Thursday, March 30, 2006

Israeli elections and proportional representation

Michael White thinks he's discovered the "The real villain of Israeli politics" - which he believes to be PR, or more precisely the particularly pure form of the list system that Israel uses. This he compares unfavourably with the British system, and he cited the 2005 General Election result as an example:

"In the unusual circumstances of 2005 the Blair government got elected on just 36% of a 61% turnout. Pretty unattractive, I agree. But I suspect there has been little public outcry beyond the usual PR suspects because the electorate, those who voted and those who chose to stay away, got roughly what they wanted: a Labour government with its wings clipped, extra seats for the Lib Dems, and a rude two fingers to the unreconstructed Tories. Quite a sophisticated result actually. In Israel the tail wags the dog."
Pretty unattractive? Well, certainly less so than Neil Kinnock, who received a larger share of the popular vote than Blair. Any other interpretation would require knowledge of what those who didn't turn out to vote wanted, which by definition we can't have, as Jarndyce points out.

White does this because he's using the opportunity to have what strikes me as being a rather narrow and frankly adolescent swipe at proportional representation. I don't understand voting systems fundamentalists. The system you should have, as Professor Bill Miller at Glasgow University used to say, depends on what you want it to do. If you have a relatively stable country like England, which fundamentally lacks cross-cutting allegiances based on religion, ethnicity or language, a winner takes all system with two parties split on a left-right basis may be appropriate.

However, winner takes all systems aren't necessarily suitable in countries where fundamental issues cut across the traditional ideological split between social democrats and conservatives. In Scotland it is the issue of nationalism that does this, as it does in many countries throughout the world - and in the case of Israel, you have the added divisions concerning issues as basic as security and where the borders of the state should lie. Here, the function of the voting system must necessarily lean toward accommodating and providing representation for a wider diversity of political interests and minority groups.

I have no particular interest in selling PR as such, nor the Israeli system in particular, and arguments that make voting systems an article of faith I find rather silly. But although he pretends otherwise, this is precisely what Michael White has done with this rather specious argument. To believe that either the British or American model of first past the post would necessarily function better than the present system in Israel is complacent beyond belief; to assume this to be the root cause of politcal factionalism, absurd.

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