Is the Prime Minister Becoming More Presidential?

As in the United States, the United Kingdom's democracy allows for the distinct probability of selecting national leaders who win only a plurality of the popular vote nationwide.
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In an election that Britain's political commentators have called the closest in decades, one thing that seems certain, if opinion polls are any guide, is that only one party leader, Mr. Cameron, has any chance--and in his case only a slim one--of securing a majority of seats in the House of Commons. That is a requirement for any party to make an unchallengeable claim to power.
John Burns, "A Final Push to Win a Majority in Britain," New York Times, May 3, 2010.

"Some ludicrous things have been said by the Conservatives: the sun wouldn't come up, locusts would descend from the sky, newborns would be slain," Liberal Democrat Clegg said in regard to the prospect of a hung parliament. "They're saying that unless they get the answer they want from the voters, they'll get their friends in the banks to burn the house down. But of course that won't happen. The world will carry on."
If [Prime Minister] Brown by now seems like a piñata that remains attached to the ceiling even though chunks have been hacked off, and Mr. Cameron seems like a sleek, self-satisfied seal, then Mr. Clegg seems like a happy terrier, wagging his tail and full of excitement as he faces an uncertain future.

Sarah Lyall, "Liberal Democrat Relishes Central Role in Race," New York Times, May 5, 2010.

The latest opinion polls put the Conservative Party -- which has been out of power for 13 years -- within reach of a majority in the House of Commons but just shy of enough seats to seal the deal. If the Conservatives fall short, their leader, David Cameron, could still become Britain's youngest prime minister in nearly two centuries, though he would head a minority government susceptible to buckling in the coming months under opposition pressure. *** Yet the race for No. 10 Downing St. could shift in any number of directions, potentially being decided by backroom deals that could take days to hash out. In a country defined by tribal politics -- where Labor or Conservative affiliations are as important as one's soccer team -- the political future also appeared to depend on whether millions of Labor voters fed up with Brown would switch their votes or simply stay home.
Dan Balz and Anthony Faiola, "On Eve of British Election, Shake-up in Parliament is Forecast,"
Washington Post, May 6, 2010.


Is the Prime Minister becoming more Presidential? I first heard this question posed by Richard Neustadt, when he was teaching at Columbia before moving on to Harvard. His wisdom on the American presidency was dispensed in brief lecture nuggets that came out between puffs on his pipe, amid pregnant pauses. Over time, his views on this question--and the reverse--were fleshed out on both sides of the pond in an essay: "White House and Whitehall." [The Public Interest, Winter 1966.] He was comparing cabinet government in the U.K. with presidential government in the U. S.

In following the buildup to the British election of May 6, one is struck by how frequently Fleet Street and academic experts compare the race to control the House of Commons--between the Conservative, Labor, and Liberal Democrat parties--to American presidential campaigns. A rigorous examination of the validity of such a convergence comparison should be left to experts like Anthony King at the University of Essex, and Richard Pious at Columbia/Barnard.


An obvious point of comparison is the presidential-style three television debates between Nick Clegg, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown. The debates have been the most novel feature--not to short the role of the Internet--in an unprecedented campaign for votes across Great Britain, substantially altering the way politics is practiced in the mother country and with implications for governing inside Whitehall's corridors of power. And, it is fair to say, the drama of the debates has cast the third party Liberal Democrats into a major role, starring the youthful and telegenic Nick Clegg.

This new phenomenon provides motivation for the view of Prime Minister Brown that the election campaign has been dominated by focusing on such


as personality and style, rather than on the substance of the policies of the major parties spelled out in their manifestos. He has been running a poor third to Clegg and Cameron on such crucial intangibles as who looks most attractive on television, who has a winning persona. And who projects change at a time when the public is fed up with politics as usual--or

the same old politics

practiced by

the same old two parties

as the Liberal Democrat leader has framed it when standing between Brown and Cameron under the klieg lights.

Of course, there are major differences between the constitutional arrangements for electing the American President (indirectly by popular vote) and choosing a party to rule in the United Kingdom (by adding up the number of parliamentary seats won by each party, district by district). But there is one striking similarity: the two democracies allow for the distinct probability of selecting national leaders who win only a plurality of the popular vote nationwide; and even the possibility of winning office with less than a plurality when coming in second !


To throw out some numbers as the basis for a rough comparison: In the United States, the Democratic or Republican nominee for President must win a bare majority of electoral votes (270 out of 538) that are only partially distributed in a federal system according to state population; and are awarded on a winner-take-all basis in all but two states. Every state--regardless of population size--has at least 3 electoral votes, two for its two Senators (50 X 2 = 100) and one for the single Representative constitutionally gauranteed to each state. (The District of Columbia gets 3 electoral votes.) The 435 members of the House are re-distributed among the 50 states, on the basis of population, following each ten-year census, as are 435 electoral votes out of 538.

The Presidency may be won by a candidate with fewer popular votes than the other major candidate; as long as he or she has won a majority of electoral votes in a combination of states. If there is no clear electoral vote winner on election day, the written Constitution provides that the election of the President is to be thrown into the House of Representatives--with the choice confined to the candidates (not exceeding three) who had received the highest number of electoral votes.

[There is no constitutional provision--or law or historical precedent--for the Supreme Court to intervene in the process of choosing a president, as it in effect did when ruling in favor of Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore, the winner of a plurality of the popular vote in 2000.]

By contrast, in the arguably counter-intuitive translation of popular votes into parliamentary seats in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, gaining control of government requires that one of the parties wins pluralities ("first-past-the-post" ) in 326 of 650 parliamentary districts throughout the United Kingdom. The failure to get 326--a


parliament--can lead to minority rule, or majority rule via a coalition or pact with another party or parties. Even if Labor were to come in third in the popular vote--as opinion polls were indicating until recently--the electoral system could perversely still give the party more seats than either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats in Commons and place Prime Minister Brown in a position to bargain. Nevertheless, as Brown told the BBC:

People will judge us also on the number of votes we have as well as the number of seats.

To phrase it in a different way, the party with the most seats in the House of Commons will not necessarily have won the overall popular vote--or even come in second. Low-turnout constituencies wield electoral power disproportionately. (This also happens to occur in U.S. House elections, in congressional districts within states--even though they are close to equal in population.) Labor generally wins


low turnout seats in the inner cities while Conservative victories are in the higher voting suburban and rural constituencies. And electorate sizes can vary considerably: the Isle of Wight with over a 100,000 voters is almost four times the size of the Western Isles. Yet, each returns one MP to parliament.

Moreover, if Cameron and the Conservatives were to win a wafer-thin majority of seats with, say, 40% of the popular vote, what mandate for reform would he have? More people will have voted against his party than for it. Conceivably, more people will have not voted at all than will have voted for him. The Conservatives may then decide that they need an informal governing partner as part of a pact.

Alternatively, if the Conservatives were to win only a plurality of seats in Commons and garner, say, 35% of the national vote, it would not be correct to suggest that the electorate collectively voted for a hung parliament. (Labor loses its overall majority while the Conservatives fail to win 326 seats). It would have done no such thing, except insofar as the voters were persuaded to cast


votes by party leaders. Example: In key marginal districts closely contested by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, some Labor leaders are suggesting that the party faithful consider casting their votes for the Lib/Dems, thereby hoping to cut back on the number of seats won by the Conservatives across the country.

By way of comparison, American pundits can make a stronger argument that the national electorate has collectively chosen divided government when one party is elected to the White House, and the other party succeeds in electing a majority in the House and/or Senate. There is even some expert opinion in Great Britain that a hung parliament is not quite the bugaboo--

it would cause a run on the pound

per Cameron--it is made out to be. Hear Lord Richard Wilson, former head of the Civil Service:

We think we like strong government...but there is another interesting strand in political thought now which is that the balance between parliament, the legislature, and government, the executive, has gone wrong, that the executive is too powerful ...There is some anxiety behind the scenes that we need to redress the balance between the Executive and the Legislature.

Again, as distinguished from national support for the main parties in opinion polls, the outcome of the election is ultimately determined by the counting of votes in 650 separate constituencies. The winning candidate in each single member constituency is simply the person who gets the most votes, a plurality. Note that another feature of the voting system that is contributing to the counter-intuitive translation of votes into seats is the proportion of people--level of turnout--voting in each separate constituency. A party that wins the low turnout constituencies (i.e. Labor) is accumulating fewer votes in winning than a party that wins the high turnout areas.


It is May 5 and the Brits are down to the wire. The state of the major parties at the dissolution of Parliament on April 12 was:

Labor @ 345; Conservative @ 193; Liberal Democrat @ 63. Labor had a "working majority" of 56.

Realistically, there would seem to be two feasible scenarios:

A) The Nick Clegg novelty bounce at first plateaued and now has eroded--or "punctured"--in the last week of the campaign. How many Labor voters will actually cast tactical votes for Lib/Dems in close contests between the latter and the Conservatives? (If this were to happen in significant numbers, the case for proportional representation in Commons would be strengthened, a favorite cause of Clegg.) But what if Labor supporters abstain in large numbers? With 2-3 million of the voters undecided in polls,

floating voters

--in a fluid political environment--could decide against a hung parliament by cashing in on dozens of marginal constituencies, without revealing their preferences to pollsters. The result could be, improbably, a slim Tory majority in parliamentary seats. However, a 40% plurality in popular votes is unlikely to result in majority control of Commons.

B) The election returns, more likely, will yield a hung parliament, but not by more than three dozen or so seats. The LibDems could win close to 75 seats. The Conservatives would then emerge as the largest party in parliamentary seats, and Clegg would be faced with some difficult choices in weighing whether to join a formal coalition--if asked. (Labor would then go into the wilderness to find another leader.) In other words, various political forces conspire to give the Tories a decided plurality!

With the Conservatives falling noticeably short of a majority--which seems highly likely--will Cameron turn to Clegg to form a coalition? If he does, Clegg will accept--even if the policy price is high.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Britain is heading for a hung parliament, according to the final opinion polls before the General Election.


Overnight polls seem to confirm the features of the last week's campaigning with a hung parliament still the most likely outcome of the closest election campaign in recent British history:

A Harris poll for Metro put the Conservatives on 36%, up four, the Liberal Democrats on 28%, down two, and Labor on 26%, up one. (The poll is likely to have underplayed Lib Dem support because it only surveyed those certain to vote.) The daily YouGov/Sun poll sees the Conservatives at 35%, Labor at 30% and the Lib Dems at 24%. If the survey were replicated at the general election Labor could again end up with the most seats in parliament despite coming second in the popular vote. But YouGov has also said that compared with voting intentions in 2005, the Conservatives have added two per cent to their support, while Labor has lost eight points and the Lib Dems have gained five. The polling company's president said he expected David Cameron to be Prime Minister by Friday night, at the head of a minority government.

A ComRes poll for the Independent and ITV News suggests the race is still wide open, with 38% of respondents saying they might change their mind before tomorrow. The Lib Dem vote seemed most


-- a finding that has been replicated in several surveys, with 41% of the party's support willing to switch! That compares badly with Tory voters.
The first of tomorrow's newspaper polls, done by Populus for the Times, puts the Conservatives up one from yesterday at 37%, Labor also up one at 28%, and the Lib Dems down one at 27%.

Sky News polling expert, Professor Michael Thrasher, has warned that there are still a number of undecided voters who could swing the election in any direction:

Never before has an election campaign seen so many voters so close to the polling stations opening still to make up their minds. In a real sense the final polls published on election day itself may help some voters.

He went on:

Previous elections have demonstrated that voters are like people generally and like to back the winner. This could be good news for the Conservatives who the pollsters will agree are the front-runners in the tightest of three-way races. This might prompt some undecideds to follow the crowd and swing behind Cameron. For those electors struggling over a choice between Labor or the Liberal Democrats it may also matter whether the trend in recent polls of a small gap opening in Labor's favour continues.

This is a critical election!

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