Thoughts on the British election

by on May 12, 2010 at 8:01 am in Current Affairs, Political Science | Permalink

1. It's amazing how quickly they form a new government.  We could learn something from this.

2. Spending cuts will be necessary.  (I am curious: what is the U.S. "progressive" take on this question.  Is it admitted that spending cuts are necessary?)

3. Tax increases will be necessary.  (Do U.S. commentators on the right admit this?)

4. Britain should avoid proportional representation.  Classic parliamentary systems are good at making big changes in a hurry, when the major party knows which changes are needed, and that is Britain's current position.  It's no accident that Thatcher and Roger Douglas — both of whom operated under extreme Westminster systems – were two of the major reformers in the late 20th century.  PR gives too much power to minority parties in the ex post electoral bargain and it works best when there is extreme consensus at the social level, combined with the need to bring certain co-optable minorities into that consensus.  Is that the way to think about UK politics today?  I don't see it.  Does any objective observer jump for joy when a "first past the post" election yields a hung Parliament and requires a coalition, as it does now?  No, so why institutionalize this need with PR?

5. Do paragraphs like this make you feel better?: "William Hague, the new foreign secretary, said the coalition would be built on the personal chemistry of Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, and said that Mr Clegg would not get a veto on government decisions. He told the BBC: “Their ability to resolve this situation bodes very well for all our ability to work together in government.”"  They shouldn't.

Ian Leslie May 12, 2010 at 8:10 am

This is probably the biggest change to British politics since 1924, which is when the Labour Party first took power. In a way it’s our Obama moment – perhaps more so, because it might (much weight on that might) turn out to represent a real structural and cultural change to the way we do politics here. (Click on my name for my bloggy thoughts…)

Chris Hanretty May 12, 2010 at 8:20 am

Re #4, and Britain’s ‘current position’: are you seriously suggesting that institutional choice should be predicated on the needs of the moment?

Andrew May 12, 2010 at 8:21 am

3. Of course if voters let government build up debts for a really long time, governments can only raise money by taxing, cutting spending, fees, rolling over debt, growth, or monetizing. So sure, welfare states require funding. I don’t even understand what the question means.

Do people think taxes can be raised to pay for past waste without affecting growth and lower growth won’t affect borrowing costs? Aside from mulp I mean.

T. Shaw May 12, 2010 at 8:35 am

3. NO!!!

When politicians increase taxes they increase spending, or at least make smaller spending cuts.

It’s far past time to make them cut spending. Only way to do it – starve the beast.

Your ‘equation’ lacks/does not recognize one variable the gross immorality and ineptitide of incumbent career politicians and the entrenched bureaucracies/bumbledoms.

The problems are too much government, too much government authority, too much dependency on government, etc. The concnetration in government powers has magnified all the ill effects of the entire mess the selfsame overweaning governments fostered created.

charlie May 12, 2010 at 8:57 am

what exactly could we learn from quickly forming a government? Is the transition period such a disaster? Or rule by unelected civil servants?

Of course, the real problem isn’t imposing your will on the burecracy here anyway, since outside of DoD they do nothing useful. The real trick is working with Congress, and, right, we have divided government and they don’t.

Rich Berger May 12, 2010 at 9:20 am

See Christie, Governor, NJ re: spending cuts versus tax increases.

chris May 12, 2010 at 9:23 am

If government were making sound investments with high ROI, why couldn’t they finance entirely by rolling over debt?

Because sound investments don’t have high ROI. Risk and return are inversely correlated. This is why all leveraged investment is fundamentally Russian roulette.

If there were a sound investment with high ROI that the rest of the market hasn’t yet flocked into and driven down its ROI, would you trust a government to find it first? I’m nowhere near as radical a market fanatic as some commenters here, and I wouldn’t.

Returning to the original questions, I don’t know enough about the British budget to answer questions 2 and 3. One or the other is probably necessary (although there is an argument for postponing until economic recovery, if the UK is also in recession at the moment) but without knowing budgetary details there is no way to be sure whether it would be better to balance the budget with one, the other, or a combination of both. Taking an absolutist position in advance of knowing the details, such as T. Shaw above, just makes you look like an idiot.

As far as point 4 goes, I think it depends very much on what you consider “too much” power to give to minority parties. The Lib Dems are infamously underrepresented in the current system compared to their actual vote share — that’s the whole point of their support for PR — and the major parties overrepresented. In other words, they have more power than their actual level of support among the British people entitles them to. That’s clearly undemocratic (small d) — a substantial number of Britons’ votes are not carrying equal weight in determining the shape of their government. Whether this unrepresentativeness produces better outcomes is rather dubious.

Conforming the government to the people’s wishes ought to be the default position, IMO, and any deviation from that such as a two-party system is what requires an exceptional justification. I don’t see one.

Candadai Tirumalai May 12, 2010 at 9:31 am

Even though there was a pact between Labour and the Liberals a few
decades back (an agreement not to bring down the Government on, say,
a vote of No Confidence), this is the first coalition Government
since Churchill and the Second World War, which was obviously an
extraordinary time. The insular British, despite their shifting
relationship with the European Union, have tended to think of
proportional representation as a European phenomenon but now find
themselves having to ride this politcal tiger. How British voters
will respond in the event of a referendum on electoral systems a few
years down the road is unpredictable. It is not surprising that
Conservatives feel closer to America and Liberals to Europe. The
Liberals, who won 25% of the recent popular vote but not all that
many Members of Parliament, clearly have the most to gain from PR.

Tomasz Wegrzanowski May 12, 2010 at 9:42 am

> Does any objective observer jump for joy when a “first past the post” election yields a hung Parliament and requires a coalition, as it does now?

Yes, this is a widespread sentiment among the kind of people who vote LibDem or something even more obscure in Britain.

Similar feelings are very widespread in many continental European countries, which don’t want to put too much power in hands of a single country, and prefer coalition governments to single party governments.

Justin Kraus May 12, 2010 at 10:12 am

Your against PR because it stifles the ability of governments to make “big changes in a hurry”?
Thats PR’s strength, not its weakness.

Scoop May 12, 2010 at 10:23 am

Having made all my arguments against a tax increase, I’d still happily agree to one as part of a grand bargain with the Left.

To raise revenues:
1. Abolish all business taxes but levy full regular income tax on dividends, capital gains, etc.
2. Eliminate the caps on medicare and social security and roll them into regular income tax rates by adding the appropriate percentages to all brackets.
3. Tax benefits aggressively. In other words, tax not just the cost of the health plans but the dollar differential between the coach flight and $30 dinner an entry-level employee takes on trips and the first-class flight and $200 dinners the executive gets. When some other company buys an executive a $200 dinner to win his company’s business, that’s income too.

In exchange:
1. Abolish Medicare and put seniors who can’t afford health insurance into Medicaid.
2. Privatize SS, with a safety net that guarantees minimum payouts
3. Raise tax rates on people in the bottom 2/3 of the income curve who are not genuinely poor and stop whinging about the taxation of the middle class. They’ve been getting a free ride for decades. All people must feel the pain of spending.

Henry May 12, 2010 at 10:50 am

FPTP merely applies (nearly) the same standard to individual constituencies as to parliament as a whole. If a party receives the majority of the vote in a constituency, it gets 100% of the representation. If a party gets a majority of the seats in parliament, it gets 100% of the power. (Although FPTP only requires a plurality, small parties are still underrepresented in Alternate Vote). Whatever the relative merits of PR versus FPTP, I find the “moral argument” fairly weak.

bjk May 12, 2010 at 11:08 am

And the creationists make some good points. Do the scientists acknowledge this? TC’s congenital trimming fail.

Philo May 12, 2010 at 11:18 am

You wrote: “Tax increases will be necessary. (Do U.S. commentators on the right admit this?)” What do you mean by ‘necessary’? Sufficiently deep spending cuts would suffice to balance the budget, or even run a surplus. (Do *you* admit this?) Such cuts will not happen for political reasons, but does that make them “impossible”?

Maybe you are just making a political prediction, that tax increases will actually occur (soon). You are saying that tax increases are “necessary” *relative to some (supposed) political reality* which you have not specified.

Andrew May 12, 2010 at 11:30 am

I have another meta-question. It always seems like the question “can we cut spending?” always stops at “it will be politically difficult.”

When I was an engineer, that’s where the discussion started on cost cutting. In fact, it started without even mentioning that fact because it is both always true and irrelevant. Why do we almost never hear a discussion of how we can cut spending?

joan May 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Before 1980 our government also did what was necessary to keep the debt from growing faster that GDP.

Dave R. May 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

“PR gives too much power to minority parties”

Right. Much fairer that a party with 23% of the popular vote only gains 12% of the seats, and the same party may well have received a far higher percentage of ballots cast if the patently unfair system of first-past-the-post didn’t engender a justified feeling that you would be wasting your vote if you voted for a party unlikely to win in your constituency.

Yeah, PR does give too much power to minority parties, as can clearly be seen in the state elections in Germany’s NRW.

Still better than throwing half of all votes cast in the bin.

Doc Merlin May 12, 2010 at 2:11 pm

‘Tax increases will be necessary.’

I don’t like the idea of tax increases because the state will tend to spend that increase instead of actually using it for deficit reduction. I any excessive spender, revenue increases will speed up the speed at which the state digs themselves into debt. They need to cut themselves to the bone before I will trust them with more money.

Alex May 12, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Er, supporting FPTP means you approve of a party receiving 35% of the vote and therefore 55% of the seats (the result of the 2005 UK election). Such an arrangement may bring “strong” government, but another name for it is elected dictatorship.

Case May 12, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Remember that each law/rule made by current parlament does not have to carried out by any future parliament. The UK’s enconomy will have a quicker response to laws passed. The laws inacted by US Congress can not be done away with by the next elected official. The law can only be adjusted.

Stephen May 12, 2010 at 8:11 pm

PR is efficient because votes don’t go to waste.

Imagine a voting card with five candidates. I can vote 1 to 5 (a weighting of consumer preference). My vote is essentailly saying that I like Candidate 1 quite a bit, otherwise I choose Candidate 2, then 3 etc. If Candidate 1 fails, then my vote isn’t wasted because my other preferences might make the difference.

mulp May 13, 2010 at 12:39 am

I don’t like the idea of tax increases because the state will tend to spend that increase instead of actually using it for deficit reduction. I any excessive spender, revenue increases will speed up the speed at which the state digs themselves into debt. They need to cut themselves to the bone before I will trust them with more money.

So, the tax hikes in 1990 and 1993 resulted in increased spending and bigger deficits while the nine tax cuts since 2001 reduced the size of government and reduced the deficits?

And the argument Republicans restrained Clinton’s spending is absurd given the massive spending binge those same Republicans did in the six years Clinton wasn’t blocking them.

How about pointing to a time when any nation and economy has benefited from big government spending cuts.

Marian Kechlibar May 13, 2010 at 1:14 am

And the argument Republicans restrained Clinton’s spending is absurd given the massive spending binge those same Republicans did in the six years Clinton wasn’t blocking them.

This is extremely shallow argument. And I thought that liberals pride themselves on understanding people.

If two parties prefer to spend money on different things, it is logical that they will bicker and quarrel over it when they must share power, and, as a result, spending will go down; and that they will only go to their respective spending binges when the power division ends.

Pete May 13, 2010 at 5:08 am

“Spending cuts/tax increases. Apparently the Chancellor wants these to be in the ratio 4:1. That’s a pretty one-sided ratio.”

With a very high public deficit, that’s the only way to go.

nmg May 13, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Define “necessary”

Dave R. May 17, 2010 at 1:33 am


Labour and the Conservatives are against RP because the status quo of first-past-the-post favours larger parties. It’s as simple as that.

It would be a most unusual political party that would change an electoral system that it is in their interests to maintain.

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