Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Proportional Representation 5: What About Britain?

Political science (no different, I suppose, from other social sciences, or from the natural sciences) likes models. It tries to fit the messy reality of human behavior into neat little boxes. That, of course, doesn't completely work.

One must remember the old adage: "If there's a discrepancy between the map and the terrain, the terrain is correct."

In the previous posts in this series, I have tried to establish that the number of parties in a country varies directly with the degree of proportional representation. I cherry-picked three examples, being the U.S., Israel and Germany, that fit that model.

But the fly in the ointment is the United Kingdom. There is no element of proportional representation in elections for the British House of Commons. Yet, while there are two dominant parties, there are other parties with significant representation in that house. While, as I pointed out here, the U.K. has not used the device of coalition government to cobble together a majority, there have been minority governments on three occasions over the last four decades, who have relied on informal coalitions with minor parties.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain's dominant parties were the Conservative and Liberal parties. The most notable rivalry between leaders of those parties was that in the mid- to late-Victorian era, between the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli and the Liberal William Gladstone. One or the other of those leaders was prime minister during the period from 1868 to 1885. Gladstone's last government ended in 1894, when he was 84 years old.

The trade union movement formed its own party in 1900. For more than 20 years, the Labor Party remained a minor factor in British politics. During that period, the Liberals were the dominant party, governing for most of that period, either by themselves or, during and after World War I, in coalition with the Conservatives.

Then, in 1924, the Liberals' support suddenly collapsed and never subsequently recovered. In a general election held October 29, 1924, they were reduced to 40 of the 616 seats in the House of Commons. Ever since then, the two-party system has involved the Conservative and Labor parties.

A small remnant of the Liberal Party continued on for several decades. Their number of House of Commons seats fell to single digits in several 20th century general elections.

The next major development was in 1981, when a centrist faction of the Labor Party defected, and formed the Social Democratic Party. Labor, which had aggressively pursued socialist policies following their victory in the 1945 general election, had veered even further to the left, after losing to Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in 1979.

The Social Democrats formed an alliance with the Liberals for the purpose of contesting the 1983 and 1987 general elections. That alliance led to a full merger in 1988, to form a party now known as the Liberal Democrats.

While the Liberal Democrats have not seriously challenged the Conservative and Labor parties for predominance, their party has achieved significant gains in recent elections. The Liberal Democrats won 62 of the 646 House of Commons seats in the most recent general election, in 2005.

As I wrote about here, additional parties have been formed in the non-English countries in the United Kingdom. For the most part, these are nationalist parties, who range from favoring a stronger separate identity for their countries within the kingdom, to advocating outright independence. The exceptions are the unionist parties in Northern Ireland, which were formed to support being part of the U.K. and to oppose the nationalist parties that advocate union with the Republic of Ireland.

At the 2005 general election, the local parties in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales won a total of 29 of the 646 seats. As recently as 1970, those parties totaled only five seats.

To summarize, for a period during the early-to-mid 20th century, the two dominant parties won almost all of the seats in the House of Commons. That is what I would expect from a system lacking proportional representation.

But, more recently, even though the electoral system has not changed in that regard, minor parties have achieved increasing success. That seems to be the result of two factors specific to the recent history of the U.K.:

  1. Nationalist movements have gained political strength outside of England.

  2. The Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties have found room to position themselves on the left wing of British politics, as the Labor Party has veered, first far to the left, and subsequently back toward the center.

Getting back to my original point, the terrain is a bit more complicated than the map.

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