Proportional representation and the German elections: round three
Jarndyce hits back elegantly and concisely at those of us who have pointed out that the German election results are a sharp lesson in the defects of proportional representation (PR) when it comes to electing a government with clear and effective policies. He claims that “The German result is irrelevant to the PR debate here in the UK, for at least three reasons:” —
1. Look at the numbers: two blocs of 35% are [?and] three of 10%, roughly. Would any reasonable electoral system dish out a majority government based on that spread? Should it, and still be able to call itself a democracy?
This correctly asserts the desirability of proportionality in a body which has to be broadly representative of the opinions of those of the electorate who vote, i.e. one which is there principally to voice opinions on behalf of the population at large. A good example would be a British elected second chamber. But the House of Commons and the Bundestag are not bodies like that. Proportionality and representativeness are not necessary, or even always desirable, in a body whose main purpose is to choose and then hold to account a government that can govern stably and effectively, carrying out the policies which it has offered to the electorate, almost always based on the party which has won more votes than any other.
Jarndyce refers with apparent approval to this from Paul Davies in Make My Vote Count:
Unlike Canadian elections, the German results actually mirror public opinion. The German electorate is genuinely split on the country’s future direction. But at least voters can begin dealing with their options in a political arena with a level playing field. It’s called democracy.
Again, this reflects the essentially confused view that an electoral college with the duty of choosing a government needs to ‘mirror public opinion’, whereas if it does so at all precisely, it will produce, as often as not, either fudge or paralysis or both. In normal circumstances it broadly mirrors the votes cast by installing a government from the party that won more votes than any other. Moreover it isn’t the voters at election time who can ‘begin dealing with their options’ under PR, but the politicians after the election. The distinguished economist Anatole Kaletsky writes, in a postscript to the same piece, that –
The German election was a triumph of democracy in the same way as the referendums in France and the Netherlands. Just like those referendums, it has created a political stalemate, neutered diplomacy and paralysed the economic reform process. But political paralysis was exactly what German voters wanted — and quite rightly so. Germans were right to vote for political paralysis for the same reason that the French and the Dutch were right to immobilise Europe…
That’s a good example of another common fallacy in the PR armoury of arguments. Germans manifestly didn’t vote for political paralysis, any more than they will have voted for a Grand Coalition of the SDP with the CDU if that’s what emerges eventually from the smoke-filled rooms. They voted for political parties, none of which advocated political paralysis. The overwhelming majority of German voters voted in the way they thought likeliest to produce a government formed or led by each voter’s party of choice. If the overall result had been one that enabled his or her party of choice to put into effect precisely the policies that party had put forward in its election programme, those voting for that party would obviously have been delighted. It’s possible that some voters are happy with the prospect of protracted coalition-making, fudge and paralysis: but if so, they had no way of reflecting that hope in the way they voted: nor could they have done so under any system yet devised, apart from a referendum. An economist as skilled as Mr Kaletsky ought to have been able to work that out. Perhaps he was being ironical.
Anyway, I thought the complaint was that Germany’s FDP held blackmail kingmaker powers and pivoted the system around them. Now we’re complaining when they don’t.
Who are these ‘we’ who are complaining that the FDP no longer has the numbers to act as kingmaker? I’m certainly not. I have pointed out that in UK circumstances, the LibDems, winning fewer votes than either of the two bigger parties, would almost always be able to act as kingmakers, not only deciding for themselves, almost on a whim, whether Labour or the Tories should occupy No. 10, but virtually always claiming a place in the resultant government as junior coalition partner, as the FDP did for decades in Germany.
2. Leaving aside the odd quirk, Germany’s electoral system delivers near-perfect proportionality. 10% of the votes entitles you to 10% of Bundestag seats. The proportional part of the vote is compensatory rather than parallel, to use the jargon. But nobody serious is suggesting a perfectly proportional system for the UK. Both AV+ and the system I suggested here in June would deliver majorities on large pluralities, as would the Single Transferable Vote. The Jamaica, Grand or traffic-light games are a diverting but irrelevant sideshow for UK psephologists.
I, like many others, say that the German election results represent a dire warning of the defects and perils of PR, which the fanatics constantly demanding PR for elections to the House of Commons ought to heed. Jarndyce, your answer to this is now to claim that ‘nobody serious’ is arguing for ‘perfect’ PR for the UK. That’s news to me! Anyway, I’m glad that you concede the point which some of us serious people have been making, i.e. that PR (perfect or im-) would be deeply damaging for Britain as a system for electing the House of Commons. I’m quite happy to talk about non-proportional systems for the House of Commons such as AV, AV+ and other variants, each of which has its pros and cons, just as I would welcome PR for the House of Lords, or Senate, if (as I hope) we are ever allowed to elect it.
3. The “ooh, a coalition” bogeyman is just that — a bogeyman. The correct response is: “so what?” Germany’s main, stable conservative bloc is effectively a coalition. Whatever comes out of the bargaining, it won’t be an entirely new programme or set of policies, completely unmandated by voters, as PR opponents always suggest. Germany will get a marriage of two or three parties’ existing mandates, a consensus of support on a narrower agenda, perhaps with a specific time limit. It might wobble, it might not. We elect MPs as proxies. The German ones are just going to have to earn their money the hard way for a change.
Alas, this just won’t wash. The policies emerging from the compromises squeezed out of the coalition partners in the course of the horse-trading required to form it – dropping a key proposal here in exchange for agreement on a completely new one there – are unlikely to resemble anything that any single party was offering during the election. It is absolutely right to point out that with PR – which, remember, no serious person advocates for the UK anyway – not only is the senior governing party in a coalition chosen after the election by politicians, not at the election by the electorate: but also the coalition’s policies are likewise hammered out after the election by politicians, not selected from the several on offer at the election by the electorate.
Here is Tim Garton Ash in today’s Guardian on the prospects for Germany under whatever coalition may emerge after what may be several weeks of bargaining and horse-trading:
Any of the now possible coalitions will be alliances of chalk and cheese, if not of fire and water. They will involve extraordinarily painful compromises on policy. They will be plagued by personality clashes and parties jockeying for position in an election everyone will expect to come sooner rather than later. The results in economic and social policy – and probably in foreign policy – will be more of that soft fudge in which German attempts at reform have been suffocating for more than a decade. This will be bad for Germany, bad for Europe and bad for the world economy.
The most likely fudge-factory would be a so-called grand coalition between Social and Christian Democrats. Schröder has said he won’t serve under Merkel, nor will Merkel under Schröder, so that (unless they change their tune) a double decapitation would be needed before the grand coalition could even begin. With the parties having diametrically opposed policies in areas such as health-service reform, fudge mountains would be called for.
Bad for Germany, bad for Europe and bad for the world economy. That seems right. And PR would be bad for Britain.
22 September 2005.