Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 16 November 2020

How the electoral system in the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, is biased towards social conservatism.


The UK is often torn between following the US or following Europe. We share a language with the US, and a lot of popular culture. But we also share a voting system that ensures the political right has a heavy built in advantage. The United States may be too far down that road to change, but in the UK there is still hope if only the current opposition leadership see sense.

Once we get over the relief that Donald Trump is no longer President, comes the realisation of just how bad the US election results really were for Democrats. Trump was a Republican, and the Republican party backed him almost without exception. Even in the current ludicrous situation where Trump is refusing to concede, many senior Republican politicians continue to back him.

It should come as no surprise that Republicans have an ambiguous relationship to democracy. Republicans see nothing wrong in distorting district borders to give themselves better election results in terms of seats than their polling numbers deserve. Gerrymandering is endemic, and it gives the Republicans an inbuilt advantage in one half of Congress, the House of Representatives. They also habitually make it hard for democrat voters (particularly black voters) to vote: the long lines we see during US elections are there for a reason.

Recently Republican senator Mike Lee said “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” This view is not unusual among Republican politicians, it is just that most are not so foolish as to say it out loud.

But Trump’s attempt to cling to power is not the problem. The problem is that the Republican party won seats in the House, and is likely to retain its majority in the Senate. Why the Democrats did so badly in both of these contests is something that will be analysed by others at length later. But I suspect what few outside the US understand is just how difficult it is for the Democrats to win big in the Senate.

As Shaun Lawson explains in an excellent piece, the Senate is constructed such that each state has two senators, whatever its population. To take the most extreme example, Wyoming with a population of 563,626 gets the same representation in the Senate as California with a population of 37,253,956. Now if political support was evenly distributed among big and small states alike this would not be an issue . However it is not: Wyoming has two Republican senators and California has two Democratic senators. The Senate structure influences the Electoral College used to choose a President.

The basic problem with the Senate is that it gives rural and small town states much more political clout than their population warrants. With political polarisation increasingly between liberals and social conservatives (the culture war), and with liberals concentrated in the big dynamic cities and conservatives in the rest of the country, anything that gives the latter an advantage relative to their number is a political problem.

The example of the US senate is far more extreme than anything in the UK, but that does not mean that the problem does not exist here. We saw that very clearly with Brexit, which is essentially a culture war issue. The referendum of course involved the whole population, and we all know the result of that. But if a general election had been held on just that issue, it is estimated that Leave would have won a landslide: 406 Leave | 242 Remain.

We can do a similar calculation for the 2019 election. If you add up the vote totals of parties supporting a second referendum, it was just more than 50%, but of course the Conservatives won a landslide and Brexit went ahead. That partly reflects the fact that the second referendum vote was more divided among different parties than the Brexit vote, but it also reflects the way the social liberal/conservative divide is split among parliamentary seats.

Socially liberal votes are concentrated in the cities. Seats outside the cities have many social liberals as well, but they are typically outnumbered by social conservatives. However you will find very few social conservatives in big city seats. That means that even if social liberals are in a small majority in the population as a whole, they are outnumbered in terms of seats. When it comes to culture war issues, the First Past The Post (FPTP) UK constituency system for general elections represents accidental gerrymandering favouring social conservatives.

An illustration of this is to compare the 2017 and 2019 elections. In 2017 both main parties backed Brexit and the Remain movement hardly existed, so Labour could focus on a relatively popular economic programme and do relatively well. In contrast, the 2019 election was mainly about Brexit, and the seat totals (once you allow for other parties) was not very different from those implied by the 2016 referendum result. 2019 also reflects the difficulty Labour had in focusing on economic issues given a slanted media.

If you think this is just about Brexit, or that Cummings’ departure means that Johnson will reveal his true social liberal self, think again. The Conservatives were using immigration as a weapon against Blair under William “foreign land” Hague, and will continue to try and capture socially conservative voters after Cummings' exit, because it works at winning elections.

One solution is for Labour to try and do what it did in 2017, and effectively match the Conservatives on the key culture war issues. However, that creates two related problems. The first is that Labour’s current base is very socially liberal. The second is that other socially liberal parties exist. The danger is that we see a repeat of what happened in the period before the 2019 election, where voters defecting over Labour’s socially conservative stance leads to lost votes whatever choice it makes. I'm not saying that Labour cannot succeed doing this, but it is hard and divisive. 

Both this problem, and the problem of the socially liberal vote being split among parties, can be overcome by elections determined by some form of proportional representation (PR).

A traditional argument for the UK’s existing first past the post system, and the constitutional system in the US, is that it keeps out political extremes as both major parties strive to capture the centre ground. This has been completely refuted by events over the last decade. It appears, in fact, that both systems allow governments that are politically extreme to capture power.

While there seems little chance that the US will change its system, there is more hope in the UK. It requires a Labour government to be elected that is committed to some form of PR. It has to be a commitment before they gain power, because once elected every Labour government believes it can now become the natural party of government. One advantage of a prior commitment to PR is that it makes cooperation between Labour and other socially liberal parties easier during the election.

There is considerable support for electoral reform within the Labour party. Unfortunately any Labour leadership that thinks it can win power is also a leadership that prefers to remain in power rather than becoming part of a coalition that any subsequent PR election is more likely to bring. While we can appeal to statistics to show the dominance of Conservative governments, political leadership is naturally focused on its own short term.

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