Political Promise

Why PR might not work

In Vicky Wong on June 12, 2010 at 2:39 pm

By Vicky Wong

A lot of people have been crying out for proportional representation after the outcome of the 2010 general election, which saw our first hung parliament in almost seven decades. “Fair votes now” as the argument has been. For many young people who may be reading this article, 2010 may have been their first general election (myself included), and voting in a Labour safe seat made it feel a bit uncomfortable for me to vote for any other candidate, and subsequently, it did not make me feel at ease about the fact that voting anyone but Labour would mean a wasted vote in my first general election.

PR is an excuse to make people voting feel better about themselves, and I must admit, in a democratic utopia, I would feel like we struck gold had we decided to introduce PR. But like all electoral systems, electoral reform can carry some nasty repercussions.

A Proportional System would not only mean that smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Greens would obtain more seats. Subsequently, a PR system would remove this idea of so-called “safe seats”, and people would feel a lot more comfortable voting Lib Dem, Labour or even Independent under a PR system. It would also mean that we would be more used to there being hung parliaments after another, and would make the government more united.

So what exactly is the problem? Majoritarian systems such as First-Past-the-Post work not only because it is easy for voters to understand (only one vote), but also because it divides the countries into constituencies; geographical areas that are represented by an MP, and regardless of whether or not you voted Tory or Labour, FPTP ascertains a genuine link between a local community and national government, which PR could not possibly bring to the table.

PR does not denote that MPs represent a specific geographical area, if such were the case, then surely under a PR system, it would seem democratically unviable to allocate an MP to an area, no matter how randomly or reasonably the allocation process may be. Party loyalties aside, a randomly selected MP who may not necessarily be “in-sync” with the local community only goes to discredit PR. If a government were to decide to remove the idea of constituencies altogether, then surely this would mean that voters would be further disillusioned.

Another problem also is the rise of smaller extreme factions such as the UKIP and BNP. Since their gradually accumulating support after the Question Time fiasco, the BNP’s support base has been growing. Although garnering only 1.9% of the national vote in the general election (up from 0.7% in the last election, although winning no seats), it has 1 seat (out of 25) in the London Assembly and has 2 seats in the European Parliament. If a PR system made it comfortable for “Closet Greens” and “Closet Lib Dems” to vote, then surely it would make it just as comfortable for BNP faithful to vote for the party of choice instead of shying away because of wasted votes.

Should the BNP obtain a seat in the House of Commons, then Prime Minsters’ Question Time would invite a constant repeat of what we saw happened to Nick Griffin on BBC’s Question Time; a tirade of 649 disorderly heckling and booing MPs. With the reputation of the House of Commons in tatters given its image as nothing more than a talking shop, and resembling nothing more than a boys school complete with the occasional locker room banter (one only needs to see Clegg in his opposition days beginning his sentence with “a single mother came into my flat in Sheffield one day…”), inviting PR, would only invite more disorder, more chaos, and subsequently more disillusionment.

We have yet to have a referendum on AV, but that is likely not to take precedent until after the next rounds of budget cuts have been announced. But for anyone having misgivings about AV because they prefer PR, it’s better than nothing, and it is by far the better deal.

AV works like FPTP in the sense that it is a majoritarian system and the constituencies are still there. But instead of voting for one candidate (like you do under FPTP), you have to rank candidates in order of preference. The vote count eliminates the candidates with the least number of votes should there not be an overall majority, and the second preference votes are distributed until one candidate has hit the 50+% threshold.

The fear of wasted votes here is completely removed through the second choice. AV would also make it more difficult to tactically vote (as was the problem under FPTP) as you have to figure out what your second or third preference choices have to go in order for your vote to count entirely. If anything, this could mean voting for the least preferable candidate as your first preference, hope that one is eliminated and hope your second candidate favourite has a running chance. It becomes too confusing, and all that extra brainwork could mean that voters would be more likely to vote with their hearts instead of their heads.

Ultimately, PR could not possibly work because it may remove the value of the link between the community and the national government, and can also pave the way for more extreme factions to emerge. AV is not exactly what people would have been wishing for all Christmas, but it is the best alternative to have.

  1. Some variations of PR, like Spain’s, remove the link between national and community. Other variations of PR electoral reform, like Germany’s, entrench the link between community and national government. Germany’s link is so strong the communities even have independent voices in the European Parliament. I find it more useful to talk about PR variations than the overall concept when the variations vary so wildly. And you’re right about the possibility extreme factions emerging. It’s arguable they should be dealt with by social debate rather than fixing the electoral system against them. I certainly welcome a more vigorous debate on the issues the BNP raise rather than attempting to silence them. It’s the only way to win the debate in my view.

  2. Do a little more research: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

    Both AMS and STV are proportional systems with local representatives.

    Proportional voting is the norm in most developed countries, and has been for most of the last century, so the idea that it “can’t work” won’t stand up to scrutiny.

    As for extremist parties, they will only get elected to the extent that people vote for them. The argument that we can’t have democracy because people won’t vote the way we want them to is not acceptable.

  3. No mention of AV+ the system recommended by the Jenkins Commission in 1997?

    My worry is that local governance is so convoluted and very detached from the central government. Its a shame Labour never persuaded the country to go for Regional Assemblies. That way each government minister could have been replicated with a regional equivalent to ensure media, culture and sport are developed as well in the South West as in London, or that Business, Innovation and Skills are as important in the North East as in the South East, with elected and accountable faces to pin the blame on if it goes pear shaped. We need a wholesale reform of our political puzzle as one not more tinkering with the pieces.

    On the issue of parliament. The Lords must be elected. The Commons more representative.

    Why not have the Commons based on PR with party-lists and the Lords as a House of Independents where the candidates are elected by constituency under FPTP rules but cannot be a member of a political party and therefore independent. These would be the ‘ordinary people’ encouraged to run by a wage and single five-year term, that would represent their communities in parliament and structunise the work of the political parties in government (in terms of legislature) for the people.

  4. […] Full article can be found here Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Political Promise and tagged alternative vote, AV, Conservative, electoral reform, first past the post, Green Party, House of Commons, Labour, Lib Dems, Liberal Democrats, politics, proportional representation, referendum, tactical voting, UK politics. Bookmark the permalink. ← About me […]

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