Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Geographic political divides

One of the myths frequently bandied about the British voting system is the claim that it somehow creates an artificial North-South divide in politics. The argument runs that under a different voting system the country would be politically more mixed. It's an interesting argument, if based in some misassumptions (the divide is really metropolitan vs the rest - in the last election northern market towns and rural areas swung on a similar scale to their southern counterparts), and no doubt we'll be hearing people make it in the forthcoming AV referendum. But it ignores the fact that such divides are rooted in social & historical factors that are the backdrop to people's political outlooks, and can occur under all manner of voting systems.

Such divides exist in other countries, even when using proportional representation or holding a direct election. Yesterday was the second & final round of the Polish presidential election and the election map shows some interesting features. Here is the map of the first round results with Bronisław Komorowski of the Civic Platform in orange and Jarosław Kaczyński of Law and Justice in blue:

It's an interesting map of support and people may have recognised the historic boundaries it roughly follows. But the first round was not a isolated case - here's the second round:

Exactly the same pattern. It was also seen in the last parliamentary election as well:

The parliament is elected by party lists in multiple constituencies (the system most of the UK uses for the European Parliament).

For those still wondering, the map of party support almost exactly matches the pre First World War boundaries between Germany and Russia (when Poland was still partitioned between them). Regardless of whether the nature of the political divide can trace itself back to that time, despite several movements of boundaries and populations since, it is a stark divide. The use of either proportional representation or a single nation wide election hasn't shifted it, and I doubt any voting system change in the UK would have a effect on our geographic political divide.

See also Strange Maps: 348 – An Imperial Palimpsest on Poland’s Electoral Map which has independently noted this phenomenon.


Wayne Smith said...

Winner-take-all voting does not "create" geographical divides in politics. It does, however, exaggerate them. It means that some regions are left out of government altogether, sometimes for whole lifetimes. Under proportional voting, every major party will have representation from every region, so every region will be represented in both Government and Opposition, and every constituent will have local representatives from the party they voted for. The point that the divide is more rural/urban than north/south is well taken, but doesn't change the substance of the argument.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

What you're describing is only true only the purest of PR systems - even Israel and the Netherlands have thresholds that keep out parties with very low support thresholds. Most other systems have various regional divides and a limited number of seats in each unit, and the usual proposal for PR is STV with c5 member constituencies, so there would be regions and areas where parties missed out. And that's even before you take into account that some parties have low to non-existent organisation in some regions, particularly Northern Ireland.

Note that in the Euro elections neither Labour nor the Lib Dems won seats everywhere, due to weakness in the South West & North East respectively and neither stood in Northern Ireland (and neither's sister party took a seat). Under STV the Conservatives will have problems where their vote is thinly spread out - e.g. already in Glasgow they have just a solitary councillor despite polling about as many votes city wide as the Lib Dems and the Greens, both of whom have several councillors and all three parties have a list MSP.


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