The Proportional Representation myth and the German elections
The German elections due tomorrow, 18 September 2005, are widely regarded as a contest between the free marketeers and labour market liberalisers under Angela Merkel and the more traditional welfare staters, more inclined to protectionism, under the present Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder (whose attempts at reform have been largely resisted by his Social Democratic Party). Ms Merkel is tentatively expected to gain a plurality of the votes, but not necessarily an overall majority. In a British-type electoral system of First Past the Post (FPTP), she would probably win enough seats in the Bundestag to be able to form a government on her own, without the need to seek coalition partners, even if she had failed to win an overall majority of the votes cast. This would enable her to carry out her programme of reform, which many observers of left and right alike regard as necessary if Germany is to climb out of its present malaise. But under Germany’s system of Proportional Representation (PR), it seems increasingly likely that Ms Merkel, even if she has won more votes than any other party, will be forced to form yet another German coalition government, either with one or more of the smaller parties, or — increasingly often forecast in recent days — in a so-called Grand Coalition with Mr Schroeder’s Social Democrats. Either way, the new Chancellor will be forced into so many compromises in order to attract whichever partner might emerge into the coalition that her reform programme seems likely to have to be fudged. And a Grand Coalition between the two major parties, with ministerial offices shared out between them, leaving only the splinter groups as a rump opposition, would seem to many of us the worst outcome of all: bad for clear and stable policy delivery, bad for open debate, bad for a government not disciplined by an active and credible opposition potentially able to replace it, bad for democracy. All these unhappy prospects are the likely products of PR. Of course the predictions may turn out to be wrong and the elections may yet produce a clear and decisive result for one side or the other. But even the uncertainty can be ascribed to the PR electoral system which militates against a clear and decisive result in any country such as Germany (or Britain or the United States) where there are two fairly evenly balanced major parties, perhaps a third party some way behind them, and a group of much smaller parties bringing up the rear.
Tim Hames, in his column in the Times on 13 September, provided a pungent account of the malign effects of PR on German politics and successive German elections:
Although Germany matters so enormously to Europe, German elections have not mattered much to Germans, so there was not much reason for anyone else to become especially interested in them. Although office has shifted between the Left and Right on three occasions since 1948, only once (1998, when Gerhard Schröder initially came in) has this been the direct consequence of an election result. Otherwise, power has moved not after the voters have spoken but when political parties fall in and out of love with each other and acquire or discard coalition partners accordingly.
Broadly speaking, a political party has to win 5 per cent of the national vote to obtain seats in the German parliament (there is a partial exception which helped the ex-communists from eastern Germany in the 1990s) and it is rare for any party to be capable of seizing more than half the electorate, and hence a majority of seats, on its own. The small parties thus not only play the bridesmaid, but decide who will be wedded to power.
For the better part of five decades this led to what might be described, in deference to what was then the German capital, as the Bonn Paradox. All German adults were permitted to vote, but only 7 per cent of them appeared of any significance.
Those 7 per cent, or thereabouts, supported the Free Democrats — advocates of market economic principles, social liberalism and an Atlanticist foreign policy — and they in turn determined who would hold authority in Bonn. For the first 20 years of postwar German democracy, the Free Democrats considered the Social Democrats to be too socialist at home and too soft on the Soviet Union abroad to be trusted with government. German Chancellors were hence always drawn from the Christian Democrats. In 1969, the Free Democrats changed their stance and their 7 per cent ensured that first Willy Brandt, then Helmut Schmidt, took the highest political post in Germany for the Social Democrats. In 1982, with the activist wing of the Social Democrats clearly aching to shift to the left again, the Free Democrats dumped them and their 7 per cent of the electorate would sustain the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl as Chancellor for 16 years.
This Bonn Paradox underlines why German election nights were mind-numbingly boring. Not only would the results be released in five minutes, but any citizen with a brain appreciated that, provided the Free Democrats could climb over the 5 per cent threshold to claim their share of parliamentary seats (which, despite scares, they always did), then whichever of the larger parties they opted to support would form an administration.
Almost everything in Hames’s analysis would apply to Britain under PR: the LibDems, straining to win as much as 20 per cent of the votes, would almost always decide whether the occupant of No. 10 should be Tory or Labour. The LibDems might, arguably, win more votes under PR, since more voters would be tempted by the idea of voting for the king-maker, and the LibDems would almost invariably be partners in the eventual coalition (voters like to vote for winners): but it’s unlikely in the extreme that they would approach the voting strength of either of the two main parties. The result would be, as in contemporary Germany, that no individual voter would have any means of influencing the outcome of the election by his or her vote, since there would be no way of knowing what sort of coalition of what permutation of minority parties – i.e., all the parties – would emerge from the post-election bargainfest, still less what bundle of policy compromises negotiated to produce the coalition would emerge from the smoke-filled room. Since PR might well cause both the Conservative and Labour Parties to break up into ideology-based segments (an anti-Europe segment breaking away from the Tories, perhaps, and a socialist break-away from Labour), it would become even more difficult to forecast how the resultant post-election coalition-making would work out, and consequently virtually impossible to decide how to cast a meaningful vote designed to assist a specific outcome. The commentators are currently speculating about five possible permutations of party alliances coming out of the German elections, ranging all the way across the political spectrum. True, fragmentation would allow each voter to select the fragment most closely conforming to that voter’s individual views and prejudices: but this would be mere self-indulgence, since no voter would be able to influence the outcome. Better Polly Toynbee’s nose-pegs.
There’s a certain irony, therefore, in the timing of the indefatigable Polly’s latest Guardian broadside yesterday (16 September 05), once again yearning for PR, this time not only in Britain but also, intriguingly, in the UN ("Must we wait a generation for democracy, here and at the UN?"), as usual tendentiously assuming an identity between democracy and PR, although just how either democracy or PR could be introduced at the UN, unless by the institution of world government, is a question that must await Polly’s answer on another occasion.
Older readers may recall that before the Labour victory of 1997 and for a short time after his triumphal entry into No. 10 Downing Street, Tony Blair hankered after an alliance of some kind with the Liberal Democrats in order, as he hoped, to consolidate a left-of-centre bloc which could be expected to command a clear majority in British politics for a generation. In this aspiration he was encouraged, for obvious reasons, by those LibDem grandees, Paddy Ashdown and in particular The (now) Late and Rt. Hon Lord Jenkins of Hillhead O.M., formerly Roy Jenkins, in his earlier incarnation a Labour Home Secretary of great distinction. A few months after the 1997 election, Tony Blair, the new prime minister, invited Lord Jenkins to head a so-called ‘Independent’ Commission on the Voting System, whose 2-volume report, issued in October 1998 as CM 4090, majestically proposed, in rotund Jenkins prose, a novel and ingenious PR electoral system of such complexity that hardly anyone could understand how it was supposed to work, still less what effect its introduction would have on British politics. Fortunately for us all, by the time the report appeared, Mr Blair’s enthusiasm for an alliance with the LibDems (and for paying the price, PR, which the LibDems were demanding for it) had waned with the realisation that the huge Labour majority in the House of Commons had made it unnecessary, and also because his allegiance to anything resembling the centre-left was anyway already beginning to slip. No more was heard of Lord Jenkins’s majestic report (and very little more was heard of Lord Jenkins). For a time, though, there was quite a lively debate on its pros and cons, of which I tried to sum up the cons in a series of messages on an internet Forum (fore-runner of blogs), later collated into a rather rambling article still available on this website. It includes some unfavourable comments on the Jenkins prose style and its insufferable pomposity. I think it also disposes of the only arguments for Lord J’s scheme worth discussing, and indeed of the arguments for PR in general. But I would, wouldn’t I?
PS (19 September): As I feared, PR has produced a disastrous outcome from the German elections whose results in terms of leadership and policies will be in damaging doubt for, probably, weeks, and even after that we must brace ourselves for a key government at the heart of Europe half paralysed by coalition dissent and fudge. Tom Watson, Labour MP, has summed up the lethal implications for the PR enthusiasts of the German elections with brilliant brevity on his website.
17 September 2005