There has been much talk about whether a general election will or should take place before 2020, the key arguments behind it being that Theresa May has no mandate to carry out her programme, while also having no mandate to negotiate the exact terms of Brexit. Calling an early election would therefore be a single-topic vote. Yossi Nehushtan argues that such an outcome would be anti-democratic.
Many have argued for a general election ‘about the EU’. The common assumptions are that an election will allow ‘the people’ to express their updated and informed views about the exact way to leave the EU; accord democratic legitimacy to the new PM; and shift the balance back from ‘direct democracy’ to ‘representative democracy’.
The truth is, however, that having a general election ‘about the EU’ is an exceptionally bad way of achieving the above. First, it is anti-democratic to have a general election about a single topic. Second, it is not at all clear what this single topic could be. Third, the result will not reflect the majority will because the first past the post system constantly fails to reflect the majority will.
A One-Topic General Election is Anti-Democratic
The main purpose of having democratic elections is (or should be) to allow ‘the people’ to express their political preferences by casting their vote to the candidate or party which is more likely to realize them. Political preferences are normally complex. Also, not all voters care about each issue to an equal extent. An opinion poll by YouGov showed, for example, that in three points in time during 2015, an average of no more than 25 per cent thought that ’Europe’ was one of the three ‘most important issues facing the country at this time’.
It is true that we can expect a different answer today; it is also true that leaving the EU will affect other areas such as immigration and the economy. But this does not affect my main argument: general elections should not reduce the complex preferences of voters regarding numerous issues to one narrow question about one specific issue.
Many voters may prefer that the UK would leave the EU – but for many other valid reasons they may also prefer to vote for a political party that happens to support ‘Remain’. It will be unwise to assume that all those who would vote for a party that supports ‘Brexit’, in fact support ‘Brexit’. If it is made clear for voters that any vote for a party that supports ‘Brexit’ is in fact a vote for ‘Brexit’ and nothing more, voters may be forced to vote for parties which do not reflect any of their other preferences – or to vote for a party which does not represent their preference about the EU, rendering the election almost meaningless.
Forcing voters to ignore their political views and preferences, and perceiving these voters as one-dimensional political persons who only care about ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ diminishes their political personality and makes any such election anti-democratic.
A one-topic General Election – about what exactly?
A referendum is a dreadful way of making conclusive political decisions but it does put forward one agreed question. If we have a general election soon, we can reasonably assume that it will be ‘about the EU’. But what does it mean? Will the election be about whether to Leave or Remain? About who has the authority to trigger Article 50? About the necessary conditions that must be met before we decide to leave the EU? Or perhaps about trusting Theresa May and Boris Johnson to make the right decision?
Having a general election about ‘leaving the EU’ without knowing what the election is really about is a recipe for confusion and superficial public debate. Ultimately, it will not solve any ‘democratic legitimacy’ problems and will add very little to the barely legitimate referendum’s result. Since we can’t really have an election about one specific and agreed issue, any other decision that will be made by the new elected government will be exposed to arguments regarding its own democratic legitimacy. And then what? A second referendum? Yet another PM resignation and a new general election?
We went through this unfortunate exercise before. We know that the referendum’s result is not legally binding and we also know that we should accord the result limited political-moral weight. The current government – or better yet, Parliament – should make the decision and face harsh popular criticism for making it because that would be the case with or without more elections and referendums. And if there are doubts regarding the new PM’s democratic legitimacy then nothing has changed: David Cameron was also not elected by the majority of voters. Twice. And he was still the PM. Twice.
A Bonus: Why the UK is Not a Democracy
Even if ‘the people’ were happy to have an election about a single issue; even if the ‘question’ was specific and clear; and even if all voters knew what they are voting for – the result will not reflect the majority will, because UK general elections almost never do.
Non-proportional voting systems, such as majoritarian voting systems, completely fail to reflect the majority will. In the UK, for example, in almost all cases in the 20th century in which one political party won more than 50 per cent of seats in parliament, this party did not receive more than 50 per cent of the people’s votes.
In non-proportional voting systems there is normally no correlation between the percentage of votes a political party gets and the number of seats to which it is entitled. This has always been the case in the UK, but in the 2015 election, the gap between UK’s self-perception as a representative democracy and the facts was truly astonishing. To take a few examples: the SNP got 4.7 per cent of votes and 56 seats. The Liberal-Democrats got 7.9 per cent of votes but only 8 seats. UKIP got 12.6 per cent of the votes but only 1 seat. The Conservative party got 36.9 per cent of votes and a majority of seats. Together we have 49.5% for center-right-wing parties. All other parties combined got 50.5 per cent of votes – parties that could have formed a center-left coalition government if the UK voting system made any attempt to reflect the majority will
Only an anti-democratic and unfair voting system as we have can take these results and transform them to the Conservative party having the majority of seats in Parliament.
In light of these facts, perceiving British democracy as a ‘representative democracy’ would be too much even for George Orwell to take. Here we should be careful not to equate free election and public legitimacy with democracy. Voters may be happy with the current system (as the 2011 AV referendum perhaps showed). The current system may enjoy public legitimacy – but it is not democratic in any meaningful sense. For a voting system to be democratic it is not sufficient for it to enjoy public legitimacy, but its results should also reflect as accurately as possible the genuine preferences of voters.
Also within the context of the EU debate, two different and insightful projections, by Appelgate and Phillips and Hanretty, showed that because of the our electoral system, if the EU referendum was not a referendum but rather a ‘one topic general election’, pro-Brexit political parties would have won more than 65 per cent of seats in parliament. This means that it is very likely that a general election about the EU will result in yet another win for the ‘Leave’ camp even if most voters vote for ‘Remain parties’.
So much for (representative) democracy.
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Note: This article originally appeared at LSE British Politics and Policy. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image: CC0 Public Domain. The author would like to thank Adam Davidson for commenting on a previous version of this post.
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Yossi Nehushtan is Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Keele University.
I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the current system is ‘democratic’….maybe an elected dictatorship but not democratic.
But the main reason for not calling a snap election is Parliament passed a law to ensure fixed term elections. If the Tories want to repeal that law then we should first ask the police how their investigations into the election expenses scandal is going; or more specifically, why is such a relatively simple investigation apparently going no-where?
Many of us still believe the Tories bought the last election result; if so, then hardly democracy in action.
The people behind this call for a General Election on our membership of the EU are those that voted to remain a member of the EU and are continuing to whine about the referendums outcome.
The majority of people, who bothered to vote, voted to leave and instead of messing around with an unnecessary GE, we should focus on leaving the EU as quickly as possible.
Because of course the Eurosceptics haven’t been “whining” since 1975. It’s the default Eurosceptic position to whine – you won the referendum and you’re still whining endlessly. No doubt if the economy tanks it will be someone else’s fault and you’ll carry on regardless.
The thing about democracy is you have to go where the people tell you to go. If people don’t change their minds on the EU then we’ll leave and continue to stay out of it. If people do change their minds then we’ll stay or go back in. There’s absolutely nothing to fear about asking the voters what they want to do, either via an election or a referendum. Saying there is a problem with that is the same thing as saying there’s too much democracy.
What we have at present are Eurosceptics claiming it would be a democratic outrage to keep the issue on the table – as if another referendum or election at some unspecified point (remember that would be the third referendum on this topic, not the second) would be unthinkable because heaven forbid we ask the people again and they change their minds. That isn’t a democratically minded position, it’s about Eurosceptics trying to shut down the discussion for eternity because they’re worried if opinions change they might lose their victory. They’re right to worry about that if you look at the demographics, but nobody is under any obligation to stop campaigning for what they believe in so you’d better get used to it.
Whine away Burns, whine all you want but it isn’t going to change a thing, we had a referendum on whether we wanted to remain in the EU or leave, the majority voted to leave, so you had better get used to that (instead of sulking).
Yes, anyone who engages in a discussion about the referendum is “sulking”. What a fantastic argument.
This is one of the most boring exchanges I think I’ve had on this topic. You’re not provocative enough to be a troll and not intelligent enough to make a coherent point about whether we should hold a general election or not (or respond in a reasonable way to the points I raised against your initial comment). I suggest if you can’t do any better than this you’d be better off giving up the internet hardman act and finding a better way to spend your time.
If its that boring, then stop exchanging comments.
Is that coherent enough?
We have debated our electoral system, we even had a referendum & we decided to keep the best method there is to form a stable strong government in a democracy. We do not elect a President (Basically an elected Monarch) but we do elect a party or parties to govern based on a manifesto. What isn’t democratic is for the unelected house to block the agenda of the elected. The Upper house is there to advise & suggest amendments but not to block over & over again. We also knew that we would have constituencies re-balanced so that all votes are equally weighted. The Liberals (Supposed Champions of Reform) blocked the equalisation of votes because the the public rejected their desire to play fast & lose with our voting system.
No, we had a completely artificial binary choice between the status quo and a bizarre system that almost nobody supported. The result was hardly surprising.
You may not have supported the Alternative Vote – but it certainly isn’t “bizarre”.
Many organisations – including Political Parties – use AV (or run-off, elimination) systems for their internal elections.
What is “bizarre” about the concept of walking into a bar, being unable to obtain your first choice drink, but asking for your 2nd preference instead ?
Londoners can express a 2nd preference for Mayor.
The French have a second run-off election between the two highest in the first round.
There are plenty of electoral systems way more “bizarre”.
[Have a look at the proposed Italian system also posted (yesterday? today?)]
The result was the the way it was because:
a) hypocritical, unprincipled lies by Cameron & the Conservatives about AV
b) an inept campaign by AV HQ (which failed to explain AV or rebut the lies)
The demand was for a more proportional electoral system and AV wouldn’t necessarily have produced more proportional results than first past the post – indeed some analyses of 2015 suggest it would have produced a less proportional result in that election. To claim that the defeat of AV constituted a lasting endorsement of first past the post is clearly complete nonsense.
SOME people demanded a “more proportional system”. Personally I did not – which is why I favour run-offs (of which AV is one version).
I do favour a system that is “more representative” – which is not the same thing as proportional.
As a former local Councillor I know that most decisions do not automatically lend themselves to Party lines. Many are nuanced and depend on circumstances.
If I needed extra votes of some people, currently I would have to guess how to appeal to a wider number of voters.
This does not always mean “splitting the difference” or “seeking the middle ground”.
Sometimes it is about greater clarity to attract those who “don’t quite get it” (or believe opponents’ smears).
But with no obvious “identity” to these extra voters, how would I know if I was representing these voters?
If election requires 2nd Preferences, then it might help if additional voters could be indentified from distinct Parties – which can only occur if their existence has value.
Successful candidates could better justify a claim that they “represented” most voters.
Human beings do not neatly fall into two categories (Labour, Conservative) – and UK post-war politics has been a mess of compromise and contradiction – within and between those Parties – perhaps explaining a general disillusion.
Surely a system where multiple Parties can present their ideas is to be welcomed – as it allows voters to express with greater clarity their priorities (e.g. Greens for environmental issues, UKIP for sovereignty etc).
Main Parties would have to appeal to such distinct strands – or be overtaken as such Parties extend their policies beyond their core.
“For a voting system to be democratic ….. its results should also reflect as accurately as possible the genuine preferences of voters.”
In a Party system, is that the best definition of democracy?
If Party whips were banned, MPs could vote closer to how their voters want – but isn’t likely to change – and would be worse under a Proportional system.
PR does NOT necessarily “reflect genuine preferences of voters” for two important reasons:
1) They rely on Party Managers deciding the ranking on the Party list meaning that candidates look inwards for Party favour (higher ranking).
This creates a disincentive to put “voter preferences” before those of the Party Leadership
2) Minority Parties can get a significant number of seats – thus becoming the tail that wags a much larger Party dog.
The UK’s system is far from perfect and merits reform.
Any form of run-off would be an improvement – i.e. if 2nd (or 3rd) preferences counted for something then:
– fewer votes would be wasted
– more representatives could get 50% of the vote
Minority interests could be represented in the 2nd chamber, ensuring a “voice” while limiting their powers.
One “interesting” idea was that MPs could be elected directly as now – but their votes in the House be weighted according to Party vote. i.e. each Lab / Con MP would have a vote with value less than one.
Jules: That’s great, you’re in a tiny minority of people who actually wanted AV, congratulations on being special.
In the real world everyone and their dog knows what happened with the AV referendum. The Lib Dems had been arguing (along with countless other long-established groups who believe that proportional electoral results are more democratic) for a genuinely proportional system. They were offered a useless compromise of a system by the Tories that neither the Lib Dems as a party nor any of these aforementioned groups had argued for. They mistakenly took that option and it set the cause for electoral reform back decades. To claim, as Joe claimed above, that this should be the end of the discussion and that the entire country is now happy with FPTP is completely misleading.
Karl “If its that boring, then stop exchanging comments. Is that coherent enough?”
Do you have a single rational argument to offer here? Forget the personal rubbish and take ownership of your opinions. Don’t spam half the internet with turgid UKIP-style spam and then crumble like a wet paper bag when someone calls you up on it.
Oh give it a rest Burns. Basically you cannot bear anyone disagreeing with you and swiftly resort to personal attacks instead of rational discussion.
“Don’t spam half the internet with turgid UKIP-style spam and then crumble like a wet paper bag when someone calls you up on it”
What are you, 14?
sadly, the likes of Karl, Jules and Joe Thorpe that you find trolling on these pages (and many others), are elderly retired who’ve got nothing left to do but waste their time playing arm-chair generals on the internet from the anonymous safety of their bunker.
there is barely any point in trying to argue with them, because they are simply not interested in reasoned discussion. they just want to shout out their frustrations and bigotism.
best is simply to write a counterpoint to their moronic statements, so that other curious onlookers don’t think that they are the only one with an opinion.
and even better, a realistic opinion at that.