Why does representative democracy often fail to give effect to the will of the majority?

When Enoch Powell’s gave his so-called ‘Rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, opinion polls showed three-quarters of people supported him. Yet this did not prevent Powell being condemned by all three major political parties and mass immigration continuing almost unabated.

Similarly when capital punishment was abolished, opinion polls showed the public were against it. More recently the EU referendum of 2016 showed a majority for leaving but it seems unlikely that the UK will leave the EU in anything but name – and this with the support of all three of the major, and supposedly democratic, UK political parties.

We have regular elections which are still largely free and fair. How is it then that the three established political parties have not been swept from power by parties whose views reflect those of the majority on matters like immigration?

The answer depends on a number of factors which include the huge cost of political campaigning in mass electorates and the influence this gives to political donors, the power of the mass media to define the prevailing political narrative, and the effect of long-standing tribal political loyalties.

But here I will focus on a structural factor – that elections involve voting for parties and not voting directly on the issues. I will use ideas derived from what is known as public choice theory.

Each voter has one vote but there are many issues; a general election campaign may well involve, among other issues, the economy, welfare, the NHS, law and order, the EU and immigration. This presents the voter with a dilemma: what if he supports one party on one issue but another party on another issue? An example would be a working-class voter who supports Labour on the economy but prefers the Conservatives on immigration.

This hypothetical voter cannot have everything he wants. He has only one vote. He must either vote Labour following his best economic interest, or Conservative in accordance with what he wants on immigration. His vote then will depend on his priorities. Which issue is more important to him: the economy or immigration?

We know that a majority of voters in general elections in the UK vote on the economy; issues like the EU and immigration are only usually third or fourth in their priorities. But this is not true of all voters – some may vote on the EU or immigration.  So what is important is not simply the number of votes on an issue but the priority the voters give to that issue relative to others.

To illustrate this, let us give a simplified example from the hypothetical country of Ruritania. Ruritania has two major political parties – the Ruritanian Socialist Party, supporting big state, high tax policies, and the Ruritanian Traditional Party, supporting small state, low tax policies. On economic issues, the Ruritanian electorate is fairly evenly split between these two parties.

However, Ruritania also has an issue with immigration – 90% of voters support strict immigration controls while only 10% support open, liberal immigration policies. But significantly, the Ruritanian electorate is not entirely homogeneous: it comprises 90% of voters of settled, indigenous origin who generally want low immigration and 10% of voters of more recent immigrant-descent who generally support high immigration. Even more significantly in Ruritania this 10% of voters of recent immigrant origin, who favour high immigration, are more likely to make immigration their priority issue in voting, whereas the 90% of voters of settled origin usually vote according to their economic preference.

Rational, vote-maximising politicians in Ruritania will understand this: that notwithstanding that 90% of Ruritanian voters want less immigration the only voters who are likely to vote on immigration are the 10% of Ruritanian voters who want more immigration. If, say, the Ruritanian Socialist Party starts to offer open immigration policies to gather support from voters who will actually vote on immigration, the Ruritanian Traditional Party will feel constrained to follow suit to recover its electoral position. Hence both major parties will end up offering high immigration policies even though a majority of voters support low immigration. The 90% who favour low immigration will always be outvoted on immigration by the 10% of voters who support high immigration because the latter actually vote on that issue.

This example provides a plausible explanation of one of the reasons why today in the UK both major parties have in practice (if not always in rhetoric) favoured high immigration policies. A majority of voters overall vote on the economy but we also know that an overwhelming majority (perhaps 80% plus) of voters of immigrant descent vote Labour; and that Labour have a reputation for being more pro-immigration than the Conservatives.

So why does any of this analysis matter? There are two reasons.

First, it provides an explanation of why many representative democracies become dominated by two major parties to the exclusion of third parties. Most voters vote on the economy and their economic interest; but there are usually only two directions they can vote to take the economy in – either more productivity through lower tax and less redistribution or more equity through more tax and more redistribution. Just as you only need two buttons to control the direction of a lift – up and down – you only need two parties to control the direction of the economy.  These two major parties, once they have occupied all the plausible positions on the priority issue for most voters – the economy, leave little space for a third party to break in, however popular its policies on non-economic matters because these are seen by most voters as subsidiary.

The second reason why this analysis matters is because it is only through properly understanding why democracies fail that it is possible to start to think whether there are any feasible solutions.

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