[EM] British Election and Duverger's Law

Anthony Duff anthony_duff at yahoo.com.au
Sun May 8 08:25:42 PDT 2005

Firstly, I think that Duverger's theory is wrong and that it
certainly doesn't deserve the status of "law".  His theory states
that a first-past-the-post election system leads to a two-party
system.  It is wrong because there are counter examples.  I conclude
that there is some other explanation for the stability of two-party

I suggest instead that two party systems, in functioning democratic
systems where the government is elected though single winner
elections, are stabilised by a tendency for people to decide that
they either support or oppose the government.  Those that don’t
support the government, in seeking to defeat the government,
"support" the most powerful opposition.  This is therefore a simple
polarising effect that needs no reference to plurality as the voting
method.  By "support" I don't simply refer to how votes are cast, but
to how people discuss and then persuade each other, and to the
alloting of resources by the rich and powerful.

But the question remains: Why have the British continued to elect
three distinct parties?  (whatever the reasons for the stability of
two-party systems)

I am a long way from Britain, and I am afraid I don’t know, but I
have some thoughts.  The British Labour party seems to represent a
wide political spectrum that includes the centre.  The Tories have
lost the moderate right to Labour (this seems quite clear).  Are the
Liberal Democrats surviving because the far left feels completely
abandoned by Labour?  The far left, although abandoned by Labour,
could never support the middle and far right Tories, and so they have
no choice but to support a third party.  Can someone comment: Has
British Labour been unpalatable to the far left for all of the last
eighty years?

Could part of the answer to the original question be that in Britain,
there is very strong diversity from one district to another?  A very
inhomogeneous distribution could be giving the House of Commons a
PR-like character.


--- Alex Small <alex_small2002 at yahoo.com> wrote:

> 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.
> Alex
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