Thursday, February 08, 2007

Proportional Representation

William Norton has an excellent piece on ConservativeHome's Platform attacking the idea that proportional representation is fair and pointing out the sacrifice that it requires in the link from constituency to MP.

I'd point to a few other flaws with proportional representation. First, it weakens government. Do we want to risk an Italian situation where there is no one ruling the country just a series of placeholder leaders trying in vain to get through some policy before their coalition collapses? While it may not be ideal that relatively small percentages of the electorate can gain control of the country surely it is preferable that the most popular single legislative programme is put into practice properly rather than admitting defeat and either having no stable government or a coalition offering a watered down blend of different programmes decided during negotiations after the election.

Secondly, it weakens accountability. At the moment someone votes Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat on a specific manifesto. If that party then governs poorly or ignores that manifesto they can be held accountable at the ballot box. By contrast, in systems of proportional representation you get coalitions and each coalition partner can blame the others for the mess that is made. They can accuse them of undermining the unity which was needed for the programme to work, they can say their policies have not been given a proper chance thanks to only parts of their manifesto being put into practice and it will be terribly hard to which party in the coalition is truly to blame when things go wrong.

Thirdly, proportional representation distances the process of political compromise from the people. In the UK under the present system the process of compromise within the left and right wing movements goes on before the election with the various parties debating internally and selecting their leaders in a reasonably democratic manner. The largest of these camps then gets to run the country. First past the post encourages parties to include relatively broad cross sections of opinion and punishes movements which cannot work together inside the same tent. This encourages social harmony by creating broad political alliances and encouraging people to appreciate what they have politically in common with others of a broadly similar philosophical outlook. People get used to compromise.

Finally, this means that people don't know what they are voting for which weakens democratic legitimacy. When voting for the Liberal in Germany you don't know if you will be contributing to the stability of a Social Democratic or Christian Democrat government. While the Liberals will try to get the best deal in terms of their manifesto they can their idea of the "best deal" might be quite different to that of those who voted for them.

Proportional representation is truly awful. Short of a senile Menzies Campbell firing Trident at "the Boche" it is the worst possible outcome of the next election.


Anonymous said...

There are different types of proportional representation. STV doesn't suffer from the problems you describe.

Matthew Sinclair said...

It does suffer from the social harmony/accustomed to compromise problem.

John Page said...

There is also so called Total Representation, and there are other possible reforms, as tode says.

Labour got fewer votes in England than the Tories in the last general election, but 286 seats to the Conservatives' 193.

The Tories should be proposing a system which is more democratic, but they are too feeble.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Sinclair wrote (STV) does suffer from the social harmony/accustomed to compromise problem.

You can get hung parliaments now, a lot of people think we are about to have one. Gets more likely with increasing disillusion with the main parties. Lots of people vote tactically and lots of people don't bother or vote for silly parties because they know their vote won't count. Parties pretend "the country" has voted for everything in their manifesto. So FPTP is a dreadful system. Even so it might be less bad than all the others (like democracy) but detailing the problems of PR ignores the many problems of FPTP. Since you've given the matter some thought, I'd be interested to see you address the particular problems of STV, which seems to me better than what we have now.

Anonymous said...

STV wouldh ave meant the tories wouldh ave got less seats in 1997 than the LIb dems which would seem to challege it's pr credentials.

The key point is coalition's in Britian are formed before (they're called the conservative and labour parties) not after as Matthew Sinclair has shown.