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.