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!