"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Thursday, April 21, 2005

On proportional voting systems

This is prompted by a piece I found over at Harry's Place in which Harry is finding his commitment to PR somewhat strained, despite having "long been a supporter of electoral reform and proportional representation". Meanwhile, Johann Hari reckons "Only a multi-party proportional electoral system can make politics compatible with complex consumer preferences, giving us a political menu that stretches from the Greens to the BNP". Finally, Nick Cohen recently described our FPTP as "appalling".

I used to share this consensus over PR but now think both that FPTP has benefits - and proportional systems drawbacks - that tend to be overlooked.

One purported benefit of PR that should be nailed from the outset is the notion that it is "fairer" and more "democratic". The logic is that since no government in Britain since 1945 has been elected on a minority of the popular vote - whereas PR systems typically produce coalition governments based on 60% of the vote - PR is, therefore, more representative.

This overlooks a couple of problems: coalitions are the product of compromises made between parties and produce policies that no-one has voted for - which rather undermines their claim to be representative. (A case in point being the deal the Liberals made with Labour in the Scottish Parliament over university tuition fees.)

Another is the fact that PR systems can produce a change in government without anyone casting a vote - surely a failing in any system claiming to be more democratic?

This was the case in Ireland when, rocked by the scandals concerning paedophile priests, the Fianna Fail administration resigned, leaving the Irish Labour party to reform a coalition with Fine Gael. (The case also illustrates the problem with being unable to get rid of minority parties who exercise the role of king-makers out of all proportion to their electoral strength).

Some PR systems can also put power away from local constituencies and into the hands of the party machine. This contest may be pretty low-down and dirty but when it's done, I don't think anyone in Bethnal Green and Bow will have much of an excuse for not knowing who their local MP is.

The same cannot be said for PR. Under the Holyrood AMS system, we have two MSPs. I know who the MSP elected by FPTP is alright, but as for my list MP - I haven't a clue, and that seems to be the case with most people I've mentioned this to.

But it's the strength of FPTP that tends to be overlooked - and to appreciate it, one has to get back to the essence of the electoral system and what you want it to achieve.

The glory of democracy - as one of my lecturers put it - was that not only does it legitimize the sort opposition that would be considered treason in pre-democratic systems, but it does is some way carry the idea that such opposition is a democratic duty.

In this context, FPTP is the best system: I don't think there was much doubt that after 18 years of Tory rule, the British electorate were in the mood for a change (to put it mildly) and the great advantage of our system is that it allows us to do just that - get a complete change in government; get rid of the lot of them.

Contrast and compare with the Scottish Parliament. To me it has a very serious democratic defect that is hardly ever addressed: can the Holyrood system deliver a change in government? It's too early to say, but the signs aren't encouraging. Who does a left of centre unionist like me vote for? All the opposition parties are nationalist, except for a small fringe group of fanatics who call themselves the Scottish Conservatives - and here I reckon PR is part of the problem. And - to return to the theme of Harry's piece - if we ever do get a change of administration in Holyrood, I've got the awful feeling that we'll never be rid of those oily Lib Dems.

Ah - I hear you say - but doesn't PR increase turnout because people know their vote isn't wasted? Er, if you look up the election stats for the last Holyrood election, that should disabuse you of that notion; I'm not providing them for you because, frankly, I'm embarrassed...

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