Saturday, March 21, 2009

Proportional representation, Again

For all my loathing, repugnance, and despisal of Polly Toynbee, she does make a cogent case for proportional representation, highlighting some unarguable truths...

The last election swung on just 200,000 votes in a handful of marginals. The derelict first-past-the-post electoral system leaves the nation's fate to a tiny proportion of the politically indifferent, disenfranchising everyone else. Crass election messages try to catch the fleeting attention of a few bored people, the only ones that matter.

Indeed this is an undeniable fact. However, before considering her argument further it is worth expanding on this thought and considering why we have a First-Past-The-Post system.

Firstly, we have a Parliamentary system to which we elect individuals to represent our views. Historically, knowledge and information was the possession of relatively few and communication was slow, so a largely uneducated populace delegated their voice to those able to devote the time and those with the intellect.

Secondly, there were no national campaigns of the kind we have today. These have been largely enabled by Radio and Television, and more recently the Internet. Certainly individuals could not travel round several counties easily, let alone the whole country. And so having geographically manageable constituencies was sensible (a similar rationale behind the electoral college in the USA for electing the President).

Thirdly, the morality or otherwise of FPTP rather depends on whether the composition of Parliament as a whole is important, or whether you take a local view of electing your representative (the final composition of the Parliament as determined by many constituencies thus being a by-product of the process, rather than the principal purpose of the process).

A proportional system means every vote counts, no longer piled up in safe seats or wasted in hopeless seats. The two near memberless old parties have the system stitched up and voters are on strike. Tony Blair won just 25% of the electorate in 2005

Again, it is true that FPTP favours those most likely to win - normally the top two candidates in any seat. Therefore voters find themselves voting for the least worst option in the hope of toppling the worst, when in fact they do not support either party and would rather vote for a minority candidate/party.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that our Parliamentary system draws the executive from the elected members. Today this is by convention the leader of the largest party, but historically partisanship was much weaker, and the Prime Minister was he who could command support in the House of Commons in order to form a government and pass legislation. Today, also, the strength of the party system, ensures the flip flop of executive control between two camps.

My problem with replacing FPTP with PR for our current Parliamentary system is that this very problem would be exacerbated. Supporters of PR say that it results in a more representative composition of the electorate by helping smaller parties. They say that coalition governments are weak and accountable because they rely on compromise between the represented groups to hold power, and that small parties can exert influence by supporting the governing party and creating a working majority. All these arguments are indeed true, but what of the opposing arguments?

PR creates a perpetual coalition since it is virtually impossible for any one party to obtain an absolute majority. Weak government is not necessarily best, and can lead to stagnation. Also, just as under FPTP where the composition of Parliament is a byproduct of the system, so in PR the government could be composed of a majority of parties for whom you did not vote - for example a party could gain 40% of the vote, but the government formed by a coalition of parties who form 60% of the vote - thus leaving a party representing mainstream opinion quite isolated and powerless. In Germany voters kicked out Schroder, only to find a grand coalition between the two major opposing parties - not an outcome anybody voted for but which was necessitated by the eventual composition of the Parliament after the election.

I find myself in support of the principle of PR but against it in practice, unless the Parliamentary system were to change. What if the Executive were directly elected - as with the President of the USA, voters could directly elect the Prime Minister. Thus separating the business of government from the legislature, and those specifically elected to represent the views of the electorate. Not only would this improve separation of powers but also improve democratic representation whilst retaining strong executive government, as the House of Commons and/or the House of Lords would be elected under proportional representation.

For sure, it is possible to argue for both FPTP and PR under such a system I propose - a case can be made for FPTP where MPs are elected to represent a constituency since the composition of the legislature does not determine the government, and also for PR where the composition is reflective of the electorate. Either way the system would be more democratic and accountable, and it is an idea to which I am warming greatly.


Witterings From Witney March 21, 2009 at 1:34 PM  

Heartily concur with your views and opinion regarding FPTP vs PR, however one big problem is that MPs are no longer representing their constituents, but their party. We must have a 'call back' system where MPs can be held to account mid-term; because at present they are given a 4/5 year mandate to vote as they wish.

Vindico March 21, 2009 at 2:12 PM  

Absolutely. Though even that is more complex than it seems.

Most MPs would suffer from a myriad of special interest groups running petitions to garner signatures to depose them, and thus be more likely to pander to special interest groups.

Certainly this could largely be overcome by requiring a sufficient % of the electorate to sign such a petition.

I personally favour 3-year fixed Parliamentary terms, rather than the current 5-year max (4yr usual) terms. I see no reason why 3 years is too short.

Paul Lockett March 22, 2009 at 6:12 PM  

Having given this a bit more thought, one option, which would involve relatively little change to the overall parliamentary structure, would be to elect the lower house by AV, elect the upper house by STV using county-size constituencies returning approximately 12 members each and repeal the Parliament Act.

Votes for the lower house would become more valuable under AV than FPTP, but would still be likely to return a single party majority.

The upper house would be broadly proportional and would have the final say over legislation.

In effect, the lower house would have ultimate control of executive power and the upper house would have ultimate control of legislative power.

Vindico March 22, 2009 at 7:02 PM  

Paul, you make a very good point indeed.
I have a lot of sympathy for AV, and it is in fact a proposal we adopted in the UKIP Constitutional Affairs policy paper (

I shall consider more and probably post on your idea soon.

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