Brexit and the weird brew of populism and district representation

There is a weird brew of populism and District Representation (DR). You might think that countries with Proportional Representation (PR) would be most sensitive to populism, but it is rather the reverse. Countries with DR appear to be much more affected, like the France, UK and USA that use First Past The Post (FPTP).

Countries with DR run the risk that the seats in the House of Commons do not reflect the popular vote, and then they might try to repair this with a referendum, that is proportional. In countries with PR there would be no need for referenda.

The UK had the Brexit referendum of June 23 2016, that generated a relatively high turnout of 72.2%, with 51.9% Leave and 48.1% Remain. The Leave vote concerned only 72.2% * 51.9% = 37.5% of the electorate, and apparently the Leavers were quite motivated to turn out.

Many wonder how the UK general election of June 8 2017 squares with this referendum. In the previous weblog text, I already discussed caution. Some key aspects for digging deeper are:

  • The election was on many more issues than only Brexit, and had a turnout of 68.8%. A poll of YouGov showed that 17% who voted at the referendum didn’t vote in 2017.
  • Turnout is not proportional in the Remain / Leave segments.
  • Though the UK is set to Leave, it matters what you call “Leave”. The UK has a discussion about Hard and Soft Brexit, see these options. The political parties tend to be ambiguous about what they want, and voters thus have to guess.

PM. The events after the June 8 elections show the complexity of the situation. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn apparently favours a hard Brexit like Conservative PM Theresa May. The evening of June 29 showed a House rejection by 227 abstaining, 322 against and 101 for a Queen Speech motion to target for remaining in the single market and customs union (regarded as a soft Brexit). Yes voters were Lab 49, LD 12, SNP 34, PC 4, Green 1, Hermon 1. It might still be that some prefer Remain but only vote for a soft Brexit to avoid a hard one. Labour MPs who abstained might have done so only tactically. The whip rule was not to vote for this particular amendment but to vote for the Labour amendment, to deliver a Brexit that prioritises jobs and delivers the “exact same benefits” of the European single market and customs union. The latter Labour motion is quite an incongruity. Yet Corbyn demoted some frontbenchers for not sticking to the party whip.

Limitations to current representation

For both PR and DR alike, there is the problem that the House doesn’t represent (i) who didn’t vote and (ii) whose votes got wasted. There is also the distinction between the registered electorate and the unregistered.

See the case of Holland 2017 with PR, here.

The wasted votes in the UK amount to 3.5% of the votes. A solution might be to leave 3.5% of the 650 seats empty. Alternatively, the standard majority of the House of 326 seats is replaced by a qualified majority of 337 seats.

The 14.5 million electors who didn’t turn out are more than the 13.6 million who voted for the Conservatives, who got  317 seats. An alternative might be to leave 202 seats empty or use a qualified majority of 489.

The present situation thus means that the Conservatives with their 317 seats seem to be overpresented with their view on Brexit. We don’t really know, since the Unregistered and Don’t Vote did not come to vote to show their opinion.

YouGov data on Remain or Leave

YouGov provides us with (at least) two polls for 2015 and 2017 that tell us how parties are divided on Remain or Leave. In this, the 18 seats for Northern Ireland tend to be excluded, so that the data concern Great Britain, with England, Wales and Scotland.

The first poll is from 2015, and let me quote their graph. Observe that the Undecideds are not in the graphs. Apparently 7% of the Ukippers did not want to Leave immediately.

The second poll is after the 2017 election, and asks how those voted in 2017 also voted in 2015 and the referendum. Let me again quote from their graph, and see their website for the data sheet. Observe that the Undecideds are now excluded, since the Undecideds obviously did not vote either Yes or No.

Transforming these data in party flows

The challenge is to transform these data into party flows. Considerations are:

  • The data on 2015 are rather rough while the data on 2017 benefit from the 2016 referendum.
  • The poll of 2015 however is still more useful since many voters in 2015 may not have participated in the referendum. Thus, using the 2015 poll, the Undecideds of 2015 can be allocated to Remain or Leave, based upon party flavour.
  • From the voters of the referendum in 2016, we can subtract the deceased, then allocate the transition flows as observed in the poll of 2017, with e.g. the key information that 15% of Remain and 26% of Leave in 2016, thus on average 20.7%, did not vote in 2017. Thus we should not be surprised if the 2017 outcome might be relatively more in favour of Remain.
  • For the transition flows, we assume that the dispositions to Remain or Leave do not change. Check this YouGov poll in March 2017. For example, when a Conservative Leaver switches to Labour, then this indicates a shift from Hard to Soft, and not a shift from Soft to Remain.
  • The above gives us the divisions in the 2016 electorate that also voted in 2017.
  • We allocate the new voters in same proportions: not only the attainers (coming of age, turnout of 57%) but also those who didn’t vote at the referendum, and the new registrations for the electorate (who we might assume that they only register to actually go and vote). These data are rough, namely measured over the full year, so that we must assume e.g. that the deaths in the last half of 2016 are about the same as those in the first half of 2017.

The voter dynamics are a bit remarkable. Of the vote of about 32 million there is a stable core of only 26 million. The 26% leavers who do not vote at the general election in 2017 amount to 4.4 million voters. The surviving non-voters at the referendum amount to 12.3 million, of which 5 million or 41.4%, decide to vote at the general election in 2017,  while the other 7.2 miljoen do not show up at both occasions.

Results of these considerations

Northern Ireland and other parties have been included again, so we leave GB and return to the UK.

  • For the minor parties we may assume (see also the BBC on MPs) that Remain are Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, Independent Unionist (Hermon), and Leave is DUP. The popular vote also has parties not represented. UKIP will be Leave, and the Speaker and the remaining wasted vote will be Blank.
  • Percentages of the popular vote will include the wasted vote of 3.5% (including UKIP) in the denominator.

Remain is horizontal, Leave is vertical. The diagonal or 45º line gives the split. Below the diagonal a party has more Remain votes, above the diagonal it has more Leave votes. 2015 has Squares and 2017 has Triangles.

The axes are in millions of voters. For example, UKIP (on the bottom left) in 2015 had almost 4 million votes, of which apparently 7% Remain. UKIP in 2017 lost almost all of its votes, mostly to the Leave part of the Conservatives. For example, LD (LibDem) is stationary.

The votes for the House of Commons are a sum and would not fit in the graph, and thus 11 million votes have been subtracted on both axes.

  • The division in the House in 2015 was {Remain, Leave} = {17.3, 12.8} but depicts {6.3, 1.8}.
  • In 2017 this became {16.5, 15.2} which depicts {5.5, 4.2}.

A major explanation for this huge shift in public opinion is that many Remainers apparently want to respect the Brexit referendum outcome. The vote on June 8 also was after invoking article 50. Voters regard Brexit as a given, and voted for parties to make the best of it. See this YouGov poll on the Re-Leavers.

The following is a chart for the division in 2017, again on votes and not seats. Remain still seems to have the larger share of 51.0% compared to Leave at 47.2%. Observe that the latter includes UKIP though it didn’t get a seat. The remaining 1.8% Blank are for the Speaker and the remainging wasted vote. These parties may well have an opinion, or their own subdivisions, but those do not show here because they don’t show in above polls.

Northern Ireland

Prime Minister May made a deal with DUP, including that DUP must respect the Brexit deal that May will achieve with the EU. The 317 Conservative seats and the 10 seats for DUP generate a majority of 327, just 1 above the standardly required 326.

Let us look closer at this. The following data have been retrieved from the BBC.

In 2015 DUP had 8 seats. DUP in 2017 managed to get 2 more seats at the cost of others, with a huge wasted vote of 32.6%. A seat in the UK House of Commons required only 30,410 votes while the UK average is 47,901. At that rate NI should have 41 seats if the total electorate should be represented. Then a majority of 50% would require 21 seats, more than there actually are.

The Lorenz curve for Northern Ireland looks quite like the unequal Lorenz curve of the UK in 2015, when UKIP got only 1 seat, see the graphs in an earlier weblog text. There is a PR Gini of 36.7%, while Holland has a PR Gini of 3.6. The excel sheet for Northern Ireland is: 2017-Northern-Ireland-Lorenz-Gini

PM 1. Sinn Fein apparently never visits the sessions of the UK Parliament. This doesn’t seem to be relevant for this discussion that concerns the popular vote.

PM 2. In the EU Parliament smaller countries like Holland have a disproportionate number of seats compared to Germany. The situation is similar for NI in the UK. This would tend not to be relevant for the present discussion, except that the low value in NI in 2017 derives from the huge wasted vote.

Splitting up parties ?

Why doesn’t the UK split up the parties along the Remain / Leave divide ? Thus we would get ConR, ConL (Hard), LabR, LabL (Soft), and so on. With proportional representation (PR), then we would not have to rely on polling, but would see the proper allocations directly in the House of Commons.

There might be other (attractive or unattractive) features. When Mrs. May would have been part of the ConR party in 2015, then this would have made it more difficult for her to start leading the ConL party after the Brexit referendum outcome. Or when Corbyn would have been part of the LabL party in 2015 then he could not have easily gotten a hold on the LabR as happens now.

There was an entertaining poll on this very idea itself by YouGov in 2015, here. That poll isn’t quite convincing given the wrong forecast for the Brexit referendum outcome, which suggests some misrepresentation.

However, the system of DR tends to make such break-ups unattractive for the parties involved. Smaller parties are destined to lose in the FPTP system. Thus another argument for PR would be that it provides voters with more clarity on party positions. The final result may well be a compromise, but this can be bargained by the professionals in Parliament, and better is not tried by the voters in the isolation of the ballot box.

Also, I have argued before that the Brexit referendum question was flawed in design. We don’t know what the voters really want. We might need to further split up the parties, e.g. in “Labour Leave, as UK” and “Labour Leave, but Scotland Independent so that Scotland can Remain” and so on. In countries with PR like Holland, one tends to think that parties divide up along issues that people tend to think of as fundamental, in which ideology tends to be of key importance.

The issue of Brexit might not be as fundamental as many people in the UK seem to think. The issue of immigration got translated into the question on Brexit, and this might have to do with the DR structure, see also France. This might be a topic to look closer into.

Conclusions

Conclusions are:

  • Above calculations obviously are fairly rough, and based upon perhaps arbitrary assumptions (but that is what arbitrage is). They basically set the stage for a better opinion poll that replaces these uncertainties by normal poll variety.
  • Above estimate suggests that the popular vote would be still very close to a majority on Remain.
  • The above doesn’t look at the views of the 1.8% of the vote that hasn’t been in the YouGov polls that were used here or that could not easily been determined by the other reports.
  • The share for Leave is a mixed bag, with Hard and Soft.
  • The Conservatives have a disproportionate share of the seats, which causes that their view on Brexit finds disproportion too (and their view might be the view of their leadership).
  • Northern Ireland has a huge disproportion in 2017, similar to the UK House in 2015. The Conservative + DUP majority in 2017 thus is of dubious value.
  • When the UK electorate better understands that the Brexit referendum question was flawed in design (see here), then many voters will lose the tendency to vote for Leave only out of respect for the Brexit referendum result, and then vote for their own opinion.

The main point is: We see the weird brew of populism and DR.

  • In 2015, UKIP with 12.5% of the vote got only 1 seat, and the unrest in the Conservative party caused David Cameron to call the referendum: which is populism, since a democratic response would have been to call for PR.
  • Now in 2017 a disproportionality in Northern Ireland seems to facilitate the Hard Brexit that Theresa May now seems to want.
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