Sunday, November 13, 2016

Out of proportion

As the remaining votes in the US presidential elections are being counted, it's now becoming clear that although the election was still close Hilary Clinton's 'win' was more substantial than first thought. With millions more votes to be counted, it looks like she will end up with something like a million and a half more votes than Trump, perhaps even two million. It's troubling that this should have resulted in a Trump presidency. I want to raise three points.

The first is trivial, the popular vote shows that the polls were not that far off. The result falls within their margin of error.  Most were predicting a 3-4% Clinton lead. She will end up with a lead of between 1-2%. All polls are issued with a margin of error, usually around plus or minus 3% for voting intention. Unfortunately, the headline figure is generally reported as gospel and the error margins ignored. There seems to be a common pattern in polls though, they overestimate support for the left. It's an overestimation that pollsters are trying to adjust their findings to correct, but it still seems to persist. YouGov's initial response is here.

Secondly, this highlights the problem with first-past-the-post, winner takes all, constituency systems. Elections are decided by swing voters in marginal constituencies alone. They are the only votes that count. Get those voters and you win regardless of how poorly you do elsewhere. Swing voters may be small in number, but they hold disproportionate power at election time. They, and they alone, determine the result, and so politics becomes a contest as to who is the most attractive to that small group. Trump won key states with tiny majorities and gained all their votes in the electoral college as they are not cast in proportion to the popular vote. This is what can produce a distortion.

The final point is the most challenging to mainstream parties, we now have a new category of swing voter. In the past, it was assumed that the swing voter was predominantly middle class and 'moderate'. To win their support you had to be control the 'centre ground'. That was the basis of New Labour's strategy. We are now seeing something else. There is a second group with a strong strategic position. The continuing count is showing that the turnout did not drop significantly and so is not responsible for the Democrats' defeat as I suggested in my previous post. I was wrong. Instead, it was Democrat voters switching directly to Trump that won it. Significant pockets of small-town and working-class America voted for Trump, and put him in the White House. There are now two groups of swing voters, but their demands are contradictory.

I don't think the reason for this can be wholly attributed to economics, more on that in a subsequent post, but political economy did play a role in detaching formerly loyal voters from the parties of the centre-left. Prosperity has not been evenly shared, working conditions can be crap, people work hard and still struggle. They feel that they deserve better and are not respected. And they're right. That leads to two things, cynicism about the political process and a resentment of others, who they see as either getting more from government than them and being favoured at their expense. This is not to the advantage of the left today, it is opening the door to right wing populism and therein lies considerable dangers.

The policies that were designed to appeal to middle class floating voters helped create the conditions that detached the working class ones from their automatic party loyalty. It was assumed that they would stay loyal because they had 'nowhere to go'. They did of course, they stayed at home. Turnout dropped. The left hoped that a core vote strategy could win them back. It failed. Social conservatives are also repelled by preachy liberalism. The left, of course, could not and should not abandon its commitment to rights and liberties that have been hard won. They are caught in a trap. Trump offered economic interventionism and cultural conservatism. He posed as being on their side against the government and those they saw as their rivals. That was his appeal.

This isn't new at all. It is what Eric Hobsbawm was writing about in the late 1970s in "The Forward March of Labour Halted?" His argument was not that the working class was disappearing, as embourgeoisement theorists suggested, but was becoming fragmented. And this fragmentation was graphically displayed in America with the division of the working class vote on urban, rural, and ethnic lines. A system that cannot accommodate that fragmentation is not fit for purpose. On the constitutional level we need to think seriously about the quality of our systems of representation, of proper liberal safeguards and democratic processes. Crude majoritarianism is not democracy, but then neither is an election that allows a minority to gain victory on the basis of a tiny majority in a small number of places. Politics is realigning. Current American and British electoral systems cannot cope with that realignment. The time for sophistries in support of the status quo is over. We must reform. Trump's election shows that the risks of not doing so are now too high.

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