Coalition government: not liked, but expected

A few years ago, I wrote a post exploring why the very idea of  coalition government became such a negative thing in Canada. I’ve also written a number of posts explaining that, in the United Kingdom, coalition government has become the expected outcome in the event of a general election which results in a hung parliament (this being the most recent one).

UK polling firm Ipsos Mori today released its Political Monitor January 2014. Along with the usual data regarding voting intentions and satisfaction with the various party leaders and the economy, there are some very interesting numbers regarding the outcome of future elections.

A majority (51%) of those polled believe that the 2015 general election will result in another coalition government. That belief is strongest amongst Conservative (58%) and Liberal Democrat (66%) supporters. Labour Party supporters are less likely to think that will be the outcome (42%) – most likely because their party continues to lead in the polls.

But while a majority think there will be another coalition government in 2015, that doesn’t mean they like the idea. A strong majority, 60%, believe it’s a bad thing that no party achieved an overall majority in the 2010 election. That percentage has increased gradually since May 2010, when 52% thought it was a bad thing that no party had won an overall majority. And when asked about the 2015 election, 65% of those polled believe it will be a bad thing if that election again results in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat supporters are the only ones who overwhelmingly think hung parliaments are a good thing (55%). Supporters of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour are equally unenthusiastic about hung parliaments, with only 21% thinking that it’s a good thing if no party wins an overall majority.

Ipsos Mori then asked supporters of each party who their preferred coalition partner would be from amongst the other parties, should the 2015 election result in a hung parliament. Conservative supporters strongly favoured a resumption of the current coalition with the Liberal Democrats (70%). Only 40% strongly supported a coalition with UKIP – assuming of course that UKIP even wins any seats in 2015. Labour supporters were almost equally supportive of a coalition with either the Liberal Democrats (62%) or the Greens (63%). Given that the Greens have only one seat in the current Parliament, and that is unlikely to change much in 2015, a coalition with the Green Party is not very likely. Liberal Democrat supporters actually favoured the Conservatives (65%) over Labour (53%) as coalition partners. That might surprise some. There is wide-spread assumption in the UK that the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party, one that would more naturally align itself with Labour. I’ve never quite understood why people feel that way – the LibDems have always struck me as a very centrist party, even slightly right-of-centre in terms of economic policy. That their supporters more strongly favour the Conservatives as coalition partners possibly confirms my views. Or it could simply be a reaction to having had to endure a lot of abuse from Labour politicians and supporters since entering into a coalition with the Tories in 2010.

My interest in this is again to point out how the idea of coalition government has become, if not liked, at least accepted in the UK. The political parties and their supporters at least grudgingly acknowledge that it’s not only a viable alternative to single-party minority government in the event of a hung parliament, but perhaps a preferable option. Labour and Conservative supporters would certainly prefer that their party form a majority government on its own, there is no doubt about that. But the current coalition has demonstrated a couple of things: 1) despite constant predictions that it would fall apart, it hasn’t, and 75% of those surveyed believe it will last until May 2015 (only 40% thought that in July 2012); and 2) it has provided stable government during a difficult economic period. In other words, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has worked. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters most?

Related Posts:

A few thoughts on IPPR’s Divided Democracy report

The Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) new report, Divided democracy: Political inequality in the UK and why it matters, takes a novel approach to the issue of declining voter turnout.

Declining voter turnout is not a new issue, nor is it one of concern only to the UK. While most studies look at the reasons why more and more citizens are staying away from the ballot box, this report looks at the consequences of lower voter participation among certain sectors of society, young voters and lower-income voters.

It is this growing inequality of turnout that is the focus of the IPPR’s research:

Unequal turnout matters because it reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voters and thus threatens a central claim of democracy: that every citizen’s preference, no matter their status, should count equally. (p. 2)

This argument isn’t new, of course. We’ve all frequently heard people say that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about policy decisions that are made. In the UK 1987 general election, there was a 4 percentage point gap in the turnout rate between the highest income group and the poorest. By the 2010 general election, this gap had increased to 23%:

The age gap is even more striking. Just 44 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Turnout inequality between young and old voters has grown at an alarming rate in recent years – the turnout gap between these two age-groups jumped from 18 points in 1970 to 32 points in 2010 – and shows little sign of being reversed. Worse still, there is now clear evidence of a ‘cohort effect’: younger people today are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age. (p. 2)

What did this mean for the Government’s austerity measures?

IPPR’s analysis of the 2010 spending review shows that those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote. The cuts have disproportionately affected the young and the poor – precisely those groups that vote with least frequency. People aged 16–24 face cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 10 per cent for those aged 55–74. Those with annual household incomes under £10,000 stand to lose the equivalent of 41 per cent of their average income through cuts; by contrast, those with incomes over £60,000 will lose on average £2,104, which represents just 3 per cent of this group’s average income. (p. 2)

The bulk of the report is a detailed analysis of voter participation rates in the UK and the impact of the 2010 spending review. What I want to comment on, however, are the two recommendations put forward to address the problem: universal compulsory voting and compulsory first-time voting.

IPPR has often argued in favour of compulsory voting. While acknowledging that this is often a controversial proposal, compulsory voting is “currently practised in approximately a quarter of the world’s democracies”. They also point out that in none of these countries is voting itself actually compulsory. What is mandatory is showing up at the polls. Studies of countries with compulsory voting all show an increased voter turnout, and more importantly, “drastically” reduced turnout inequality through the greater representation of “marginalised and apathetic” groups. Despite the benefits of compulsory voting, the IPPR researchers seem resigned to the fact that the British will never accept it given that it flies in the face of a citizen’s right to choose not to vote, and so they propose instead compulsory first-time voting.

Compulsory first-time voting is just that: voters would be obliged to go to the polls once, on the first occasion they were eligible. They wouldn’t actually have to vote – they’d only have to turn up – but as an added incentive, there would be a “none of the above” option on the ballot paper. To ensure compliance, a small fine would be levied against those who failed to turn up at the polls.

Why force first-time voting? The researchers offer the following reasons. Research has shown that if people vote in the first election they’re eligible to vote in, they are more likely to vote in future elections. Forcing them to vote the first time could lead to voluntary continued voting. Second, this initiative deliberately targets young people, who have the lowest participation rates. Third, if young people turned out in larger numbers, politicians would be forced to take their concerns into consideration. And lastly, there could be a trickle down effect: “if young people from poorer backgrounds were required to vote then this might encourage their non-voting parents and grandparents to exercise their democratic right, thereby closing the political inequality gap between the classes as well as generations.” (p. 22)

I don’t dislike this idea, but I admit to being somewhat confounded by the “none of the above” option on the ballot paper. While it is not 100% clear in the report, I assume that everyone’s ballot paper would have this option, otherwise you’d need two ballot papers, one for “regular” (non first-time) voters, and one for the first-timers. While doable, this seems like it would be a lot of work and added confusion for no good reason. We assume then that the “none of the above” option would be available to all voters. I find it rather interesting that this is mentioned twice (pp. 2 and 21), almost in passing, but never really explained or dealt with in any detail.

I think we’ve all wished at some point that there was such an option on our ballot paper. But what would happen if that option actually won in some constituencies – meaning the “none of the above” option garners more votes than any of the candidates? Of course, with First-Past-the-Post, the candidate with the most votes, even if they were second to “none of the above” would still end up elected. However, this strikes me as problematic – for a couple of reasons. The first is purely optics. I can’t imagine any candidate would feel particularly happy to have “won” by finishing second to “none of the above”. If this occurred in only a handful of constituencies, it might not be that big a deal, but if it occurred in a lot of constituencies, I can’t help but think that some would question the wisdom of including that option on the ballot. The second reason ties in with the first. There is already significant displeasure with the fact that under FPTP, a candidate doesn’t need majority support to win; he or she simply needs more votes than any other candidate. Consequently, a majority of MPs end up elected with less than 50% of the vote. If you add in another option – specifically “none of the above”, that risks reducing the winning candidate’s percentage of the vote that much more. Part of me can’t help but think that the combination of MPs being elected after finishing second to “none of the above” and with even lower percentages of the vote really won’t do much to improve anyone’s opinion of politicians. If anything, it might even undermine their legitimacy.

Related Posts:

Voter gender bias towards female party leaders

“The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership. It explains some things and it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.” – Julia Gillard, 26 June 2013, farewell press conference

GillardRuddAustralian elections expert Antony Green has written an extremely fascinating article exploring the gender bias behind support for the Australian Labor Party (ALP). As you may recall, the ALP recently underwent another leadership spill which resulted in Prime Minister and party leader Julia Gillard being dumped by her party in favour of former party leader and PM Kevin Rudd.

During Gillard’s term as party leader and PM, gender because a prominent issue in Austrlian politics. As Green notes:

That opinion polls tended to show Mr Abbott polling less well among female voters was another factor in bringing gender into the general political debate.

Labor regularly highlighted Mr Abbott’s polling with female voters and the Liberal Party’s decision to feature Mr Abbott more often with his family and with his female colleagues and candidates suggested Liberal Party polling revealed something similar.

And of course, there was that now-famous attack on Abbott by Gillard in which she accused him of being a misogynist. That video went viral thanks to social media, garnering over 2 million views (at time of writing).

But what new polling is showing is that while the Liberal Party is less popular with women, Labor under Gillard was much popular with men:

On July 16, after the change of Labor leadership, the Australian featured a special analysis of Newspoll looking at the shift in gender voting with the change in leadership.

The article pointed to Labor’s support among women having lifted from 34 per cent to 38 per cent with the change of leadership. The article’s headline was all about Rudd being more popular among women than Gillard, the story re-visiting the misogyny and gender debate.

What I thought more revealing in the Australian’s table was the shift in the male vote after the change of leadership. Labor’s vote among men rose 7 per cent from 28 per cent to 35 per cent.

Before the change, a Fairfax Nielsen poll published on June 16 had highlighted a slump in Labor support among male voters; Labor slipping from its traditional position of polling more strongly among men than women had been evident earlier.

For all the talk of Mr Abbott’s problem with female voters, not nearly as much attention was paid to a clearly evident problem that Ms Gillard had with male voters, the other dimension to a gender gap in voting.

The leadership spill occurred on 26 June 2013, and the above poll would have been conducted days afterwards. Labor’s policies did not change overnight following the leadership change, therefore it is fairly safe to conclude, as Green does, that the increase in support for the part among male voters was entirely due to the change in leadership. The question remains, of course, did men simply dislike Gillard as a person, or did they dislike her specifically because she was a woman? That we will never know.

Political opinion polls conducted in Canada frequently single out the differences between male and female support for certain political parties, and sometimes for the party leaders as well. However, very little analysis is devoted to these differences, or to the fact that certain parties consistently poll better with one gender. If any analysis does focus on this, the difference in support by gender is attributed to policy – the party in question has policies which appeal more to male voters and less to female voters. It isn’t surprising that no attention would be given to the gender of the party leader since, barring a precious few exceptions, party leaders in Canada (at the federal level at least) have been overwhelmingly male.

There have been only four female leaders of major federal parties since 1867. The Liberal Party has never had a female leader, the Conservative Party (back when it was the Progressive Conservative Party) has had one, and the New Democrats (NDP) have had two. The Green Party is currently led by a woman, who is also the party’s only elected MP.

The NDP had two consecutive female leaders, Audrey McLaughlin (1989-1995) and Alexa McDonough (1995-2003). The party’s performance under their respective leaderships wasn’t stellar, but it isn’t possible to know to what degree gender bias may have been a factor. McLaughlin assumed the leadership from Ed Broadbent. Following the 1984 election, several polls afterward showed that Broadbent was the most popular party leader in Canada. Broadbent was the only leader ever to take the NDP to first place in public opinion polling, and some pundits felt that the NDP could supplant the Liberals as the primary opposition to the Progressive Conservatives. Nonetheless, he was not successful in translating this into an election victory in the 1988 federal election, since the Liberals reaped most of the benefits from opposing free trade. However, the NDP elected a party record 43 seats in that election, a record unchallenged until the 2011 election. The party’s first election under McLaughlin’s leadership (1993) was a disaster; the party was reduced to 9 seats, losing official party status. Things improved only marginally under McDonough – the party won 21 seats in the 1997 election, but then was reduced to 13 in the 2000 election.

Where the party’s misfortunes due to having female leaders? As Prof. Alan Cairns states in his paper, An Election to be Remembered: Canada 1993, it is impossible to know. In the 1993 election, two parties had female leaders: the NDP’s McLaughlin and the incumbent Progressive Conservatives were led by Kim Campbell:

The potential effect of this on their party’s support was unknown. Although McLaughlin suggested there was an anti-feminist backlash, this was discounted by most observers.

There were a great many other factors at play in the 1993 election which impacted the NDP’s fortunes. The PCs under Campbell’s leadership had a disastrous campaign, and the party itself was extremely unpopular after two terms in office, and it was decimated at the polls, reduced to only two seats. That result had very little to do with having a female leader.

Getting back to Australia, and Antony Green’s excellent article (please do read it in full!), the evidence is quite clear that male gender bias against Julia Gillard played a major factor in Labor’s polling:

In summary it is clear that in changing leader, Labor received overall support among intended Labor voters, received greatest backing for the change from among Centre voters, and received overwhelming backing from male voters – with little evidence of a major backlash among female voters.


Whether Labor’s problems were caused by sexism in the electorate, sexism by Ms Gillard’s opponents, sexism in the media, or missteps by Ms Gillard herself, clearly Labor couldn’t allow the impasse on the leadership to persist.

Labor’s bounce in the polls after the leadership change has subsided, and the Coalition are still favourites to win the election.

But Labor is still polling better than before the leadership change, and the Vote Compass data reveals that the story is not about Tony Abbot and female voters, but male voter attitudes to Julia Gillard.

This is obviously an area which requires more study, but until female party leaders are more commonplace, such study won’t be possible.

Related Posts:

Australia General Election 2013

Australia-VotesA federal election has been called for 7 September 2013. Below I will post links to sites which may be of some use to those following the parties and issues. This post will be updated as more interesting links come to my attention, so please check back often. And if you know of a site which should be listed here, please let me know in the comments, or by using the contact form.

Vote Compass Australia 2013

Not certain which party to vote for? Vote Compass is an interactive electoral literacy application developed by Canadian political scientists and run during election campaigns. It offers an accessible framework for learning about party platforms, stimulates discussion on a wide variety of election issues, and encourages democratic participation within the electorate. Based on an individual’s responses to a series of propositions specifically developed for a given election, Vote Compass generates a real-time analysis of how one’s views compare to the platforms of each political party vying for office. This analysis is powered by an open database which contains a public record of each party’s stand on the issues included in Vote Compass. Vote Compass has been in use in Canada for federal and some provincial elections for a few years now, and an American version was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal for the 2012 US presidential election. The Australian edition was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Antony Green’s Election Guide

Antony Green covers pretty much everything you might want to know about the 2013 election – each federal electorate, including the candidates, an election calculator to predict the election outcome by applying a uniform swing, and electoral pendulum to find out which electorates are the most marginal – and the safest. And of course, there is Antony’s blog, which is always worth reading.

The Australian Electoral Commission

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is responsible for conducting federal elections and referendums and maintaining the Commonwealth electoral roll. The AEC also provides a range of electoral information and education programs and activities. Everything you need to know about the upcoming election can be found on their website, including how to make sure you are registered to vote, and how to complete your ballot paper for both the House of Representatives and the Senate elections.

Policy Platform Comparisons

ABC – Policies: Where the Parties Stand

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) provides an analysis of the parties’ positions on key issues, e.g. the economy, asylum seekers, education, etc. They point out where the main parties agree as well as where they diverge.

Sydney Morning Herald Overview of Party Policies

Not a side-by-side comparison chart, but the SMH looks at the major policy positions of each party, grouped together under key subject headings such as the Economy, Education, Health, etc.

Related Posts:

Coalition government gains traction

The UK House of Lords Constitution Committee has launched a new inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The reason for this inquiry is “the increase in the general election vote share for parties other than Conservative and Labour means that government by coalition may become more common in future as single parties are unable to secure an absolute Commons majority.”

The Committee’s inquiry is focusing on three key questions:

  • The impact of coalition government on the principle of collective ministerial responsibility.  Examples of disagreements within the current coalition that have raised questions in this area include those announced at the onset of the coalition, such as on the renewal of Trident, and some which have emerged during the course of the Parliament—for example the amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 which delayed the constituency boundary review.
  • How democratic legitimacy is secured under coalition governments.  The classic model of a majority government implementing its manifesto as endorsed by the electorate does not necessarily translate to a hung Parliament. This raises questions about the practices and procedures that should be adopted to secure democratic legitimacy, including the status of coalition agreements drawn up following a general election and whether manifestos should be changed to reflect the possibility of a hung parliament.
  • The organisation of the executive under coalition government.  The Committee will explore what is the most effective and accountable way to run a coalition government, including areas such as the appointment of ministers and the structure of the Cabinet and its committees.

(Side note: you don’t have to be a UK citizen or resident to contribute to this inquiry. If you are interested in the topic and want to contribute your thoughts on the above, download the call for evidence guidelines (PDF). The deadline is 30 August 2013.)

The next general election, in 2015, will more than likely again result in a hung parliament. And unlike in Canada, there is growing acceptance in the UK that the proper response to a hung parliament is coalition government, not single party minority government. This inquiry is just one example of that acceptance. Another is the news that the UK Conservative backbench have set out certain “red lines” for their party leadership – policy areas on which they will not compromise in any future coalition negotiations. The same article mentions that the Liberal Democrats will likely do the same – spell out their own red lines for joining a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives.

Of course, the next election is still more than a year away, and polls can – and most certainly will – change between now and then. Combined with the vagaries of First-Past-the-Post, one of the major parties could very well eek out a majority mandate on its own. But what is encouraging is that the idea of coalition government, despite the ups and downs of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, has gained acceptance and parties are preparing for that possibility.

Now if only Canadian political parties could start thinking more boldly as well…

Related Posts:

Some interesting links and websites

Apologies for the lack of blogging, but real life has been rather busy of late. However, in the interim, here are some links to interesting reports, sites, etc.


Communicating statistics – Not just true, but also fair

The UK House of Commons Public Administration Committee has released a report recommending that departmental press officers and government statistics staff should work together much more closely to ensure that press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture of the truth behind the figures. As the Committee Chair, Bernard Jenkins, MP, explained:

“Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. Finding the whole truth about government statistics is not always easy, and it should be. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture. This is important when those numbers are being used to justify a particular policy, a particular apportioning of resources. In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true.”

Number10 website revamp

The official website of the Office of the UK Prime Minister has been undergoing a revamp. It now features a very interesting and useful history section. This includes a blog on the history of government written by guest historians, and a detailed history of 10 Downing Street – the official residence of the Prime Minister.

History of Parliament website

The History of Parliament website will appear to anyone interested in the history of the UK Parliament. From the site’s About page:

The History of Parliament is a research project creating a comprehensive account of parliamentary politics in England, then Britain, from their origins in the thirteenth century. Unparalleled in the comprehensiveness of its treatment, the History is generally regarded as one of the most ambitious, authoritative and well-researched projects in British history.

It consists of detailed studies of elections and electoral politics in each constituency, and of closely researched accounts of the lives of everyone who was elected to Parliament in the period, together with surveys drawing out the themes and discoveries of the research and adding information on the operation of Parliament as an institution.


UK newspaper The Guardian has launched an online Australian edition (it also has a US edition). There is a subsection dedicated to this fall’s general election, and a very interesting look at political donations in Australia.

The always excellent Antony Green provides a very handy guide to upcoming Australian elections, both national and state.

Related Posts:

On by-elections

A very interesting difference exists between Canada and the United Kingdom when it comes to the matter of calling by-elections.

A by-election occurs when a seat in the House becomes vacant furing the course of a parliament because the MP has resigned, passed away, or the incumbent becomes ineligible to continue in office. When this happens, an election is called in that constituency only, to fill the seat. It is possible to hold more than one by-elections on the same day if there are several vacancies to fill.

By-election procedure to fill a vacancy in the Canadian House of Commons

Under the Parliament of Canada Act, when a seat in the House is vacant, the Speaker of the House of Commons informs the Chief Electoral Officer by means of a Speaker’s warrant. If the Speaker is absent, or if it is the Speaker’s seat that is vacant, two members of the House of Commons may address the warrant to the Chief Electoral Officer.

After receiving the warrant, section 57 of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Governor in Council to fix the date on which the Chief Electoral Officer is to issue the writ. The date of issuance must fall between the 11th and 180th days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker (or the two members of the House). The Governor in Council also fixes the date for election day, which cannot be earlier than 36 days after the Chief Electoral Officer issues the writ. (source: Elections Canada)

The “Governor in Council” referred to above is the Governor General, acting on the advice of the federal cabinet. In other words, it is actually the Cabinet (and in reality, the Prime Minister) which decides the date for the issuance of the writ. The earliest date possible for a by-election is 11 days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker. The latest date possible is 180 days – in other words, six months – after the warrant is received. The actual number of days the seat might remain vacant can exceed that, however, since the official countdown begins only after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the Speaker’s warrant announcing the vacancy, and not when the seat is actually vacated by the MP. As well, the date for the by-election cannot be earlier than 36 days after the CEO issues the writ. The Parliament of Canada Act (section 28) states that when a vacancy occurs:

“the Speaker of the House shall, without delay, (…) address a warrant of the Speaker to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issue of a writ for the election of a member to fill the vacancy.”

And going by the chart below, the Speaker’s warrants are issued very soon after the seat becomes vacant. The delay can occur at the next stage in the process – waiting for the Governor in Council – the Prime Minister – to choose an actual date for the by-election to be held. Sometimes, the PM won’t delay to announce the date. In other cases, they may put off the decision as long as they possibly can.

By-election procedure to fill a vacancy in the UK House of Commons

Traditionally the Chief Whip of the political party whose MP held the vacant seat will begin the procedure for a by-election. This is known as ‘moving the Writ’ and takes the form of a motion in the House of Commons. This isn’t always how things proceed, however. For example, in the case of the 2010 by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth, a seat which Labour had won in the 2010 election, it was the Liberal Democrats who moved the writ. The Labour candidate had been stripped of his seat by the courts which declared his victory void because he had knowingly made false statements attacking his Liberal Democrat opponent’s personal character during the 2010 general election.

A new Writ is moved within three months of the vacancy occurring. There have been a few instances of seats remaining vacant longer than six months before a by-election was called. Seats have also been left vacant towards the end of a Parliament to be filled at the general election. If there are several vacant seats then a number of by-elections can take place on the same day. (source: UK Parliament website)

Because the timing of a by-election is decided by the party which held the seat when the vacancy occurs, by-elections in the UK tend to occur quite quickly since the party is anxious to see if it can hold the seat.

The following charts look at by-elections called in the current parliaments in both Canada and the UK.

By-elections Canada, current parliament (since May 2011)


Constituency Date of Vacancy Date of Notice of Vacancy Date of Writ of By-election Date of By-election # of days seat vacant
Labrador 14 Mar 2013 19 Mar 2013 7 Apr 2013 13 May 2013 60
Victoria 31 Aug 2012 6 Sep 2012 21 Oct 2012 26 Nov 2012 87
Durham 31 Jul 2012 1 Aug 2012 21 Oct 2012 26 Nov 2012 118
Calgary-Centre 30 May 2012 12 Jun 2012 21 Oct 2012 26 Nov 2012 180
Toronto-Danforth 22 Aug 2011 30 Aug 2011 6 Feb 2012 19 Mar 2012 210
Average # of days seat vacant 131

UK By-elections, current parliament (since May 2010)


Constituency Date of Vacancy Date of Writ Date of By-election # of days seat vacant
South Shields 12 Apr 2013 15 Apr 2013 2 May 2013 20
Mid-Ulster 2 Jan 2013 11 Feb 2013 7 Mar 2013 64
Eastleigh 5 Feb 2013 7 Feb 2013 28 Feb 2013 23
Croydon-North 29 Sep 2012 8 Nov 2012 29 Nov 2012 61
Middlesborough 13 Oct 2012 8 Nov 2012 29 Nov 2012 47
Rotherham 5 Nov 2012 8 Nov 2012 29 Nov 2012 24
Cardiff South and Penarth 22 Oct 2012 23 Oct 2012 15 Nov 2012 24
Corby 29 Aug 2012 23 Oct 2012 15 Nov 2012 78
Manchester Central 22 Oct 2012 23 Oct 2012 15 Nov 2012 23
Bradford West 2 Mar 2012 6 Mar 2012 29 Mar 2012 27
Feltham and Heston 10 Nov 2011 25 Nov 2011 15 Dec 2011 35
Inverclyde 9 May 2011 8 Jun 2011 30 Jun 2011 52
Belfast West 26 Jan 2011 17 May 2011 9 Jun 2011 134
Leicester South 1 Apr 2011 6 Apr 2011 5 May 2011 34
Barnsley Central 8 Feb 2011 9 Feb 2011 3 Mar 2011 23
Oldham East and Saddleworth 5 Nov 2010 16 Dec 2010 13 Jan 2011 69
Average # of days seat vacant 46

If you’d like to see how the moving of a Writ plays out, you can watch the procedure for the by-election in Eastleigh from 7 February 2013. It doesn’t take very long – about a minute (it ends at the 9:35 mark).

Related Posts:

The preferential ballot favours the party with the most first preference votes

I have written several posts looking at the growing popularity of the preferential ballot/the alternative vote (AV) here in Canada – see this recent one, for example. I even attempted a redo of the 2011 Canadian federal election using the preferential ballot rather than our current FPTP. As I explained in that post, and in others, the big problem in attempting to forecast how the election would have played out using AV was the absence of data concerning voters’ preferences. Some polling firms would (and still do) regularly ask people which party was their second choice, but no one ever looked at voters’ potential 3rd, 4th, etc. choices.

However, a new poll by Abacus Data has done just that. According to Eric Grenier, in this article in the Globe and Mail, the poll asked respondents to rank seven parties from 1 to 7 (in other words, it used full preferential rather than optional preferential). I cannot find this data on the Abacus website. Mr. Grenier examined the numbers and posits that using a preferential ballot “would limit the ability of the Conservatives to win elections”:

With a preferential ballot, however, the Conservatives would come out further ahead. They would lead in 147 ridings on the first ballot (after distributing the marginal support for the smaller parties), compared to only 108 for the New Democrats, 76 for the Liberals, four for the Bloc Québécois, and three for the Greens (primarily due to an anomalous result in the poll in Atlantic Canada).

The Conservatives would have majority support in 60 ridings and win those automatically, while the NDP would win 23 seats on the first ballot and the Liberals 11. But that Tory advantage would disappear once the instant run-off was conducted.

The Conservatives would lose their first ballot lead in 30 ridings, and be reduced to only 117. The New Democrats would move ahead in 18 more seats and take 126, while the Liberals would win 17 more ridings and increase their total to 93. The Greens would hold on to two of the three seats in which they led, while the Bloc Québécois would lose all four.

I am not entirely certain how he comes to that conclusion. The last paragraph quoted above is particularly confusing to me.

Despite Mr. Grenier’s assertions at the outset of the article that the preferential ballot “is used in many jurisdictions around the world”, the only really comparable example available to us is Australia. Full preferential (where voters have to rank every single candidate on their ballot for the vote to count) is used at the federal level to elect the House of Representatives, and in some states, while a couple of states use optional preferential, where voters can choose to rank as many or as few candidates as they want. Indeed, many opt to rank only one candidate and optional preferential becomes a de facto FPTP ballot. This is what happened when AV was used in some provinces here in Canada in the past.

What Mr. Grenier seems to overlook is that the preferential ballot, in particular optional preferential, always favours the party which receives the most first preference votes – at least going by Australia’s long history with this form of voting. Grenier rightly notes that the Conservatives “would have majority support in 60 ridings and win those automatically”. However, things are a bit more complicated after that. Going by Australia’s experience, Conservative candidates would not, as Grenier posits, “lose their first ballot lead in 30 ridings” based on second preferences. It all depends on how close those Conservative candidates are to the 50%+1 needed to win the seat under AV. The closer they are to that mark, the fewer votes transfers they require. Consequently, a Conservative candidate with 45% of the vote on the first ballot count, would most likely still win the seat because they need far fewer votes to boost them over the 50% mark. Even if they were further from the 50% target, say at 40%, but the 2nd place candidate was well behind, say at 30%, the Conservative would still most likely win. Only in instances where two candidates were quite literally neck and neck on the first ballot count would the outcome be up in the air.

Readers interested in preferential voting should regularly read Antony Green’s Election Blog. Green is an Australian elections expert who blogs about both federal and state elections in that country, which, I reiterate, is really the only jurisdction at all comparable to Canada which uses the preferential ballot. As Green explains in this post:

At the 2010 Federal election, 64 of the 150 seats were won by a candidate with a majority on first preferences, and a further 75 won by the highest polling candidate at the start of the count after the further distribution of preferences. Optional preferential voting would have had little impact on these 139 contests.

However, in the 11 contests where the candidate leading on first preferences did not win, optional preferential voting could have changed the result.


The lesson here is that optional preferential voting always advantages the party with the highest first preference vote.

In other words, in the 2010 federal election in Australia, a majority of seats (139 out of 150) were won by the candidate who was ahead after the first count. Sixty-four were won by a majority on the first ballot, and 75 were won on subsequent ballots – by the candidate who’d been in first place on the first count. That is using full preferential. Only in 11 instances did the candidate who’d been leading on the first ballot fail to actually win the seat. Had optional preferential been used instead, in only 3 cases would the candidate in the lead after the first ballot have failed to win.

It is good that a polling firm here in Canada has finally started to explore voters’ preferences beyond their 1st and 2nd choices, but I don’t think Mr. Grenier fully understands how AV tends to play out – at least based on what happens in Australia.

Related Posts:

Election Watch 2013

There will be some noteworthy elections coming up in 2013.


Unlike most parliaments in the UK and Canada, which normally last 4 to 5 years, the Australian House of Representatives sits for a three-year term. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard had announced that the next election would be held on 14 September 2013; however, current PM Kevin Rudd has hinted that he might change that date. The 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, with both Labor the the Coalition tied with 72 seats each. Labor ended up forming a minority government, with the support of Green and Independent MPs. Update: the election will be held on 7 September 2013. Please see this post for more information.


There won’t be another federal election until October 2015, but there are a few provinces which may be heading to the polls this year (one definitely will be).

British Columbia

British Columbia will be electing a new parliament in May of this year. The incumbent Liberals are not doing well at the polls, and Premier Christy Clarke’s decision not to hold a fall sitting probably won’t help matters.

Ontario and Quebec

Ontario’s last election was in October 2011 while Quebec’s was in September 2012 but both resulted in hung parliaments. Ontario ended up with a minority Liberal government, but Premier Dalton McGuinty unexpectedly prorogued the Legislature in October and simultaneously announced his resignation as party leader. The Liberals chose a new leader on 26 January 2013. The House will return on 19 February 2013. While the new leader has stated she is determined to make the minority parliament work, one can never rule out an election.

Quebec ended up with a minority Parti québécois government. The government’s budget passed by one vote in late November. Polls show a close three-way race between the PQ, Liberals and Coaliation Avenir Quebec. Minority parliaments rarely last much more than a year, so the situation in Quebec bears watching.

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia’s last election was in 2009. It is one of the few provinces which does not have fixed election dates, but since the government is coming into its fourth year in office, an election is likely in 2013. An election must occur by June 2014.


The last election in Nunavut occurred in October 2008, and so the current parliament is entering its 5th year. Nunavut does not have fixed election dates, so an election will be held some time this year, no later than October 2013.


UK local elections

The 2013 United Kingdom local elections are due to take place on Thursday 2 May 2013. Elections will be held in 35 English councils, including all 27 non-metropolitan county councils, the 5 unitary authorities covering ceremonial counties, and 3 other unitary authorities, and to a single Welsh unitary authority. What will be interesting to watch for is how the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) performs. The party has surged in recent polls, often polling ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and recently finished 2nd in two by-elections for parliamentary seats. In the 2011 local elections, UKIP took control of Ramsey town council, and maintained its seven councillors across England, and one in Northern Ireland.

Related Posts:

Legislating free votes

I have written a number of posts on that touch on the issue of whipped votes and MPs toeing the party line (for example, see here, here, here, here and here).

During the current election campaign in the Canadian province of Alberta, the Wildrose Party has promised, if it forms the government, that it will introduce the Alberta Accountability Act, which will legislate into being such initiatives as fixed election dates, voter-initiated recall and referendums, as well as free votes in the legislature. On the issue of free votes, the Party explains:

  • Government MLAs being forced to vote as instructed by the Premier is an undemocratic tradition that has evolved over many years. Legislation overriding this tradition, making free votes mandatory and separating votes of non-confidence from votes on proposed bills, is necessary to make our parliamentary democracy accountable and relevant to voters.
  • If the government can’t garner the willing support of a majority of MLAs for a piece of legislation, the legislation should fail. The government, however, should only fall if it loses a stand-alone confidence motion.

This is an interesting proposal, but I don’t really see how free votes can be legislated into being, as this fails to address what is probably the key reason why whipped votes and party discipline have “evolved over many years.”

The main reason why most votes in the majority of parliaments in Canada are whipped (and even when they’re not, still largely breakdown along party lines) is due largely to the advent of strong, tightly organized political parties. MPs and MLAs tend to vote with their party, even on votes that aren’t whipped, because they owe their very existence as an MP/MLA to the party. It is the party executive which decides who can present themselves to be nominated as candidates for the party in each riding, and sitting MPs/MLAs need their party’s continued support to remain the party’s candidate. There are known instances where party supporters in a certain riding might be very unhappy with that party’s candidate, and seek to have his or her nomination challenged, but are overruled by the party executive. Is it really any wonder why most elected MPs or provincial MLAs almost always vote the way the party whips tell them?

If the Wildrose Party is serious about addressing the issue of ensuring MLAs feel free to vote on the merits of a piece of legislation, what they need to do is work on weakening party control over who gets to run for that party. The easiest way to do that would be to introduce a system of open primaries, as I discussed in this post (which includes links to other posts which discuss open primaries). Without reforming how candidates are selected to run for a party, I have my doubts that legislating free votes will really result in MLAs voting freely.

I also don’t see how one can legislate an end to whipped votes. Even if all votes are declared “free votes”, as I’ve explained above, without reforming party control over the selection of candidates, I still think more MLAs would be rather hesitant to openly defy their party’s stance. They would have to take into consideration what their own party campaigned on, what was promised in their party’s manifesto, and remain true to that, even if the bill were a “good” one. This would be especially true for the party forming the Official Opposition. There is no rule that the Official Opposition must vote against the government every single time, of course, but the main point of the Official Opposition is to oppose. It would look rather odd if the main Opposition party largely voted in favour of legislation which was the exact opposite of what they campaigned on during the election.

Similarly, there are other ways parties enforce party discipline other than via whipped votes. MPs/MLAs who regularly (or even only occasionally) defy their party whip won’t get selected to sit on committees, or to be part of cabinet or the shadow cabinet. And to be blunt, I don’t see how you can really force every party in the legislature to not whip its vote, even if you have legislation stating that all votes on legislation are free votes. The parties will still find ways to make it quite clear to their individual members how they are expected to vote.

The issue of whipped votes is indeed a serious one in Canada, but I don’t think what the Wildrose Party is proposing is the way to go about putting an end to the practice. The issue is much larger, and starts with political parties themselves and how they control their candidates from the very outset, even before they get elected to the legislature. Open primaries would achieve more, I think, than would what the Wildrose Party is proposing. Another initiative which might help MLAs feel more independent would be to adopt some of the reforms around committees that the UK House of Commons has implemented, such as having committee chairs elected by the legislature and committee members elected by their respective caucuses rather than appointed by party whips. You have to remove the party controls at all levels, not solely on votes in the Chamber.

Related Posts:

Page 1 of 812345...Last »