[EM] British Election and Duverger's Law

Alex Small alex_small2002 at yahoo.com
Fri May 6 00:52:01 PDT 2005

Long time no post.  I'm wrapping up the writing on my dissertation, but I couldn't resist jumping in to post on the British election.
The Liberal Democrats are putting in their strongest showing since the 1920's.  What's interesting from the non-partisan standpoint of this list is that Britain uses plurality voting from single-member districts, and yet the LibDems got 22% of the popular vote at last count and approximately 9% of the seats.  The usual rule of thumb is that plurality voting from single-member districts encourages the formation of a 2-party system.  That's certainly the case in the US, both nationally and in the 50 states (which can be seen as 50 different units to compare).
The appeal of the LibDems is even more surprising when you consider that it's a parliamentary system.  The stakes in a legislative race are even higher, so at first glance I would think that there's even more of an incentive to vote for one of the 2 major parties.  Finally, while most of the other parties in the British Parliament are regional/ethnic parties representing Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, the LibDems are more about issues and ideology rather than ethnic/regional identity.
Now, it may be tempting to explain these results solely in terms of current events:  Tony Blair has alienated elements of the left and center, and the Tories are such an abysmal mess that even Gray Davis has lost respect for them.  But the LibDems have persisted despite the fact that they've been the third party in size for 80+ years.  I'm more surprised by their persistence over time than I am by their current popularity.
Does anybody know why Duverger's Law has been so stubbornly resisted in Britain for 80+ years?  I'd be genuinely curious to know.


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