Proportional Representation: the debate continues

Just a week ago (on 22 September 2005) I put a piece on Ephems about the implications of the German elections and their muddy results which, I argued, demonstrated the unsuitability of Proportional Representation (PR) as a means of choosing a government — however appropriate it might be for a debating chamber or even for one house of a bicameral legislature.   This has so far prompted four meaty comments, cross-fertilising (and cross-fertilised by) links to similar debates taking place on other blogs, notably that originated by Jarndyce over at the Sharpener.  Jarndyce’s original remarks and the (so far) 38 comments that follow them amount to a high quality seminar on the pros and cons of PR and the relative merits and demerits of First Past the Post (FPTP), the electoral system we currently use for electing the House of Commons and thence a government. 

I’m biased against PR for all the reasons that I spelled out last week (and then some), but I’m bound to say that in the Sharpener seminar the case against PR does seem to emerge as the winner over that deployed by its advocates.  The PR brigade’s main criticism of FPTP in Britain is that it produces governments elected on a minority of the votes, so that more people will have voted against the government and its party than voted for it — sometimes by a large margin.  The FPTP supporters point out in reply that under FPTP, the party that receives more votes than any other almost always gets to form a government with a programme for which, again, more people voted than for any other, and with a sufficient majority in parliament to carry it out:  whereas under PR, no party here (or for that matter in Germany) ever gets more than half the votes cast and therefore no party ever wins a majority of the seats in parliament, forcing the party leaders to negotiate coalitions after each election, the coalition emerging as the government having negotiated a compromise programme with elements from the programmes of the coalition partners, all of which will have had to drop elements of the programmes on which they fought the election:  result, a government for which not a single voter voted (because the permutation of parties forming the coalition didn’t exist at the time of the elections) with a programme which was never put before the electorate and for which, therefore, not a single voter voted.  The decisions on who forms the government and its programme are determined after the election by the politicians, not at the election by the electorate.

What with the disproportionate power to determine the outcome of the coalition-forming bargaining process after each election (and indeed between elections) conferred by PR on a third party (or combination of small parties) that receives, by definition, fewer votes than the two biggest parties, and the corresponding power conferred by PR on that smaller party to claim a permanent place in whatever coalition government takes power, regardless of its political complexion or programme, PR’s claims to be more democratic and representative than FPTP are exposed as painfully thin, or so it seems to me.  

If the PR lobby had a convincing answer to these overwhelming objections, I’m sure Polly Toynbee (and Jarndyce) would by now have told us what it is.  If that conclusion has emerged with greater clarity than before as a result of blogs and blogging, three cheers for blogging!

Brian 

16 Responses

  1. Jarndyce says:

    _If the PR lobby had a convincing answer to these overwhelming objections, I’m sure Polly Toynbee (and Jarndyce) would by now have told us what it is._

    But then if the FPTP lobby had an answer to any of these, I’m sure they would have told us:

    1. What’s fair about a party in the minority, and not even necessarily the largest minority, forming a government with untrammelled legislative power and limited accountability for 4 years? New Labour received fewer votes than Pinochet, yet if he’d clung to power (1989 I think?) with some electoral wizardry there would (rightly) have been uproar.

    2. What’s so precious about having an out-and-out winner to declare? After all, there are plenty of other ways we could get a winner – ways like having a King, tossing a coin – that you certainly wouldn’t recommend. Perhaps then the process is what counts, not the ability to declare a victor. So why choose a process that guarantees losers winning majorities and fails even to pass the basic representation test?

    3. What’s the difference between allowing proxies (MPs) to negotiate a coalition agreement (unmandated), and allowing them to negotiate (unmandated) trade deals, war pacts, etc.? If we want a direct mandate/accountability between vote and policy, you should be pushing for referendum-based democracy, perhaps using demand-revealing referenda?

    Ho hum. We’ll never agree.

    (P.S. my answers to yours above are: 1. a coalition agreement is a merging of two elected mandates not the pulling of a new one out of thin air (like, say, independence for the Bank of England was); 2. your analysis assumes a bipolar-with-centrist party model, which is only one of many possibilities, and certainly isn’t in existence in such a crude form anywhere I can think of in PR-land, from the top of my head)

  2. Paul Davies says:

    Minority parties holding the balance of power is really not that big a problem – they can’t hold the larger party to ransom over that much, because if the larger party was seen to fold to their demands too easily, people wouldn’t trust them enough to vote for them next time round.

    The minor party therefore gets about as much say in legislation etc as their share of the vote demands – they still need the larger party more than the larger party needs them.

    And besides, it becomes even less of a problem under STV, for example, which tends to return a majority on about 45% or so… and rather a grown-up govt (coalition or otherwise) having proportionate power on that sort of support than a crazy-ass govt doing what the hell they want on 35% or less…

    Brian comments: I don’t think your analysis fits what happened for many years in Germany, when the smallest of the three main parties was able to dictate its terms for putting either of the two larger parties in power, claimed a permanent place in every successive government, whichever of the two larger parties was leading it, and between elections actually switched its support from its senior coalition partner in government to the other main party that had hitherto been in opposition, causing a change of government and Chancellor without the electorate having any say in the matter at all!

  3. Brian says:

    Jarndyce,

    Thanks. Good questions. Let me suggest some answers.

    1. What’s fair about a party in the minority, and not even necessarily the largest minority, forming a government with untrammelled legislative power and limited accountability for 4 years? New Labour received fewer votes than Pinochet, yet if he’d clung to power (1989 I think?) with some electoral wizardry there would (rightly) have been uproar.

    What’s ‘fair’ about it is that it’s almost invariably the party that wins more votes than any other that gets to form a government. (Only twice since World War II has that not been the case in Britain.) That seems to me fairer than always, invariably, having a government formed by a coalition for which no votes at all were cast, as happens under PR, for the obvious reason that the coalition didn’t exist until after the election was over. So FPTP wins on fairness: but it also wins on another important criterion, the effectiveness of the resulting government. Better for us all to have a government with a clear sense of values and direction that can do what it has promised the electorate it will do, than a jerry-built marriage of convenience between parties whose values and policies will inevitably be to a large extent incompatible and which will constantly be inhibited by internal conflict, instability (because of the continuing threat that the coalition will break up between elections), lack of clarity about its intentions and ability to proceed in a defined direction, and the perpetual need for fudge.

    2. What’s so precious about having an out-and-out winner to declare? After all, there are plenty of other ways we could get a winner – ways like having a King, tossing a coin – that you certainly wouldn’t recommend. Perhaps then the process is what counts, not the ability to declare a victor. So why choose a process that guarantees losers winning majorities and fails even to pass the basic representation test?

    See my answer to (1). A government whose party has almost always won more votes than any other passes ‘the representation test’, as you call it, more convincingly than one whose mixed composition and compromise post-election policies haven’t won any votes at all. And anyway since elections to a government-making and government-sustaining forum should be designed mainly to maximise the chances of getting an effective government, arithmetical representativeness (which actually militates against effective government) has to be secondary. FPTP combines maximum chances of effective government with the fairest and most representative procedures that can be reconciled with that aim.

    3. What’s the difference between allowing proxies (MPs) to negotiate a coalition agreement (unmandated), and allowing them to negotiate (unmandated) trade deals, war pacts, etc.? If we want a direct mandate/accountability between vote and policy, you should be pushing for referendum-based democracy, perhaps using demand-revealing referenda?

    This confuses (a) manifesto policies on which a party has fought an election, containing promises to do certain specific things if elected, and reflecting the party’s fundamental values and philosophy, with (b) the policies that any government has to adopt to deal with new and unforeseeable circumstances during its time in office. No-one seriously argues that a government should be prevented from taking any action that wasn’t foreshadowed in its manifesto. Manifesto promises are an indispensable tool for holding a government to account for the extent to which they have kept those promises. Of course the manifesto is a blunt instrument, since no one person is likely to agree whole-heartedly with every single item in it: but at least under FPTP it’s possible to rub the governing party’s face in its failures to honour its promises, unless ‘events, dear boy, events’ have genuinely prevented it from doing so. Under PR, no manifesto offered by any party during the election can be used to measure the resulting government’s performance in keeping its promises, since the policies of the obligatory coalition will be the result of compromises between the coalition partners and their manifestos. Each party in the coalition has a fireproof excuse for ignoring its manifesto promises since it will have been forced to abandon many of them in order to be in the government at all. It’s impossible even now to predict what the government still being constructed in the smoke-filled rooms of Berlin is likely to do about anything, or even to forecast who will lead it!

    [Y]our analysis assumes a bipolar-with-centrist party model, which is only one of many possibilities, and certainly isn’t in existence in such a crude form anywhere I can think of in PR-land, from the top of my head.

    It’s a rough-and-ready description, surely, of a fairly typical situation such as that in Germany (and of course Britain, still not a member of PR-land, mercifully); and even when the situation doesn’t precisely fit the description, e.g. because of the tendency of PR to encourage the fragmentation of big parties and the formation of smallish ones (often extremist in policies and behaviour), the processes following from PR which its critics assert are contrary to both basic democratic principles and the prospects for effective and decisive government will be broadly the same. But anyway the ‘bipolar-with-centrist party model’ accurately described the German situation for many decades and manifestly describes our present situation in Britain, with which we’re mainly concerned. At least I am.

    I agree that we shan’t agree on these matters. But I think it’s useful to air the arguments on both sides, a process for which interactive blogging like this is splendidly well equipped, even if only a handful of nerds like us ever read them!

    Brian

  4. Paul Davies says:

    Hi Brian, sorry I’ve been a bit late getting back, I forgot about the thread, and your reminder email (thanks, btw), by turning up on a weekend was ignored for a while…

    Anyway, in response to your response to me: I don’t think your analogy is any good for analysing Britain. The political culture is a bit different over here, making my theoretical argument as valid as your ‘example from another country’ argument. And FWIW, I wouldn’t advocate Germany’s system over here, why have a hotch-potch MMP when you can have STV? I may be floating in some sort of idealist land, but I cannot imagine for a second that any potential coalition over here would be allowed to fragment and change around the government overnight and get away with it.

    In response to your response to Jarndyce:

    “Better for us all to have a government with a clear sense of values and direction that can do what it has promised the electorate it will do, than a jerry-built marriage of convenience between parties whose values and policies will inevitably be to a large extent incompatible and which will constantly be inhibited by internal conflict, instability (because of the continuing threat that the coalition will break up between elections), lack of clarity about its intentions and ability to proceed in a defined direction, and the perpetual need for fudge.”

    Under FPTP, a party cannot promise the electorate anything more than that it will forever twirl towards freedom. Voter targeting is so sophisticated that it knows what to tell to what people, making sure not to offend the rest. It’s not democracy, it’s marketing. And internal conflict under FPTP is only kept hidden by “physically intimidating” whips and bribes of various kinds to ensure people toe the party line, however nonsensical. Again, not representation of the people’s will so much as one step away from authoritarianism. Under FPTP, it is too easy to proceed in too many directions that no one apart from those in charge want to proceed in. It may be impossible to know (as we’ve not tried it, obviously), but I rather think sensible policies are more likely to be reached through some form of extended debate under a different system.

    “arithmetical representativeness (which actually militates against effective government) has to be secondary.”

    Tying in to the earlier point, effectiveness can (and all-too-often is) effectiveness at being crap. I prefer less crap and more accountable. And there is no reason a government elected under STV would be ineffective – if the policies tabled were good, they’d be voted for. At the moment, under the heavy hand of the whips, policies are voted for not on how good they are but on how voting one way or the other can help a career.

    “but at least under FPTP it’s possible to rub the governing party’s face in its failures to honour its promises…Under PR, no manifesto offered by any party during the election can be used to measure the resulting government’s performance in keeping its promises, since the policies of the obligatory coalition will be the result of compromises between the coalition partners and their manifestos. Each party in the coalition has a fireproof excuse for ignoring its manifesto promises since it will have been forced to abandon many of them in order to be in the government at all.”

    How do you rub vacuousness in someone’s face? And coalition manifestos would not be non-existent: most policies from the big player plus a few from the minor player – and with people encouraged to vote positively, the manifesto promises would be more fulfilling than the pointless tat we get now, thus easier to hold the government to them.

    Extra point:

    Under STV, govts are formed on about 45% of the vote (I forget exact numbers and things, I leave that to the chaps next door). This is about the level of support the Tories would have to garner to get any sort of majority.

  5. Brian says:

    Paul,

    Thanks. Some of your strictures seem to me to be directed towards the shortcomings of our political parties rather than at PR as a desirable or undesirable electoral system. Indeed, you say:

    FWIW, I wouldn’t advocate Germany’s system over here, why have a hotch-potch MMP when you can have STV?

    Well, I have no quarrel with that — STV is not PR and I agree that it might be worth trying for elections to the House of Commons.

    You go on:

    I may be floating in some sort of idealist land, but I cannot imagine for a second that any potential coalition over here would be allowed to fragment and change around the government overnight and get away with it.

    I don’t think it’s that difficult to imagine the LibDems going into either a coalition or a less formal alliance with the Tories if the arithmetic after an election pointed that way. Nor does Jackie Ashley, often perceptive, in today’s Guardian. That could happen of course if we got a hung parliament after the next election under FPTP, and it would be virtually certain that the LibDems would go into a coalition with either Labour or the Tories under PR (and I wouldn’t put it past them to switch horses between elections if they became disillusioned with the senior partner at some point), and quite possible under STV.

    Jackie Ashley’s article is well worth reading.

    Brian
    3 Oct 05

  6. Neil Harding says:

    Brian, I think the crux of where you (and a lot of other FPTPers) go wrong (although you seem to have switched to STV now, which is good to see), is in believing that each party is totally distinct.

    There are many policies that parties agree on, or there are just minor differences in policies between parties. The closer parties are the ones that will form coalitions. When someone votes for a party, it is usually the party they agree with the most (leaving aside tactical voting). You only agree with x% of its policies. Your next choice parties are the next likely to be in the coalition because the party you voted for is trying to maintain its most important policies. You might even get more of the policies you wanted than you actually voted for.

    All PR does is give the voters more choice, ensure majority government, reduce the number of wasted votes and the need for tactical voting.

    There will always be policies negotiated behind closed doors ‘in smoke filled rooms’ under FPTP as well as under PR. Under FPTP parties rarely honour the majority of their manifestos. The manifesto is there to give you a guide to what they will do. Nobody knows future events, priorities of voters and govt will rightly change. The difference is this ‘horse trading’ between factions of a party is elected by a minority under FPTP but the ‘horse trading’ between parties is voted for by a majority under PR.

    But worse than all this is the ‘marginal seats’ effect. Drawing boundaries to voter preferences will always be a very inexact science and the only way to permanently fix this is PR. The temptation to gerrymander the boundaries under FPTP is enormous. Even the potential for ‘accidental’ gerrymandering is demonstrated by the quirks of the FPTP system ‘rewarding’ parties who come second or possibly third.

    As Michael Howard said ‘the only voters who matter’ are the 250,000 swing voters in marginal seats. Apart from the unfairness of the accident of geography making your vote more important than someone else, these voters are not even representative of the population. Marginal seats by their very nature are more affluent than urban seats. These 250,000 more middle class voters skew the debate to the right while millions of deprived urban left wing voters are ignored. What is the point of designing policies to appeal to urban voters in safe seats when all they are going to do is pile up majorities in seats you are going to win anyway.

    This is the reason for the stifling of debate and party democracy. This is also the reason for falling turnout as these voters become more and more disenchanted and alienated. This is a spiral that unless we pull out of soon will become almost irreversible, just like in the US.

    PR is the way to stop this cancer rotting away our democracy. New Zealand has an increasing turnout, and the biggest increases in turnout have been amongst left of centre urban voters. The sooner we get PR the better it will be for all of us.

  7. Paul Davies says:

    Rest assured Jackie’s article was read and commented upon a couple of days ago. (http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/10/power_or_princi.html)

    And I know STV isn’t PR, but it is proportional, and it gets complicated with all these systems floating about, so sometimes it’s easier to lump it in with them. FWIW, I think MMP would be better than FPTP, but I don’t see the point going on about it, when STV is better again. Why watch the USA when you can watch Brazil? (For FPTP vs MMP – why watch Scotland when you can watch the USA? :))

    And if the Lib Dems switched sides mid-parliament, no one would ever vote for them ever again. Wouldn’t happen.

    As for much of what I said being directed towards the shortcomings of the political parties, ’tis true, but I see a direct correlation between FPTP and some of these shortcomings. The best ‘evidence’ for this (although I always prefer the Utopian flights more) is from Ireland, where the career politicians keep trying to get STV changed because they have to work harder at being any good, rather than just slagging off their opponents… There are many other reasons, of course, I’ve got a blog-full in fact… 🙂 but seeings as how you appear to appreciate STV, there’s not a lot of point me going on about them now…

  8. Brian says:

    I think it’s all beginning to come down to subjective judgements about what would happen in practice under PR in Britain, and also what will in fact happen under FPTP with the limited but perceptible rise of the LibDems. On the latter point, I’m sceptical about the LibDems’ share of the seats in the House of Commons rising to the level where FPTP will result in hung parliaments most or all of the time. I think a likelier scenario is that with Gordon Brown as a rather uncharismatic prime minister and the Tories led by a more charismatic one than we have seen for some time, there will be a limited Tory revival, with the LibDems losing votes and seats to both the Tories (people who have deserted the Tories recently out of disgust, returning to their natural habitat because of the new-look leadership and general revival in Tory morale) and to Labour (people who normally vote Labour but deserted to the LibDems out of disgust with Blair, especially over Iraq, returning to their natural habitat), which might indicate that the LibDems have already peaked. But I recognise that I could be completely wrong. A lot will depend on the new Tory leader, and on the way Brown conducts himself (and us) in whatever time he is given by Blair to settle in and make his mark before the next election.

    Even if I’m right and the LibDems fall back at the next election, it could still be a close-run thing between the Tories and Labour with the LibDems holding the balance of power. In that event I suspect that they would offer to sustain in power whichever of Labour or the Tories had won the most seats, anyway for a limited period and subject to various policy conditions. Under PR, I’m not at all sure that they would observe the same unwritten rule that they should support whichever of the two bigger parties had won the most seats. Under FPTP the Queen (or King) would normally invite the leader of the biggest party to try to form a government, so that it would be difficult for the LibDems to withhold their qualified and conditional support from that party. Under PR, the monarch would be unlikely to invite any party leader to try to form a government until the process of horse-trading and bargaining among the parties had led to the emergence of a coalition obviously likely to command an overall majority, so the LibDems would be well placed to auction their support to the highest bidder. The outcome could be messy and unpredictable. Of course it’s possible that in such a situation the coalition or alliance that emerged on top would have worked out a compromise programme combining the ‘best’ of both (or all) the coalition partners’ individual policies. But what constitutes the best is something on which there’ll be as many views as voters (tot homines…), and in some people’s eyes it could well be the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor. What has generally led in Germany to pretty effective government (until recently anyway) could well lead to disaster here, where the king-maker party has no experience of government at the centre and no perceptible fixed principles or philosophy, and where the present parliamentary leadership is way to the left of the membership in the country, as the party’s record in local government tends to show.

    I cling doggedly to the hope, probably a fantasy, that one day a truly radical party of the left will come into office committed to genuine devolution in a Federal United Kingdom (or even a British Federal Republic?), with serious powers devolved to the regional parliaments and governments, and the power of the federal parliament and government at Westminster severely circumscribed; a federal Senate on US or Australian lines replacing the House of Lords, wholly elected by PR on a different electoral cycle from the (federal) House of Commons; a written federal constitution containing a stronger Bill of Rights than the present HRA, enforceable by a Supreme Court replacing the Law Lords; a strongly redistributive fiscal policy at the centre (and one would hope in most of the regions also); a serious attack on privilege and excessive inequality of wealth and income; reform of the Companies Act; support for municipal enterprises and mutuals in competition with the private sector; and so on and so forth. I don’t believe that such radical reforms are likely to come out of a coalition government, because only a party of the left with strong roots in all sections of society including the unions is likely to adopt such a policy. Such a party would probably be prevented from going ahead with it if forced into a coalition with (e.g.) the LibDems. But all this is of course a pipe dream.

    I dount if there’s much more to be said, apart from either ‘Hear, Hear’ or ‘Rubbish!’. More the latter than the former, probably.

    Brian

  9. Phil says:

    A government whose party has almost always won more votes than any other passes ‘the representation test’, as you call it, more convincingly than one whose mixed composition and compromise post-election policies haven’t won any votes at all.

    I think you’re confusing electing a party with electing a government. What the dreaded post-election coalition-forming process does is construct a government based on the party preferences actually expressed by voters. In other words, under PR voters aren’t voting for an MP and a party, while simultaneously voting for the single-party government of their choice (knowing beforehand, in most cases, that their vote is going to have no effect on whether or not this comes about). Rather, they’re simply voting for an MP and a party – and they’re voting for them on the basis that they will fight the party’s corner within a governing coalition, which they will only enter on terms which accord with the party’s principles. Of course, not all parties and not all party supporters are this high-minded – but blaming PR for the presence in government of a coat-turning, coalition-jumping party which consistently attracts 10% of the vote smacks of fixing the weather by breaking the barometer. (And yes, there are parties like this; as well as the FDP, you could have mentioned the Italian ‘Socialist’ Party in the 1970s and 80s. But I tend to think the overt opportunism of these small parties doesn’t do nearly as much damage to the democratic process as a major party’s abandonment of its principles in pursuit of ‘swing’ voters.)

  10. Brian says:

    Phil,

    No, there’s no confusion here. Even that zealot for PR, Roy Jenkins (as he then wasn’t), admitted in his Commission report that most voters regarded their votes at a general election as primarily a vote for the ensuing government, and only secondarily as a vote to choose an individual MP, even when voting in constituencies where the result was a foregone conclusion. Most voters have only the vaguest idea about who the candidates are and what their qualifications are for representing anyone in parliament: people vote Labour because they want a Labour government, not because they trust Mr Snooks, the Labour candidate, to do a good job for them in rigging up some kind of coalition based on back-scratching and horse-trading after the polls have closed. Any party that invited the electorate to forget about electing a government at a general election and to content itself with electing an unmandated electoral college which in turn would choose a government in its own infinite wisdom, without necessarily paying any attention to the will of the electorate as expressed in its votes, would rapidly get a flea in its deaf ear, I suggest.

    Nor do I accept that it’s wrong to blame the electoral system for the real danger of a smaller party without even a plurality of the popular vote turning its coat when it suits it and abusing its role as king-maker. By always denying either of the two main parties an overall majority in parliament, PR actively encourages that kind of behaviour on the part of the party that comes third, or the parties that come third, fourth, fifth, etc. FPTP doesn’t entirely remove this danger, but it makes the situation which permits it much more rare. The electoral system has a great deal more effect on the political scene than a barometer has on the weather, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Brian

  11. Phil says:

    people vote Labour because they want a Labour government, not because they trust Mr Snooks, the Labour candidate, to do a good job for them in rigging up some kind of coalition based on back-scratching and horse-trading after the polls have closed

    I’m sure that’s true of Labour voters, and probably also Conservatives. But it would be very difficult to explain why anyone votes Liberal Democrat, SNP, Plaid Cymru or Green under this logic. It seems to me that the model I suggested applies perfectly well to these situations: I vote Lib Dem* because I want the Lib Dems to have that much more representation in parliament. PR simply puts supporters of the two main parties in the same position, rather than guaranteeing untrammelled power to one or other of them.

    *Not very often.

    Brian replies: Thanks for that interesting comment. I suggest two points worth bearing in mind in reply.

    First, when you acknowledge the truth of my assertion in respect of Labour and ‘probably’ Conservative voters, you are accepting its validity for anything up to 80 per cent of those who vote — anyway more than three-quarters. So this is not a group whose voting intentions and motives can just be dismissed as irrelevant. The overwhelming majority of voters are voting for a government, not primarily for an individual MP or a particular balance of representation in the House of Commons. And, as I shall show in a moment, that majority includes a significant proportion of those who vote LibDem.

    Secondly, as to those who vote for other parties: their motives obviously differ from party to party and indeed within groups of supporters of some individual parties. Those who vote LibDem (around one in five) either want to increase LibDem representation in parliament to increase LibDem influence and leverage on whichever government is in power — potentially very great influence indeed in the event of a hung parliament; or they are voting tactically, e.g. to keep the Tory out where the chief challenger to the Tory is the LibDem (and in that case the LibDem vote is very directly related to the voter’s wish to influence the decision on which party will occupy No. 10 rather than being concerned with who represents him or her in the House of Commons); or in some cases the LibDem vote may be cast in the hope of bringing nearer a change in the electoral system to PR, this being the only way to vote for PR, where the voter is more interested in electoral ‘reform’ (i.e. change, not necessarily for the better!) than in influencing even marginally which party forms the government. Even in the latter case, though, the PR fanatic voting LibDem in the hope of eventual PR may well be more interested in the effect of election outcomes on the kind of government that will emerge from PR-based elections in the future than in the precise numerical representation of the parties in the next House of Commons.

    As for those who vote for the nationalist or single-issue parties, presumably they (like the PR enthusiasts who vote LibDem on account of that enthusiasm) also attach more importance to strengthening the voice and influence of their chosen party, e.g. for greater autonomy for Wales or full independence for Scotland, or more weight given to environmental issues in policy decision-making, than they do to helping to decide between a Tory or Labour government. Many of these, indeed, will vote for one of the smaller nationalist or single-issue parties as a way of saying to the Labour and Conservative parties: “A plague on both your houses”, implying indifference to both, and a misguided conviction that there’s no difference between the two and that accordingly it doesn’t matter which of them wins office.

    But even those whose votes reflect indifference to the outcome of the election as regards which of the two main parties forms the government are at least potentially influencing that outcome, just as those who don’t bother to vote at all are potentially influencing it, by withholding their votes from both their Labour and their Conservative candidates. Thus someone who votes Green on environmental grounds may wind up unintentionally influencing the election results in favour of a Conservative government (by splitting the left-of-centre vote) and thus a government less likely than a Labour government to give proper weight to environmental factors in its policies. The ‘success’ of that Green vote in helping to secure an increase in Green representation in parliament from (say) zero to one, or from two to three, would in my view do very little, indeed probably nothing at all, to offset the negative effect on the environmental cause of that ultimately counter-productive vote. People have a duty to weigh the probable effects of their votes, or decisions not to vote, on the outcome of the election as the decider between a Labour and a Conservative government, which is by far the most important aspect of the election results as compared with the level of representation of each party in the House of Commons in relation to its share of the votes cast: that is in truth a relatively minor matter, since if the government has a working majority, it can do what it likes for most of the time regardless of the number of seats held by the opposition. Under PR, no party, however many votes it had won, would ever be able to carry out its proclaimed programme in full because it would always be inhibited by the need to keep its junior coalition partner on board — a sure recipe (anyway in our political culture) for paralysis and fudge.

    IOW, the most important purpose of a general election in terms of its effects on people’s lives is to elect a government, whether a small minority of the electorate realises it or not.

  12. Phil says:

    I fear we’re talking past each other. You say, for example,

    People have a duty to weigh the probable effects of their votes, or decisions not to vote, on the outcome of the election as the decider between a Labour and a Conservative government

    I don’t accept this, but I could do so without affecting the argument I was making – which was that, whatever we think about how they should cast their votes, substantial numbers of people do regularly vote on other grounds. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t voted Labour since 1997 (and don’t intend to do so again while the present crew is in charge), but I’m not persuaded that the choice of a third-party vote is at all irrational or irresponsible, in any but a few extreme situations. Even under the present system, MPs are counted and the popular vote is counted; fewer Labour MPs mean a more difficult passage for bad legislation, while a lower popular vote makes it harder for the government to invoke a popular mandate. Third and fourth parties make these desirable results possible without directly benefiting the Conservatives. It’s still something of a lottery, though, which is why I favour a system with a more direct correspondence between votes cast and MPs elected.

    Your dismissal of the Greens puzzles me. You wrote:

    even those whose votes reflect indifference to the outcome of the election as regards which of the two main parties forms the government are at least potentially influencing that outcome, just as those who don’t bother to vote at all are potentially influencing it, by withholding their votes from both their Liberal and their Conservative candidates. Thus someone who votes Labour on socialist grounds may wind up unintentionally influencing the election results in favour of a Conservative government (by splitting the left-of-centre vote) and thus a government less likely than a Liberal government to give proper weight to socialsit factors in its policies. The ’success’ of that Labour vote in helping to secure an increase in Labour representation in parliament from (say) zero to one, or from two to three, would in my view do very little, indeed probably nothing at all, to offset the negative effect on the socialist cause of that ultimately counter-productive vote.

    Well, no, you didn’t, but you get the idea.

    Under PR, no party, however many votes it had won, would ever be able to carry out its proclaimed programme in full because it would always be inhibited by the need to keep its junior coalition partner on board

    I imagine that parties organising under PR, and voters voting under PR, are well aware of this fact. What a political party has to offer, if an overall majority is not to be counted on, is a set of distinctive policies which it (and it alone) will try to realise through participation in a governing coalition. In practice it’s not that hard for voters to detect whether ‘their’ party has delivered on its promises – and parties can and do get punished for failing to deliver, under PR as under FPTP. More so under PR, in fact: PR encourages a broader spread of smaller parties, which generally can’t count on the ‘tribal’ base of a Labour/Conservative Party and are thus more vulnerable to swings in the voters’ support.

  13. Neil Harding says:

    Brian, just one more example;

    To simplify the model, imagine all the parties have only 1 policy.

    Party A to cut taxes by 10%.
    Party B to increase taxes by 5%.
    Party C to increase taxes by 10%.

    Election result;

    Party A 40% of the vote.
    Party B 25% of the vote.
    Party C 35% of the vote.

    Under FPTP; Party A forms the government and cuts taxes. This is despite the majority-60% of the population voting for a tax increase. How is this fair?

    Under PR; Parties B and C form a coalition government and negotiate an increase in taxes between 5% and 10%, which is much closer to what 60% of the electorate voted for.

  14. Brian says:

    Neil,

    An interesting example. But you have deprived your scenario of any usefulness by positing that “all the parties have only one policy”. The validity of this as a model depends on the supposition that most, or even many, people determine their votes by reference to a single issue. I don’t believe that this is the case, even when one issue has dominated the election campaign (which only occasionally happens anyway). In fact there’s no way in a mass-population democracy that a single specific policy can be determined by elections; even quite straightforward ones can’t even be usefully decided by referendum since very few can be reduced to a single question — even if we went over to a referendum-based system, which in my view would be extremely retrograde; and anyway there are always many more than one issue to be decided at an election, and few individuals will favour every single one of the raft of policies offered by any single party.

    Whether a party is on the whole in favour of relatively high taxes and high spending on public services, or in favour of reducing taxes and minimal government, is an important element in that party’s overall philosophy and personality, but only one of several such elements: others include whether it puts more emphasis on liberalism and civil rights than on discipline and order, or vice versa; whether it favours redistribution of income and wealth and the gradual elimination of poverty, or prefers a free market economy and deregulation with strong incentives for wealth creators even at the price of major inequalities in society; whether it is prepared to share national sovereignty in the cause of effective regional or international cooperation, or treats preservation of national sovereignty as sacrosanct; and so on. Of course all serious parties will cherry-pick these issues and favour a little of both alternatives, but it will always be pretty clear which side of the line each party mainly occupies, and it’s that choice that each voter has to make. Where, as in our system, there are only two parties capable of attracting enough votes to win an election and either form or lead a government, the voter needs to support the party whose values on all these issues most closely conforms to his or her own, holding the nose if necessary. Each voter is free to evade that choice by voting for one of the smaller parties which can’t hope to form or lead the resulting government: but that is an evasion, and it does have consequences for the outcome of the election as between the two main parties; and since that outcome has a greater effect on more people’s lives than any other consequence of the election, it’s incumbent on every voter to take account of the consequences of evasion in terms of which party gets to govern the country.

    What you can’t realistically do, under any conceivable electoral system other than a referendum, is vote exclusively to determine whether there is to be a 5 per cent increase in taxation or a 10 per cent decrease. There will always be many more and much greater issues at stake. You can vote for the party which has the policy on tax that you favour, but in doing so you are also voting for all that party’s other policies, too, and you have to decide whether those are really what you want, or whether another (serious) party’s package of policies and values is closer to your own philosophy and aspirations, even if you don’t agree with the details of its tax policy.

    PS: Even on your hypothesis, how is the voter to know in advance under PR whether the outcome of the election won’t be a coalition between Party A (favouring a 10 per cent cut in taxes) and Party C (favouring a 10 per cent increase)? That, in essence, is what has just happened in Germany after all. Result: a coalition for whose tax policies 0 per cent of the electorate has voted, since the coalition will decide its tax policy only after the election and no-one could have any way of knowing in advance what it will be. At least under FPTP it will generally be the case that more people voted for Party A (taking an overall view of all its policies, not just one) than for any other party. Fairer, in my view.

    Perhaps the solution is micro-devolution: you can have PR in Brighton, and we’ll keep FPTP in London (and the rest of the UK, I hope).

    Brian

  15. Neil Harding says:

    Brian, thanks for your response.

    The idea of a simplified model is to see the wood from the trees.

    By bringing it down to one policy I wasn’t suggesting that people only vote on one policy, it is a model. The complexity of policies would be just a scaled up version, I can make the model more complicated by adding more policies and the results will be the same. As I will demonstrate below.

    The idea of using the one policy model is to demonstrate how the ‘entirety’ of a party’s policies can be ignored under FPTP if parties with similar policies/ideology split the vote. The one policy here represents the ‘entirety’ of that parties’ policies.

    Imagine that the above was a referendum. Wouldn’t you feel cheated if you voted for a 10% increase (and only because there was a third option on the paper spliting the ‘increasers’ vote), you ended up with a 10% cut when the majority wanted an increase. Wouldn’t an 8% increase be closer to the majority’s views than a 10% cut?

    Obviously in this model parties B and C would form the coalition under PR because an 8% increase would be closer to both their positions than a 10% cut. BUT even if (and it wouldn’t happen) A and C formed a coalition, a 2% cut would still be closer to the majority view than a 10% cut.

    Lets look at a more complicated model. Lets introduce 3 policy areas.

    Party A, to cut taxes by 10%; invade Iraq; ban gay sex.
    Party B, to increase taxes by 5%; against invasion; lower age of consent for gay sex to 16.
    Party C, to increase taxes by 10%; against invasion; Keep age of consent for gay sex at 18.

    Party A, 40% of the vote
    Party B, 25% of the vote
    Party C, 35% of the vote

    Under FPTP, Party A wins the election, cuts taxes by 10%, invades Iraq and bans gay sex, despite 60% of the electorate voting against all these policies. How can you justify this?

    Under PR, parties B and C forms coalition increases tax by 8%, lowers age of consent to 17, and doesn’t invade Iraq. This is much closer to what the majority wanted.

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