I promised to identify some of the arguments against proportional representation (PR). The Prime Minister is proposing a referendum on the alternative vote (AV), but that does not qualify as a PR system. It is because it doesn’t that the Jenkins Commission came up with AV+. I confine myself here to PR and offer a taster as to arguments against.
I suppose I should begin begin by referring to PR systems as so-called PR systems, given that proportionality is defined in narrow terms: that is, the relationship of votes to seats. It leaves out the fundamental element of political power. 10% of votes = 10% of seats does not then equal ten per cent of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. It can constitute considerably more. Indeed, if we define proportionality in terms of the ratio of votes and time spent in government, then according to one study the UK has proved to be more proportional than other Western systems.
Then there is the issue of accountability. Much of the debate has fcoused on the hiring side and not enough on the firing side of government. As the distinguished philosopher, Sir Karl Popper, recognised, the essence of democracy is the capacity of citizens to get rid of the body in power and to do so in a peaceful way. He advanced a new problem as fundamental to rational political theory: “The new problem, as distinct from the old ‘Who should rule?’, can be formulated as follows: how is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence?” The current electoral system, as he recognised, is central to ensuring that a government can be removed, swiftly and cleanly. The system facilitates – it does not guarantee, but it facilitates in a way that other systems do not – the return of a single party to government. There is thus one body, the party-in-government, that is responsible for public policy. There is no opportunity for buck passing between parties or between different political bodies. Electors know precisely which body to hold accountable for public policy. If they disapprove, they can sweep it from office. Election day, in Popper’s words, is Judgement Day.
We are told that our present system generates ‘wasted votes’, but wasted in relation to what? There is the danger of getting a greater say in the choice of the local MP at the expense of being able to determine who is in government. It is also possible under PR to generate a complete set of wasted votes. Take the elections to the National Assembly for Wales in 2007. Wales ended up with a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. How many electors voted definitively for a Lab+PC coalition? Not one. It has less legitimacy than a government elected under the first-past-the-post system. And if the coalition parties fight the next election as separate parties, there is no one body to be held to account for the actions of government. But does not PR otherwise ensure that most votes count? Not exactly. There is a minority SNP government in Scotland. In other words, most electors voted for parties other than the winning party.
There are other arguments against PR systems – I have quite a long list – and it is important to remember that PR is a generic term. It encompasses a range of systems, each with its own problems. There are problems with list systems and with the single transferable vote (used by 0.1% of the world’s electors, compared to the most popular system – first past the post), as well as with the others being proposed. Once one pits FPTP against a real alternative – rather than some abstract term – one begins to see the merits of what we have.