included were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I chose these countries because they have had reasonably stable party systems, at least compared to countries such as Belgium and Italy. In addition, unlike France, Japan, and New Zealand, they did not experience major electoral reform (a change from majoritarian to a proportional system or vice versa). I compared the share of mainstream parties’ vote, the vote for all left parties (social democratic or communist), and the vote for all left parties and green parties. I did this for elections from 1945 to 2016.

A look at the vote share of mainstream left parties shows a steady decline in vote share that runs from 1980 to 2016. The graph below shows the average vote share of the largest left party. Mainstream left parties start with an average vote share around 35% in 1980. By 2016, they were averaging just over 25% of the vote. Mainstream right parties have seen a similar decline, going from an average of just over 33% of the vote in 1980 to around 24% in 2016. Their support is, however, is much less stable over the full 1945-2016 period. Mainstream right support was well below 30% through a good portion of the 1950s and again around 1970. There is no evidence that mainstream centrist parties are taking advantage of this decline in mainstream left and right support. Support for the largest centrist or liberal party has been relatively stable, at 12% to 14%, over time.

Left, Right, and Centre Party Vote Share

There is also little evidence that the decline in the mainstream left support has benefited other left parties. The graph below shows that average vote share of all left parties put together declines at a similar rate to mainstream left parties. In 1980, the average country saw left parties combine to take 40% of the popular vote. By 2016 left parties as a whole were only averaging 30%. There is evidence that some of the decline in left support has gone the green parties. Combining left support with green party support makes the decline less steep. At the same time, the fact that there still is a decline shows that the weaker showings by left parties are simply a product of the rise of green parties.

Left and Green Parties

The decline of the left has been consistent across different countries. The graphs below show the trends in mainstream left support in Anglo countries (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom), Nordic countries, and in the rest of Europe. Of the three Anglo countries I looked at, two have seen significant left party declines. In Australia, Labour party support has fallen from the 40%-50% range in the 1970s to around 35% in the 2010s. In the UK, Labour support fell below 30% in 1980, rebounded over the 1990s, and then collapsed again in the 2000s. Of the Anglo countries, only Canada has seen growth in mainstream left support. Depending on what happens to the NDP in the next decade, that growth could be short lived.

Mainstream Left Parties in Anglo Countries

Nordic countries, which tend to see higher support for left parties, have not been immune from the decline. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have all seen their largest left parties lose support over the past three decades. The two countries that entered the 1980s with the strongest left parties, Norway and Sweden, have also seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Having a strong left in past, and in the case of Sweden, one that has consistently formed governments, has not protected the mainstream left from the drop in support that taken place over recent decades.

Mainstream Left Parties in Nordic Countries

Finally, the four continental European countries that I looked at mirror the trends in Nordic countries. Austria and Germany, which had the strongest mainstream left parties of the four, have seen the largest declines in mainstream left support. Both parties have seen their largest left parties go from over 40% of the vote in 1980 to under 30% by 2016. The decline in the Netherlands and Switzerland is less pronounced, but mainstream left was weaker in those two countries to begin with. This graph also does not include the most recent Dutch election, in which Labour party vote share fell to just over 5%.

Mainstream Left Parties in Europe

The decline of the mainstream left has important implications for progressive politics in Canada and across the industrialized world. The NDP used to be able to look at other mainstream left parties as a potential model of how they might be successful well. The weaker the mainstream left becomes, the less viable an option this seems to be. The NDP can no longer look to the British Labour party, the German SDP, or the Swedish Social Democrats as examples that they can follow.

Across the industrialized word, the mainstream left parties need to start re-evaluating their positions and their approaches to electoral politics. That the decline in mainstream left support is affecting a variety of parties across different countries suggests that this is not a problem that can be solved by a party trying to renew itself or try to reconnect with voters. Rather, it suggests that are broader changes occurring across countries that are weakening the appeal of mainstream left parties. Progressives need to try to determine what these changes are and how they might respond to them. In doing so, they should look for trends that cross national borders. The weak performances of mainstream left parties are not isolated events. They are challenges that progressives must try to grapple with if they hope to be successful in future elections.

*Election data comes from ParlGov.


Keep Government Responsible: Citizens of Parliamentary Democracies Should be Working to Inoculate Their Institutions Against Trumpism

The election of Donald Trump and his flouting of the liberal and democratic norms that underpin society has much of the world worried. These fears are made worse by the increasing strength of far-right parties in much of Europe, and the presence of Trump-like candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary in the Canadian Conservative leadership races. The rise of the far-right should raise concerns about the concentration of power with positions such as the Prime Minister or President. When a far-right candidate, such as Trump, wins control of executive office they have a great deal of power to affect policy. In parliamentary systems, parliament is supposed act as a check, holding the Prime Minister and cabinet accountable for their decisions, and removing them from office when they put forward or implement policy ideas that are at odds with elected MPs.  In practice, however, the ability for parliament to do this is constrained by the power the Prime Minister has over MPs. Two measures, the adoption of proportional electoral systems and increased MP control over leadership selection, offer important counter-balances to a potential far-right Prime Minister.

Parliamentary systems, in contrast to Presidential ones, rely on a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. The Prime Minister only remains in power so long as she has the approval of parliament. If the PM and cabinet put forward legislation or enact policy that parliament dislikes, parliament can remove the PM from power through a confidence motion. In theory this practice ensures that PMs and their cabinets act in a way that reflect a country’s broader interests. In practice this can hand the PM a great deal of power to implement their policy. The PM can reward those MPs that support her with promotions to cabinet positions and punish those that do not by limiting their opportunities to rise beyond the backbenches. The power that the PM wields over MPs, especially when she leads a majority government, can prevent parliament from acting as an adequate check.

The adoption of a proportional electoral system, though it would make it easier for a far-right party to enter parliament and even to become a junior coalition member, would limit the ability for a far-right party to lead a government. Because proportional systems rarely produce majority governments, parties that win office in such systems have to share power, either through coalition governments or through minority governments that make significant concessions to opposition parties. The need to obtain the cooperation of other parties can make it difficult for a far-right party to gain control of government.  Because a PM’s power over MPs is usually limited to those in her own party, forcing the PM to work with other parties weakens the power of the PM and strengthens parliament.

The current Dutch election illustrates how PR can constrain the far-right.  In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom looks poised to win the more votes than any other party in March elections but is unlikely to win a majority. Wilders, however, is unlikely to become the Dutch Prime Minister because, to this point, no other party has expressed a willingness to join him in coalition. It is more likely that other parties will form an alternative coalition that keeps him out of power. Even if Wilders does manage to become PM, he will need to temper his extremism in order to maintain power. The threat that parliament can remove a far-right leader from power immediately through a confidence vote should prevent a far-right PM from acting in the same way that Trump has since becoming President.

Allowing MPs more say over their leaders would also empowers them to act as a check on the take over of mainstream parties by far-right candidates. One of the reasons that Trump was able to win the 2016 election was that he was able to win the support of loyal Republicans- individuals who might not have supported Trump had he run as an independent. In Canada, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary serve as similar examples of populist candidates seeking to take over a mainstream party. Allowing MPs a greater say over leadership selection or the power to remove leaders could serve as a check against this. MPs come from a diverse group of ridings and need reasonably broad support to win office. Leadership candidates often need only a subset of party members in order to win leadership election. Because many MPs need broad support to hold on to their seats they have an incentive to push back against leadership candidates that may be well-liked by a subset of the party’s base but have little appeal to the broader national electorate.

The extent to which MPs were able to push back against more extreme candidates was illustrated in the recent British Conservative leadership race. To become leader of the British Conservatives one must finish first or second on a vote of the parliamentary party (Conservative MPs) and then win a majority vote of the broader party membership. A third place finish on the parliamentary party ballot took candidate Michael Gove (who had campaigned to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum) out of the race. Indeed the other leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsome who had finished second, ended up dropping out because she did not feel she had sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs. MP’s ability to exert control over the leadership selection process helped the moderate Theresa May defeat more extreme rivals. Either increasing MPs’ ability to affect leadership races or giving them the ability to remove leaders they do not support would give MPs much greater power to check a far-right leaning leader of a mainstream party.

The way democratic institutions are set up affects the ability of individuals to win power and the ability of elected bodies to check those that wield it. Robust democracies do not grant a single individual the ability to rule by fiat, they force those that exercise executive power to be accountable to elected bodies such as parliaments. In the wake of Trump’s election victory and the threat that similar candidates could rise to power in parliamentary systems, there is a need to consider ways in which parliaments can be empowered to check such candidates. Proportional electoral systems and increasing MPs’ ability to choose or recall their leaders offer two ways through which this can be done.


Partisan Paradoxes: More Open Leadership Contests Do Not Necessarily Make For Better General Elections

The politics of leadership selection are becoming increasingly important in American and British politics. In Britain the Labour party will see a leadership contest after Angela Eagle and Owen Smith submitted challenges to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. These challenges took place after Corbyn lost a confidence vote amongst Labour MPs 172-40. In the United States, Donald Trump has won the Presidential nomination by attacking much of the Republican establishment. It is tempting to see the success of populist movements, especially the one that elected Jeremy Corbyn, as indications the strength of democratic values within political parties. This misses the extent to which party leadership contests are decided by a small and unrepresentative electorate. Paradoxically, placing constraints on the influence of leadership contest electorates (through the use of super-delegates or by requiring a certain number of MPs approve of leadership candidates) can lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the views of the general electorate.

The extent to which leadership contests reflect the views of the broader public is often over-stated. Leadership contests are usually low turnout affairs, and as a result, even large victories in leadership contests can be won with small proportions of the population. Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest was won with just 251 417 votes. This was 60% of the voters who voted in the contest, but nowhere near the more than 9 million votes that left Labour as the official opposition in the 2015 election. Even in the United States, where primaries lead to high levels of participation in leadership contests, Trump won just 14 million votes. This pales in comparison to the nearly 61 million votes that Mitt Romney needed to get just 47% of the vote in the 2012 Presidential election. What looks like a large populist movement in a leadership contest can often be a quite small when it is compared with size of the electorate for general elections. It is a mistake to assume that a leadership candidate who rides a wave of populist support to a leadership convention victory necessarily has large amounts of support amongst the broader population.

One could argue that leadership contest provide parties with an indication of which leader is most popular with the broader electorate. The problem with this argument is that voters in a leadership contest are not representative of the broader electorate. Voters in leadership contests are more partisan, and closer to the extremes of political spectrum than most other voters. Individuals who are unsure about which party they will support in general elections, or who hold moderate political views that lead them to switch their vote between parties, tend not to vote in leadership contests. Additionally, voters who do not hold strong views about politics, and are thus not likely to have strong ideological positions, tend not to participate in leadership contests. To the extent that outsider candidates such as Corbyn or Trump draw new voters to their parties, they tend to be smaller groups of voters from the political extremes. The new Labour members that have joined the party to support Corbyn tend to be voters who are to the left of Labour. The voters that Trump has added to the Republican party tend to have positions on immigration that are more extreme than the Republican’s past positions. These groups of voters look like they represent larger movements than they do, because the number of people voting in leadership contests is much smaller than the number of people that vote in general elections. A populist movement that wins a leadership contest is not necessarily representative of the general electorate.

The nomination of extreme candidates can hurt the quality of a country’s democracy. When parties nominate extreme candidates they significantly constrain the choices of general election voters. The choice of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee leaves moderate Republicans without a Presidential candidate that reflects their views. The same is true of moderate Labour voters, who may have difficulty supporting a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party. The danger of allowing too much populism in leadership contests is that it creates general elections where moderate voters have to choose between candidates selected by much smaller and more ideological extreme factions within the major parties. When this is the case, large numbers of voters in the general electorate can be left without candidates that represent their views.

There are a number of ways that parties can guard against the nomination of candidates who would unpalatable in a general election. In the United States the Democratic party includes super-delegates in its convention, who can push back against Democratic primary voters that try to nominate a candidate that is unpopular with the broader electorate. In the British Conservative party only the leadership candidates who finish first and second in a vote of Conservative MPs are allowed to try to win the votes of the broader party membership. In the British Labour party MPs tried to reassert their influence over leadership by voting overwhelmingly to express no-confidence in Corbyn’s leadership. These mechanisms allow for party members to influence leadership selection, but balance that influence with MPs and other party members’ views.

These constraints on leadership elections are often derided as undemocratic, but they can help to ensure that leadership races produces leaders that reflect the interests of an electorate that extends beyond parties’ members. MPs, congress people, and other super-delegates almost always have a strong interest in their party being successful in general elections. MPs and congresspeople will often do better in general elections if their leader is popular and worse if she is not. Party elites have strong incentives to push for selection of leaders that have a broad appeal within the general electorate. These leaders, while they may not always be as representative of members of the party, are often more representative of the views of general electorate. The party elites that are pushing back against the populist movements that have led to the selection of Trump or Corbyn as party leaders are often doing so in the hope of replacing them with leaders that hold views that are more palatable to the general elected, even if they are not preferred by a majority of party members.

More democratic leadership selection processes do not necessarily lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the public. Because leadership contests have voters than tend to be more partisan and more ideologically extreme than the rest of the public, they can lead to the selection of leaders that large portions of the public find unpalatable. When parties elect extreme leaders, they can make it difficult for moderates in the electorate to find general election candidates that represent their views. Allowing parties to place some constraints on the ability of party members to elect leaders can be important to ensuring that parties’ leaders are capable of effectively representing a much broader general electorate.


Why Stay? The Case Against Separatism Depends on Mutually Beneficial Institution not on Common National Identity

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has led to renewed efforts among Scottish nationalists to gain independence from the UK. Less than two years after Scotland’s first referendum on independence failed, the vote for Brexit has led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to announce that a second independence referendum is now under consideration. There is also substantial support in Scotland for both another referendum and for independence. The resurgence of Scottish nationalism has important lessons for federalists in Canada and unionists in the United Kingdom. In both countries national unity is based not on a common sense of national identity but on mutually beneficial political and economic institutions. When those institutions are undermined, the cases to keep Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the UK are as well.

Federalist and unionist appeals to a common identity are unlikely to be successful because there is not a strong common identity that links Quebecers with Canada or Scots with the UK.  In a 2014 poll of Quebec youth (one of the age groups least likely to support separatism) CROP found that only 28% identified as Canadian first.  In Scotland the levels of identification with Britain are also low. The research centre What Scotland Thinks finds that Scottish identification with Britain has consistently been below 25% over the past 15 years. If Quebecers are forced to choose between Canada and Quebec most are going to choose Quebec and if Scots are forced to choose between Scotland and the UK most are going to choose Scotland.

Canadian federalists and Scottish Unionists, both inside Quebec and Scotland and outside of them, need to come to grips with this reality. Successful campaigns to keep Canada and the United Kingdom together cannot be based on a sense of common national identity. Rallies, like the Unity Rally held in Montreal during the 1995 referendum are unlikely to make an impact on voters considering a vote for separation because they appeal to a patriotism that those voters do not share. The more federalists and unionists look for a common national identity as a basis for arguments against separatism the more they are going to expose divisions between Quebecers and Canadians and Scots and Brits.

The most successful arguments against separatism are arguments that separatism is likely to cause significant economic harm to Quebec and Scotland, and that make claims that federal arrangements (or quasi-federal arrangement in the case of the UK) can allow governments in Quebec and Scotland the autonomy to maintain their own identities. Both Canada and the United Kingdom transfer substantial amounts of money to Quebec and Scotland. This occurs both in the form of national programs that benefit Quebecers and Scots as well as direct cash transfers to the governments of both regions. In both Quebec and Scotland fear over what would happen economically should the region choose to become independent served as a powerful argument against separatism. Arguments that federal institutions and recognition give regional (in Canada provincial) governments the power necessary to protect Quebecois or Scottish identity can further strengthen the claims of opponents of separatism. Canadians and Brits can seriously undermine the case for separatism if they can demonstrate the cultural protections separatists often seek can been gained without separation. Opponents of separatism must be careful not to undermine these cases against separatism if they wish to keep their countries together.

In voting to leave the European Union, Britain did exactly this. In addition to benefiting from being part of the UK, Scots also benefit immensely from being part of the EU. Scotland receives significant transfers from the EU and many in Scotland value the customs union that they have with the rest of Europe. This is why Scotland overwhelming to stay in the European Union. It is also not clear that what Britain offers Scotland is worth more than what the EU offers. In the event of a Brexit it is difficult to see why Scots would vote to remain in the UK. If Brexit makes Scotland worse off, and if there is little in the way of a common identity binding Scots to the UK, the incentives for Scots to vote against independence will end up becoming quite weak.

Multiple referendums of separation in Quebec highlight the fact that Quebec’s presence in Canada cannot be taken for granted. Arguments against Quebec separatism rely on a delicate balance of appeals to mutual economic interests and to a federal arrangements that allow the government of Quebec to maintain control of many of the province’s cultural institutions. Weakening the extent to which Quebec benefits from being part of the country, by reducing transfer payments for example, can undermine the ties that keep Quebec in Canada. Similarly failing to recognize Quebec as a distinct society or limiting the extent to which Quebec’s provincial government can work to protect the French language for Quebecers can weaken the case against separatism. The best way to keep Quebec in Canada is to demonstrate that Quebecers can gain the advantages of economic union with Canada while maintaining their own unique identity. Canadian federalists should see the case of Brexit and Scotland as a warning. Undermining the economic and political arrangements that create incentives for Quebec to remain in Canada will seriously threaten national unity in a way that no appeals to patriotism can fix.

Neither Canada nor the United Kingdom is a nation-state nor are they American style melting pots. There is no common identity that can hold Canada and the United Kingdom together. For a large portion of Quebecers and Scots, Canada and the United Kingdom are mutually beneficial political and economic arrangements. This is not a bad thing. Appeals to mutual interest and common political institutions allow Canada and the United Kingdom to contain remarkable levels of diversity. Recognition and respect for differences can allow Quebec and the rest of Canada and Brits and Scots to both benefit from sharing the same country. This, however, requires that Canadians and Brits do not make decisions that undermine the interests of Quebecers and Scots. By voting to leave the EU, many Brits have taken the UK out of an Union that is highly important to Scots, hurt Scots’ economic interests, and increased Scots’ incentives to leave the UK.


Mother Knows Best: Two Parliamentary Practices that Canada Should Adopt from Britain

The British parliament at Westminster is often referred to as the “Mother of all Parliaments.” A number of countries around the world, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have based their parliamentary systems on the British model. Each country, however, has developed some of its own unique rules and conventions that guide its parliament. Question period in Canada is conducted differently than it is in Britain. In Britain time is set aside for questions directed to a particular minister while in Canada questions must be directed towards the cabinet as a whole. Additionally parliamentary committees in Britain are more independent of party leadership in Canada, and have much greater practical leeway to scrutinize and modify the legislation that they review. Question period and parliamentary committees play an important role in allowing parliament to hold the executive (the cabinet and Prime Minister) to account for the policies and the legislation they pursue. Canada would benefit from the adoption of the British approach to question period and from the creation of parliamentary committees with a greater degree of independence than they have now.

Question period is probably the most viewed and talked about session in parliament, and also the most maligned. It exists as a mechanism through which the opposition and backbenchers can hold the executive to account for government policies, but has largely degenerated into a venue for partisan attacks from both government and opposition. Partisanship in question period in and of itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, partisanship can lead to an opposition that is vigorous in its scrutiny of the government, seeking to exposure scandals and policy failures. This exposure benefits not only the opposition party, but the Canadian public as a whole. The same can be said of the partisanship and the government if the desire to avoid being embarrassed by a scandal hungry opposition pushes ministers to be more careful in the way they run their departments. Problems arise in question period, however, when partisanship leads ministers to refuse to answer questions or when parliamentary tactics lead parties to deflect questions away from the minister responsible for the department on which a scandal or policy failure occurred. When parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra (instead of the foreign minister or defence minister) is answering questions about the deployment of Canadian forces to Iraq, and when he is doing so by talking about what an opposition staff member thinks about Israel, question period is no longer serving its purpose.

In the United Kingdom a question period session is dedicated to the questioning of a particular minister. Most famous (and common) is Prime Minister’s question time, where all questions are directed towards the Prime Minister and must be responded to by the Prime Minister. Other ministers have their dedicated question time as well though. David Cameron cannot defer to a parliamentary secretary if he does not want to be seen talking about a particular issue or giving a particular answer. If he gets a question during Prime Minister’s question time, he has to provide the government response. If Stephen Harper does not want to be seen addressing a particular subject he can have any other minister or parliamentary secretary provide a response to the question. This led to the absurd scenario in which the response to a question over a discussion Stephen Harper had with Mike Duffy over Duffy’s expense account, not by Stephen Harper, but by then Foreign Minister John Baird.

The British approach to question period has several benefits over the Canadian one. The first is that it ensures that each department is effectively scrutinized and that the appropriate ministers are answering the appropriate questions. An issue such as the deployment of Canadian forces to Iraq is the responsibility of both the foreign minister and the defence minister, and both should be able to provide a full account to Canadians of the details of any policies relating to such a deployment. If they cannot, Canadians have reason to be concerned about the way the Minister is running that department. Further, because a department’s Minister has (or at least should have) the most information of any cabinet minister in government, the Minister should be in best position to give and full and complete answer to the opposition’s question. As the individual responsible for a department, it is reasonable for an opposition party to expect that that Minister will be the one who responds to questions designed to hold the government to account for the way that department is run. The ability of a minister to provide effective answers in question period can then be used as a way to judge that minister’s ability to run her department. A minister that spends most of their question time deflecting or ignoring questions can have their competence questioned by both opposition parties and by the public as a whole. The more important the minister, the more damaging the appearance of incompetence is to the government as a whole. It is one thing for a parliamentary secretary to respond to questions about Iraq by talking about Israel, it looks far worse when the Minister of Defence does so.

Requiring Ministers or the Prime Minister to answer questions further reduces the ability of governments to play partisan games with the way that questions are responded to. The degree of public scrutiny that a minister receives plays a role in the degree to which they can give non-responsive and partisan answers to questions. The more prominent a minister is, the less they can afford to look ridiculous by giving non-responsive and non-sensical answers. There is a reason that Stephen Harper defers to a parliamentary secretary, or even another Minister, when his party wants to make its most partisan of attacks or wants to completely ignore a question. A parliamentary secretary can be shamed into giving a tearful apology to the House of Commons, as Paul Calandra was after refusing to discuss the deployment of Canadian forces to Iraq, without that apology doing too much damage to the way people perceive the government. A Prime Minister or senior minister that has to apologize for ignoring questions is a much bigger deal. This is not to say that Stephen Harper never makes partisan attacks or always responds to question, no Prime Minister is ever as direct or as responsive as the opposition, or often the public, would like. But the Prime Minister and senior ministers are far more constrained in the types of replies that they can provide to questions because there is a greater likelihood that their replies could end up on the 6:00 news. That is a good thing for question period and for parliament.

In contrast to question period, parliamentary committees probably receive some of the least public scrutiny of any of parliament’s activity. They exist to allow MPs to debate and discuss the details of legislation, gathering informations (committees are allowed to call witnesses) and discussing details in a way that could not be done in a 300 person meeting of parliament. The committees provide a valuable venue in which parliament can scrutinize government and private member’s legislation. Individual MPs rarely have the time to go through every detail in a piece of legislation. There are simply too many pieces of legislation for a single MP to become an expert in each one. Committees allow for a division of labour in parliament when it comes to the scrutiny of legislation. The quality of this scrutiny hinges on the committees being independent of leadership, particular of government control. Committee members who are assigned committee positions by their party leadership are going to be less likely to go against the wishes of their party and provide proper scrutiny of legislation.

The independence of committees is affected by the way that members are selected to them. In Britain many committee chairs are elected by all MPs and by secret ballot, limiting the control that party leadership can exert over their selection. If a substantial number of government backbench MPs want to work together to get an MP selected chair of a committee the government can not only do little to stop them, but also has no ability to figure out who was part of the group that organized in favour of the backbencher elected. In Canada committee chairs are elected only by the MPs who sit on the committee. The small number of voters coupled with the control that parties have over who is assigned to committees makes it easy for party leadership to wrangle votes and ensure that the chairs that they prefer are appointed heads of particular committees.

One could go further than Britain in designing a committee selection process that maximizes the independence of parliamentary committees. All committee members could be elected by members of their parties, ensuring that the MPs chosen to represent their parties on a committee are accountable to their colleagues in parliament and not to party leadership. Committee positions are assigned to parties based on their overall representation in parliament, so elections would have to occur within the parties. NDP MPs would vote on which of their members would serve on a committee, say the finance committee, and Conservative MPs would vote on which of their members would serve on such a committee. MPs would thus have to demonstrate to their colleagues that they can best serve MPs’ interests rather than just demonstrating that they will do what party leadership wants them to. Groups of backbench MPs hostile to their party’s leadership would be able to organize and seek to gain control of the committee that deals with that issue. Government legislation in this area would then be subject to greater levels of scrutiny. The election of committee chairs and members would reduce the ability of party leadership to control committee activity and make leadership much more accountable to parliament as a whole.

Canadian parliament would be well served by changes to its procedures that allow more space for parliament to scrutinize the activity of the government. This is not to argue that party discipline and partisanship does not have its place in Canadian politics. Both do play important roles in ensuring that parliament can function effectively, but both can also serve as impediments to government accountability. Changes to the procedures that govern question period and the selection of committee members could help to improve the ability of parliament to hold the Prime Minister and cabinet to account.


Electoral System Oddities- First Past the Post Systems Do Not Just Distort Electoral Outcomes, but also the way that Leaders are Evaluated

The beginning of May was a good time for election junkies. One election, in Alberta, led to the province’s first ever NDP majority government. Two days later, the British election produced an un-expected Conservative majority for David Cameron. Both elections also saw the collapse of parties that had been important in the previous election. In Alberta the Progressive Conservatives fell to third place after spending 44 years in government. In the United Kingdom the Liberal Democrats went from 56 seats (and membership in a coalition government) to 8 seats a fourth place in parliament. The success of party leaders is often measured by their electoral results. In the UK David Cameron was praised for winning the Conservatives a majority while Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg resigned losing significant numbers of seats for their party. In Alberta the NDP’s Rachel Notley and the Wildrose Alliance’s Brian Jean were praised while Jim Prentice took the blame for significant PC losses. Pundits should be careful about judging leaders by the seats they win in first past the post electoral systems. Just as seat shares can distort electoral outcomes, they can also distort the way that people view leaders. Leaders can pick up votes, successfully convincing voters to move over to their party, but appear to be failures because those votes do not translate into an increased number of seats. Conversely, leaders who lose voters between elections can have those losses masked by seat gains. In Alberta and the UK, increases in seats shares made Wildrose Alliance leader Brian Jean and British Conservative leader David Cameron look more successful than they actually were, while Labour leader Ed Miliband’s drop in seats hides the fact that he actually increased Labour’s overall share of the vote.

One of the key purposes of a party’s election campaign is to convince voters to move their support over to the party. While there are certainly many factors that influence voters’ decision, party leaders’ tours play an important role in the success of parties’ campaigns. As the most visible members of their party, leaders are often the focus of news coverage, election advertising, and have a unique opportunity to engage with voters across the country (instead of just in their constituency) throughout the campaign. While leaders might be able to convince voters to switch their support over to their party, the ability to convince voters in the right places to switch their support is a much more difficult task. Parties can certainly target particular districts, spending a greater number of resources in districts that are likely to be close as opposed to those that party will is either almost certain to win or almost certain to lose. Many aspects of a party’s campaign, though, are received equally by people across the country. Even if advertising campaigns can be concentrated on particular cities, they can rarely be focused on just those districts that are likely to be swing districts. National media coverage of leaders will be received with as equal frequency in districts that are highly supportive of one party as it will be in districts that are likely to swing between parties. Beyond focusing more spending in certain ridings and making an extra appearances in particular ridings, the best that leaders can try to do in to increase their seat share is convince voters across the country to support their party. The ability of leaders to control the distribution of their vote share is much weaker than their ability to control the size of their vote share.

The difficulty that parties have translating votes into seats is compounded by the lack of control that parties often have over the success of their rivals. Both the emergence and the collapse of parties can have significant consequences for the number of seats that a party wins even if their overall share of the vote does not change. The collapse of a key rival can mean that seats that were close races in a previous election become clear wins for the party. The rise of a new rival party can make seats that were once safe for a party hotly contested. Both the Alberta and the UK election featured these effects. The collapse of the Conservative vote in Alberta meant that Wildrose Alliance candidates were often competing against much weaker candidates than they were in the previous election in 2012. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom had similar effects, while the rise of the Scottish National Party meant that the Labour party ended up fighting close races (and indeed losing) in seats that had previously been Labour strongholds.

The success of David Cameron’s Conservative party in the United Kingdom is a prime example of how parties can increase their share of the seats without any change in their popular vote. Cameron’s Conservatives managed to move from a coalition government (reliant on the Liberal Democrats for support) to a majority government. They gained a total of 28 seats, despite increasing their overall share of the vote by less than 1 percentage point. Cameron was able to win a majority because of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. 36 seats switched to the Conservatives between in the 2015 election (8 Conservative seats switched from the Conservatives to other parties in order to result in a net gain of 28 seats). Of these 36 seats that switched, 27 came from the Liberal Democrats and only 9 from the Labour party. In only one of two of these seats (including those the Conservatives won from the Labour party) did the Liberal Democrats lose less than 10 percentage points of the vote compared to their 2010 total. In eight of those seats the Liberal Democrat vote losses exceeded 20 percentage points. The average Conservative gain over all of the seats they won was just 4 percentage points while Labour lost only an average of 0.5 of a percentage point in the seats they lost to the Conservatives (the Conservative gain in seats they took from Labour was an average of 3.7 percentage points). The Labour party actually gained votes in all but one of the seats that the Conservatives took from the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives won their majority not because they were able to convince voters to abandon Labour, but because they were running against severely weakened Liberal Democrat candidates. In only one seat that Labour lost did their losses exceed Conservative gains, suggesting that even in those seats the Conservatives were able to benefit from taking votes from the Liberal Democrats in addition to any support they may have won from Labour. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats played a larger role in the Conservative victory in the UK than the increases in vote share that the Conservatives managed during the campaign.

If David Cameron gaining a majority government without gaining much in the way of additional vote support seems odd, Brian Jean’s success in the Alberta election is even stranger. Jean’s Wildrose Alliance dropped 10 percentage points compared to the 2012 election. Despite this, they managed to gain 4 seats, holding on to their position as leader of the official opposition (despite finishing third in popular vote share). Like the British Conservatives, the Wildrose Alliance benefited from the collapse of a major rival. The Progressive Conservative share fell by 16.2 percentage points. Of the 7 seats that went PC in 2012 but Wildrose Alliance in 2015 (Wildrose Alliance losses account for the net gain of only 4), in only 2 did they exceed their 2012 vote share. 5 Wildrose Alliance candidates managed to pick up seats previously won by the PCs despite winning less support than the Wildrose Alliance won in their riding in 2012. Those results are not evidence of a successful campaign. Rather they suggest that the Wildrose Alliance benefited from against weakened Progressive Conservatives. Had the Progressive Conservatives been as strong as they were in 2012, the Wildrose Alliance likely would have lost a substantial number of seats.

Where the British Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance were benefited from the collapse of their competitors and the way those collapses interacted with the electoral system, the British Labour party was hurt by the rise of a rival. Labour suffered a net loss of 24 seats in 2015, and did particularly poorly in Scotland. There, Labour lost 40 seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP). Labour’s losses in Scotland were not just significant with respect to seats, they also dropped 18 percentage point there (while the SNP picked up 30). Popular vote wise, though, Labour was able to make up for their losses in Scotland by increasing their support in the rest of the UK. Across the entire United Kingdom, the Labour vote share actually increased by 1.5 percentage points, a gain greater than the Conservatives’. Despite increasing their vote by more percentage points than the Conservatives, Miliband’s Labour party actually lost seats. This is because, while the Conservatives were fighting a weaker rival than they were in 2012 in the Liberal Democrats, in many seats Labour was fighting a stronger rival in the SNP. When it comes to convincing the public to support Labour, Miliband did a better job than previous Labour leader Gordon Brown did in 2012. Yet, because the Liberal Democrats were weaker and the SNP was stronger, Miliband ended up losing seats. This is not to suggest that Miliband’s campaign was a success. He failed to win over the voters that abandoned the Liberal Democrats and failed to stop the rise of the SNP in Scotland. An increase in of 1.5 percentage points is not the kind of popular vote increase that can be expected to take one from opposition to government. At the same time, Miliband should not be seen as doing worse for Labour than they did in 2012.

None of this is to argue that leaders should be judged entirely by their ability to increase or decrease their share of the popular vote. The circumstances in which leaders fight elections are often different. Leaders in opposition facing an unpopular government might rightly be criticized for failing to win government even if they manage to increase their party’s share of the popular vote. Leaders of governing parties might be rewarded for maintaining their share of the popular vote if the polls in the years preceding an election show a sharp decline in support for the governing party. Finally, election results should not be fully attributed to the success or failure of party leaders. Economic success or failure, the rise of new issues and political cleavages (such as Scottish Nationalism), and the good or poor performance of a government can affect public opinion in ways that leaders are unable to compensate for over the course of an election campaign. To the extent that leaders are judged on their results though, in first past the post systems it is important to look beyond the number of seats that the leader’s party wins or loses. The way that the electoral systems translates seats into votes in different elections, depending on changes in strength of a party’s rivals, can make their campaign look either more or less successful that it actually was.