The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Old Parliaments Die: And This Is Why

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 26, 2009 @ 09:50

Last Saturday I wrote about the key political concept of legitimacy: what it means, where it comes from, and what happens to it.

The goal of any political reform must always be to enhance legitimacy. That is obvious from common sense: no democrat would argue for a reform that would damage the legitimacy of a system. Not intentionally, anyway.

But what is important is that legitimacy, within a political culture, is quantifiable in a theoretical way. What does that bullshit mean?

Well, it means that for any elected body (the only institutions that can have a genuine claim to 100% legitimacy)  we can put a rough value on just how legitimate it is.

Better still, using some formula jiggery-pokery, we can make a reasonable guess as to how legitimacy declines over time. Because legitimacy, being derived from election, must inherently diminish as time goes by from the last election to that institution.

Let’s imagine that an election takes place to the House of Commons. On day one, it could be assumed to be 100% legitimate, being an accurate (ignoring the question of proportional representation) reflection of the will of the electorate who turned out.

Click for a closer look

Click for a closer look

As time goes by, that legitimacy slides away. Slowly at first, so much so that after 12 months still 96% of the population would deem the Parliament to be legitimate. But 12 months later, that has dropped to 86%, and 12 months further still, it has dropped to 68%. Click the graph to the right for a closer look.

At what point is a new election desirable? Should we wait until dropping below 50%? Or is it better to nip the decline in the bud by going for slightly earlier?

Why is respect for our current Parliament so low? It’s not just the expenses scandal. I would argue that it’s because of how long it has been since the last election, almost 54 months. That would give a legitimacy rating of just 30%. Most people, when questioned, would like an election almost immediately. Does that lend credence to such a low legitimacy rating?

Indeed, by the next election, some 60 months after the last one, I would argue legitimacy would be as low as 14%. The way the formula works is that, the further away from the election you are, the faster the decline (because of its logarithmic nature).

This is an extremely basic formula, but I would argue with some tweaking it could be adjusted for turnout: the idea being that the lower the turnout, the lower the starting point should be, and the faster the decline. It could also be adjusted for political culture: for example, elections to the US House of Representatives are every two years, so the decline would be much steeper.

Using this we can make a case for when the “ideal” time for an election should be. Five years is far too long, and risks the kind of fag-end, lame-duck administration we’re seeing now. Four years is better – but at 44% I would still say it’s a bit too late, as towards the end such a Parliament’s age starts to show.

I think three years would be better (the Australian Parliament seems to have this right)… but why must we always deal in exact years? Why not 3.5 years (at 57%)? Just before the majority of the country get fed up, and round enough to be nice and predictable.

Of course, all of this is a creation of my over-active imagination.  There is no scientific basis behind it; only a guess based on hunch and instinct as to how Parliaments decline in the eyes of their electorate.

But I think, with the proper study and testing, it could be revised and enhanced to cope with more variables (like turnout and electoral system), and it aids understanding as to why we need a regular supply of elections, and when they should occur.

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One Response to “Old Parliaments Die: And This Is Why”

  1. […] wrote a load of old rubbish last September about how the legitimacy of a parliament declines over time. Of course, my formula […]

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