Proportional Representation - tropes and triumphs
Countering the arguments used against Proportional Representation
Just a few days ago the Conservatives came within a cat’s whisker (or three) of a leadership contest.
With their advocacy of a voting system which ensures ‘the candidate who wins the most votes …is elected’, it may come as a surprise to learn that First Past The Post (FPTP) would not have been used to determine which two leadership candidates would have been presented to the Conservative membership. Instead, Conservative candidates would have had to have gone through a round of eliminatory votes, with no certainty that the candidate with the most votes initially, would have emerged victorious after the final vote.
An interesting acknowledgement perhaps that FPTP isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. This is a conclusion that nearly all European countries have reached in relation to their parliamentary elections: the UK, and that beacon of democracy Belarus, being the exceptions.
Unlock Democracy, with fellow campaign organisations like Conservative Action for Electoral Reform, the Electoral Reform Society and Make Votes Matter, support proportional representation (PR) for Westminster elections as an alternative to FPTP.
Arguments in favour of PR
What are the arguments in favour of PR?
Simply it helps deliver better government and is at the heart of many of the most successful democracies in the world: New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Norway etc… It is dangerous to attribute cause and effect between the health, happiness and wealth of countries and their use or otherwise of PR. But it is at least worthy of some research. Does a more consensual style of politics, often a consequence of PR, make for better decision-making and enhanced well-being?
Overwhelmingly, countries with PR have stable governments. There are some anomalies. But the same is true for FPTP. The assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters and the ousting of two PMs in the UK since 2015, and the attempted defenestration of its current occupier, are testimony to the fact that FPTP does not insulate politics or governing parties from unpredictability and volatility.
PR means that the majority of people have their voices heard by Government and their views are reflected in the political allegiances of those elected. This means more representative and collaborative politics and parties cooperating where there’s agreement. This cooperation facilitates greater accountability, as parties hold each other to account for their respective contributions to their joint endeavour.
PR voting systems that maintain a constituency link can keep the best of FPTP.
PR keeps extreme parties out of the game because they struggle to achieve the 50% plus needed to form a government on their own.
PR is not an unknown quantity: Scotland, Wales, NI, the London Assembly all successfully use forms of PR.
Finally, an unexpected spin-off: PR could provide a neat answer to the question about the future of the United Kingdom. A Westminster Parliament elected on PR would reflect the real level of support for the parties across the four nations. The artificially large majorities for the Conservatives in England and the SNP in Scotland would be cut. This in turn could herald a more constructive relationship between the UK’s most antagonistic constituent parts.
Arguments against PR
PR has its detractors. The tropes about PR include; it leads to unstable governments; it breaks the constituency link and it nurtures extreme parties. These were addressed earlier.
Another that is often raised is that PR gives smaller parties undue influence. Without a doubt a consequence of using PR for Westminster elections would be an increased likelihood of coalition governments or joint working between parties. In other words, electors who support the smaller parties would now see some of their priorities reflected in the government’s programme. Hardly an affront to democracy. FPTP, in any case, does not stop smaller parties exerting influence – the DUP between 2017 and 2019 is proof of that.
With trust in politicians at an all time low, only 6% of voters believing they have the most influence over government decision-making, and fewer than one quarter of under 50’s thinking democracy serves their interests well, PR might just be the electoral change that refreshes the parts of our body politic other voting systems cannot reach?
What’s there to lose by giving PR a chance?
About the author
Tom was the MP for Carshalton and Wallington in London between 1997 to 2019.