Arguments against PR

Lord Norton

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.

74 comments for “Arguments against PR

  1. Paul
    03/02/2010 at 7:29 pm

    Would you be supportive of AV then?

    • lordnorton
      03/02/2010 at 10:54 pm

      Paul: no.

  2. Bedd Gelert
    03/02/2010 at 7:37 pm

    “Wales ended up with a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. How many electors voted definitively for a Lab+PC coalition? Not one.”

    It is actually worse than that. There was for a time a real chance that a ‘rainbow coalition’ including Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the minority parties and Trish Law as an independent, if my memory serves me correctly, being the elected government.

    Okay, that would have served the purpose of booting out Labour, but by having a coalition of parties who had fewer votes.

    In the end the Lib Dems, as decisive as ever, bottled out. But as you say Lord Norton, it is easy to find fault with First Past The Post, but far more difficult to find a ‘better way’.

    • 04/02/2010 at 7:50 pm

      To be strictly accurate, LibDem AMs initially stopped the Rainbow Coalition but eventually the membership endorsed it. However, by then it was too late to extricate Plaid from Rhodri’s embrace.

  3. 03/02/2010 at 7:59 pm

    PR’s tendency to create coalition governments would probably be the biggest problem for the UK. I have often thought that Brits’ main reason for hating the EU is that its multitude of parties and national governments leads to lots of shady backroom deals. We don’t exactly have the greatest public perception of politicians at the moment. I rather fear that PR would only make a bad situation worse.

    http://www.governing-principles.com

  4. Chris K
    03/02/2010 at 8:31 pm

    Lord Norton, I absolutely agree. What strikes me is how the political parties line up on this. All the smaller parties, even Ukip, a ‘conservative’ party have started bleating on about how “unfair” FPTP is. And now as soon as Labour get a face the possibility of defeat they jump on the bandwagon too. I hope I’m not being cynical.

    I watched Mr Pickles along Peter Hain and some LibDem, on Newsnight last night. Gordon/Labour could have been absolutely ripped to shreds on this issue if the Conservatives had wished because it is just all so pathetic.

    Are the Lords going to debate and vote on it too, or just the Commons, half of whose membership won’t even be there in 5 months?

    If it comes to the crunch I’ll do my bit to campaign for keeping FPTP, because there is an extremely strong case for doing so.

    • 04/02/2010 at 7:56 pm

      To be fair to Peter Hain, he has been a long-standing advocate of AV, right back to the brief time when he was a Liberal Party member. Moreover, there are other supporters of both AV and PR in the two big parties.

      The suggestion that Gordon Brown’s conversion is of the death-bed variety is, however, all too credible.

      • Chris K
        04/02/2010 at 9:22 pm

        Thank you for pointing that out. Being consistent is a noble trait in a politician. If only Mr Hain had been a bit more vocal about it hitherto (such as just before 2001 and 2005 for instance) then I might have been able to credit him.

        Who are the supporters in the Conservative Party? I don’t count Douglas Carswell, even though he’s stated on his blog that he would be open to electoral reform of some sort in the future.

  5. Leo Watkins
    03/02/2010 at 10:16 pm

    For such a distinguished academic as Lord Norton (whose books are a regular fixture on my British Politics essay reading lists..), I found the arguments presented in this article to be rather weak. Let me address the main ones in turn:

    1) The undue negotiating power that minority parties are alleged to wield. First off, it’s worth point out that a small minority of swing voters (around 800,000, out of an electorate of 45 million) decide the outcome of general elections in this country – hardly a better situation. Moreover, small parties have a limited capacity to bargain with larger capacities, as they recognise that they will be punished a) for overplaying their hand and b) for causing another general election – the former happened to the New Zealand First party in the first PR parliament in 1996, for example.

    2) The allegation that PR does not guarantee one party will be swept from power would hold some water were it not for the example of Die Linke, the German left party whose ex-GDR leadership component has made it electorally toxic for the SDP and Greens to touch. A similar situation would occur if a single party became radically unpopular, no doubt.

    3) Buck-passing can be easily avoided, given that the division of ministerial portfolios creates a relatively clear demarcation. Even if it is not, however, it is outweighed by the benefits of having a government that can actually claim a majority mandate, unlike every government elected under FPTP in the post-war period, and a parliament which fairly reflects the total number of votes cast, rather than allowing a postcode lottery to take place whereby the vote of someone in a swing seat is immeasurably more valuable than just about any voter in a safe seat.

    4) Let me clarify the way in which votes are wasted under FPTP: in most situations, the vote i cast will not lead to the election of a representative; were it do so, i would be more likely to a) feel represented and b) check whether that representative was doing what i wanted. After all, what reason do Labour voters have to expect a Conservative MP to represent their concerns when he or she does not need their vote particularly.

    5) It is true, no-one votes for a coalition; then again, i’d rather have a government that more than 50% of voters chose part of than one which only 34% of voters chose all of. What makes Lord Norton believe that a minority getting all of what they want is better than most getting some of what they want? The notion that compromise satisfies no-one, which is at the heart of the criticism he articulates, is the preserve of the dogmatic and unreasonable, who do not appreciate that legislative compromise is, except on very rare occasions, the Only way anything gets done.

    6) “There is a minority SNP government in Scotland. In other words, most electors voted for parties other than the winning party.” How is this any worse than what happens at Westminster? The only difference is, when most electors vote for parties other than the winning party, the winning party still gets to pretend as though it has a majority mandate – power its electoral support does not warrant its acquiring.

    7) Dismissing STV as unpopular is an embarrassingly poor argument for such an eminent man to be using. Every good idea starts off supported by a minority of one – the individual who thought it up. Similarly with electoral systems: the fact that most countries haven’t adopted STV does not in and of itself demonstrate any inherent limitations in it. There was a point at which most countries had not abolished slavery – that did not preclude or detract in any way from innumerable things being in the policy’s favour.

    • Wolfgang
      04/02/2010 at 1:05 am

      Leo, ask yourself what the core problem is.

      I think you will find its that voting for a representative who doesn’t do what they say they would, or does things they didn’t tell you about.

      ie. At the heart of the problem is control over issues, not selection of representative who does what the whips tell them.

  6. lordnorton
    03/02/2010 at 10:51 pm

    Leo Watkins: I don’t find any of your arguments carry much weight. Let me deal with them in turn.

    1. So-called ‘swing voters’ only have an impact when combined with the other votes cast. Neither set is necessary and sufficient for election victory. Minor parties are not necessarily going to be punished for overplaying their hand. Much depends on how skilful they are as negotiators. In any event, any concessions means that one ends up with policies that have not been placed before the electors.

    2. An example of a party being swept from power under PR does not undermine the point I am making. Similarly, one could point out that under FPTP one could get a party with no overall majority. That, though, is the exception and not the norm.

    3. You appear not to have grasped the point I am making. Allocation of portfolios is not relevant to the point. Most importantly, the coalition cannot claim a ‘majority mandate’. It may craft a majority, but it cannot claim a mandate for something for which not a single elector has voted.

    4. I do not feel ‘represented’ if my fourth or fifth choice ends up being elected. I have variously voted for a losing candidate. I may be on the losing side but I do not regard my vote as wasted. I have demonstrated my support for my candidate and party and that gives me contentment. In the UK, constituency MPs seek to represent their constituents regardless of the party (if any) for which they voted.

    5. This comes back to my earlier point. The majority is not getting the government it wanted. I would rather have a government which has the direct and definitive support of a plurality of voters – and which can be turfed out decisively at the next election – than a post-election coalition which does not enjoy majority support or formally, in terms of votes cast, any support at all.

    6. The situation in Scotland is no better than in Westminster. Under the arguments advance for a system of PR, we are asked to believe that it would be.

    7. STV has been around for some time. Some ideas remain minority ideas for good reason. I wasn’t dismissing STV solely because it is not widely used. I have plenty of arguments against STV based on what it can produce (even many proponents of PR are wary of it because of its capacity to produce majority governments on a minority vote) and what it has produced, not least in Ireland.

    • Wolfgang
      04/02/2010 at 1:02 am

      Construct a voting system where

      1. Every vote has an equal say.

      i.e No lords having a say and others having none. No system where a vote in a marginal has more effect than a safe seat

      2. Votes are for things that matter.

      ie. Not the next thief to milk the expenses system, but a vote on an issue.

      • lordnorton
        04/02/2010 at 9:48 am

        Wolfgang: It would be interesting to know if anyone ever manages to produce a system that delivers on 1. One would, of course, need to define what constitutes an ‘equal say’, in itself not something that is problem free.

  7. 04/02/2010 at 12:04 am

    Lord Norton, I agree with what you are saying. You didn’t even have to touch on the abomination that is the closed list system used for the European elections, which means certain cronies, I mean candidates, are certain to be elected. It’s funny that the very same people who advocate this are often the ones who want an elected House of Lords. At least the latter is a transparent system of appointments!

    As for political power, isn’t it known that seats should be allocated according to the square root of votes cast, rather than directly proportional? (Not that it’s a good argument for FPTP, though, so I’ll keep quiet!)

    @Chris K: you’re too right. Parties speak up for PR when it would be to their advantage to have such a system. Perhaps this is a good reason for never changing the system. That way it can’t be abused.

  8. 04/02/2010 at 1:03 am

    What would you see as being wrong with what PR-STV has produced in Ireland, Lord Norton?

    • lordnorton
      04/02/2010 at 9:40 am

      Dean Duke: Excessive localism, with TDs devoting themselves to doing favours locally at the expense of contributing to the work of the Dail,contributing to the Dail being one of the weakest legislatures, if not the weakest, in western Europe.

  9. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 9:20 am

    As someone who is slowly learning the intricacies of our politics I find these debates intriguing.I maybe wrong in what I appear to be seeing but….

    Lord Norton appears to be promoting what works best, whilst others what represents the people better.

    It appears we have a sliding scale, Dictatorship at one end and true communism or anarchy at the other. Dictatorship obviously works the best, well at least for the person in charge, the Government. True Communism or anarchy doesn`t work well at all because we all have different views on different subjects.

    FPTP strikes me as quite high up the scale nearer Dictatorship. We have the Executive picked by the PM, totalling approx 94 including under secretaries. Jobs for the boys there then. The Whips keep the dross inline and we`ve heard recently how powerful they are. So essentially we get a demi-dictatorship every 5 years.

    Of course there`s alway`s the House of Lords to scrutinise legislation independently isn`t there ? Well actually that is appearing to not actually be the case to me. It`s not a professional body, they come and go as they please and although some appear to take the position very seriously, I can`t vouch for all. There`s no salary just allowances,more for Committees obviously but I believe you have to get there through the Whips. Oooh and the Whips control virtually everything even to bookings for dinner apparently. So the three main parties appear to have complete control, no sign of independence anywhere. So just three views to choose from, doesn`t sound very democratic to me.

    When we vote in a FPTP General Election we`re voting for someone to represent his constituency in Parliament, at least that is what the Electoral Commission states. It isn`t quite true though, it appears firstly OUR constituency gets whomever the parties put forward in our area and they may not know it at all. This is another jobs for the boys thing where favourites get put into areas they know they can win. Secondly whoever gets elected will put party first and constituents views…well what do they know, worse still they maybe right. What do the voters know ? Not a lot judging by me and I`m considered one of the clever bits of the lower/working class. Of course we`re fed the spiel at election time, given promises which often are not kept and kept in the dark about the bad bits.

    Let`s see who we have going into this next one. New Labour, much the same as old tories except for feminist and a few other extreme members who know nothing of ordinary life. Conservative….Well you just know the cuts will be deep don`t you and it`ll be the working man who pays. Lib-Dems…Sorry who ? Who is the leader of the Lib-Dems ? Oh yeah Nick Clegg…Wasn`t he in Last of the Summer Wine ?

    Bad, worse and worst.

    So in this “democracy” who will we vote FPTP to dictate to us for the next 5 years.

    If we don`t have FPTP and go for PR, which isn`t PR because only approx 30% of people bother to vote, don`t we lose the bit about representing your constituency. Alternative voting ? What you mean if I can`t have the Aston Martin I have to make do with the Ferrari ? How does this work then if you`re a Labour Party member ? Who gets your second and third vote when you don`t want any of them ? It`s like asking an Arsenal supporter for his other choices between Spurs, Man Utd and Liverpool !!!

    Ok so the Government is in chaos, Parliament is being introspective cos some got caught out doing what we the public suspected for the last couple of hundred years but let`s not panic eh ? Yes the system is *rap but rushing into another won`t solve it. It`s Parliament that needs sorting out not the voting system at present, I don`t have a second choice…The first won`t stand up and be counted for fear of the whips anyway….What`s the point ?

    And whilst you`re at it sort out Europe and devolution. Do we want to be part of a nice big Europe ? Or do we want devolution to the point where Scotland is crying for total independence. Little or big make your minds up please.

    Please do not put names on the voting forms this time, if you the politicians are adamant you must follow the whip and vote the party line just put the parties cos it makes no odds.

    FPTP, AV, AV+ or PR it makes no odds, we get taxed more, confused more and all the while the politicians look after number one. If that isn`t true why aren`t you representing me ?

  10. lordnorton
    04/02/2010 at 9:45 am

    Carl H: You begin on an essentially false premise. MPs in this country are not slaves to the whips. Party cohesion is more marked in many other west European legislatures. PR systems do not necessarily produce more independent MPs: they can have the opposite effect.

    • Croft
      04/02/2010 at 12:59 pm

      I think your premise is just as false. The fact our MPs are slightly less subservient to their party machine then various European parliamentarians does not prove the point. Being the largest person in a room full of dwarfs does not prove I’m a giant! As the link to revolts you recently posted showed while things my be objectively better than the past, insofar as there are more rebellions, they still constitute a tiny percentage of all votes and an even smaller fraction of votes that really matter.

      Not that I suggest MPs should be voting against their party for private amusement but there is I suggest a happy medium between where we are now and a somewhat more mature attitude to MPs defying the whip on matters of conscience and real concern to their constituents. However I’m not convinced that AV would make any difference here and closed list systems actively make matters worse giving high ranked candidates immunity from the electorate.

      • lordnorton
        04/02/2010 at 1:21 pm

        Croft: I agree with your second paragraph. Party remains important for providing an essential framework for delivering a coherent (and accountable) programme of public policy, but needs to be tempered by effective scrutiny by MPs. I therefore am very much in favour of seeking to achieve a happy medium, even if deciding when we have reached that may prove problematic!

        On your first paragraph, my point remains that employing a different electoral system will not necessarily reduce the power of the whips or produce more independent MPs. I am not saying MPs are giants. I am saying that they are not smaller than the other people in the room.

      • Croft
        04/02/2010 at 2:07 pm

        “I am not saying MPs are giants. I am saying that they are not smaller than the other people in the room.”

        🙂

        I’m sure what most constituents want, even if they don’t get it, is the sense and confidence that their MP wanted to know and found out their views and gave them full consideration before making a decision. What feed cynisicms is the sense MPs don’t much care to know or consider their views.

    • Wolfgang
      04/02/2010 at 9:16 pm

      They are slaves to the whips.

      http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/

      Pick as sample of MPs and count the number of times they revolt, particularly in government

      • lordnorton
        04/02/2010 at 10:32 pm

        Wolfgang: Sorry, but the data prove no such thing. The fact that MPs vote fairly cohesively does not prove that they do so because of the whips. As research has shown (see especially the work of Phil Cowley and Mark Stuart), even on free votes MPs tend to vote with other members of their party. Indeed, in some free votes there is 100% cohesion. This is hardly surprising, given that they share the views of the other members of their party. Whips do not force cohesion, they serve to facilitate it. Whips are only effective as a consequence of a cohesive party – not the other way round.

      • Carl.H
        05/02/2010 at 11:26 am

        Lord Norton has stated that MP`s are likely to rebel more now than in the past. This doesn`t appear true judged on this list:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_British_Members_of_Parliament_who_crossed_the_floor

        As far as no one having the whip removed recently, no proof either of the whips being all powerful or that the members all go along with the party line can really be ascertained. It is like trying to analyze unreported crime, it is immeasurable.

        Can I ask why whips give hand signals as to which way to vote ? I have read that it is because it is actually against Parliamentary Privilege to state aloud. If that is so and it still happens, why ?

      • Croft
        05/02/2010 at 11:45 am

        While I wouldn’t contest for a second that tribal loyalty counts for most of the voting pattern (see the difference between MPs votes on motions from their own backbenchers -v- the opposition even where they clearly agree on the substance) but I do think saying whips don’t ‘force cohesion’ is pushing it. There are enough political diaries and biographies about with allegations of whips threatening to exposes affairs, sexual orientation at the worst end and offers/withdrawals of plum posts, overseas trips, financial assistance to prevent bankruptcy at the other.

  11. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 10:19 am

    “MPs in this country are not slaves to the whips.”

    MP`s may not be “slaves” to the whip, however it appears they are prepared in some cases to sell mind, body and soul, putting self interest first.

    Ian Dale states

    “The crucial thing will be how many of them take the whips’ shilling and are determined to climb the greasy pole of promotion at the first available opportunity.”
    http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2009/06/how-many-new-mps-will-there-be.html

    The Wright Committee also seem`s to suggest the power of the whips needed reduction.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6914981.ece

    As far as PR goes, I stated above it would be more about party as we`d lose the “representing the constituency”. Also the fact it would NOT be representational as most don`t vote.

    • lordnorton
      04/02/2010 at 10:35 am

      Carl H: As you say, “in some cases”, and it is not something that applies in the case of the Lords. There are also far fewer ‘slaves’ than there used to be.

  12. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 10:28 am

    Whips are MPs or Lords appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business. One of their responsibilities is making sure the maximum number of their party members vote, and vote the way their party wants.

    http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/principal/whips.cfm

    • lordnorton
      04/02/2010 at 10:37 am

      Carl H: I can recommend some very good literature on the role and development of the Whips! (I was going to add ‘but modesty forbids’, but some of my friends read this, so I won’t.) There is a difference between responsibility and power.

  13. Ken
    04/02/2010 at 10:46 am

    ‘First-past-the-post’ is an emotive and misleading term (who first applied it to electoral systems?), as it suggests that there is some set – even arbitrary – vote total which the winner has to achieve to win. Other than the fixed point of the close of the poll, this is not true.

    The current HC system simply deems the person who gains the most votes (whatever that total may be) during the statutory polling period to be elected. So the implied horse race analogy, ie that the ‘fastest’ to cover a set distance (or vote total) wins, is unhelpful. It is more like a contest where the one who accumulates
    the largest number within a set time from among the defined available set (ie the electorate) wins.

    Whether or not the current ‘simple plurality’ system is right (whatever that means) is another issue. But ascribing partial definitions doesn’t assist rational debate.

    • lordnorton
      04/02/2010 at 12:40 pm

      Ken:

      “First-past-the-post’ is an emotive and misleading term”.

      A bit like “proportional representation”.

      • Croft
        04/02/2010 at 2:00 pm

        😀

        PR is something of an annoying term because it is so ill defined and can mean any of a bewildering array of systems.

  14. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 10:47 am

    Is a three whip line not power ?

    I`m sorry my Lord, I can only read it as I see it and I do not profess to be an expert.

  15. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 10:57 am

    This is what I read from the offical UK parliament website.

    ” Important divisions are underlined three times – a ‘three-line whip’ – and normally apply to major events like the second readings of significant Bills.

    Three-line whips

    Defying a three-line whip is very serious, and has occasionally resulted in the whip being withdrawn from an MP or Lord. This means that the Member is effectively expelled from their party (but keeps their seat) and must sit as an independent until the whip is restored. ”

    So effectively to keep your job/position you MUST vote the party line at second reading. Next the Bill goes to Committee whose members appear to be chosen by the Whips who also do all the negotiating.

    I`d call that pretty much having a lot of power.

    • lordnorton
      04/02/2010 at 12:37 pm

      Carl H: And when was the last time an MP had the whip withdrawn for voting against a three-line whip? Withdrawing the whip for defying a three-line whip is very much the exception, not the rule. (The important word in what you quote is ‘occasionally’.) Indeed, in 1972, 15 Conservative MPs not only voted against the Government on a three-line whip but did so on one that had been declared an issue of confidence by the Government! They did not lose the whip. Defying a three-line whip may be serious, but MPs can and variously do defy it.

      • Carl.H
        04/02/2010 at 1:32 pm

        “And when was the last time an MP had the whip withdrawn for voting against a three-line whip? ”

        When was the last time someone stopped short of murder because of hanging ? That`s a ludicrous question coming from probably one of the only people who MIGHT know.

        If there is that much pressure, I have read quite a lot this morning about it, who would risk their position etc.?

        The fact remains the threat is there and it is there in direct conflict to Parliamentary Privilege.

        I`m not saying that rebels do not exist but I would imagine they are few and putting your whole career on the line is a big gamble. The threat should not exist, it is intolerable. Did we not ban closed shops so people had the freedom NOT to follow the Union line ?

        Should we bring back caning, hanging, burning at the stake but put them on the occassional, could be used list ?

  16. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 11:17 am

    Oh dear, I wish I hadn`t looked. It appears worse than I thought according to the peoples oracle “The Wiki”

    “As shown in BBC television series Yes Minister and House of Cards, the Chief Whip can wield a large amount of power over those in their party, up to and including cabinet ministers, being seen to speak at all times with the voice of the Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was famed for using her Chief Whip as a “cabinet enforcer” (there were rumours that her first chief whip, Michael Jopling was the closest cabinet colleague of Thatcher).”

    “Whips can often be brutal to backbenchers to secure their vote, and will resort to a mixture of promises, threats, blackmail and extortion[dubious – discuss] to force an unpopular vote. A good whip will know secrets and incriminating information about Members of Parliament. A whip should know major figures in an MP’s local constituency party and the MP’s agent. There have been cases where Members of Parliament were wheeled from far afield to vote for the government on a crucial vote. Former MP Joe Ashton remembered a case from the dying days of James Callaghan’s government:

    “I remember the famous case of Leslie Spriggs, the then-Member for St. Helens. We had a tied vote and he was brought to the House in an ambulance having suffered a severe heart attack. The two Whips went out to look in the ambulance and there was Leslie Spriggs laid there as though he was dead. I believe that John Stradling Thomas said to Joe Harper, ‘How do we know that he is alive?’ So he leaned forward, turned the knob on the heart machine, the green light went around, and he said, ‘There, you’ve lost–it’s 311.’ That is an absolutely true story. It is the sort of nonsense that used to happen. No one believes it, but it is true.” “.

  17. Carl.H
    04/02/2010 at 11:20 am
  18. Gar Hywel
    04/02/2010 at 11:43 am

    “Wales in 2007. Wales ended up with a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition.” in terms of policy, not voting for a coalition per se, is nit picking!

    “It has less legitimacy than a government elected under the first-past-the-post system”
    a nano-percentage less.

    There is not even a language difference since both parties accept non-speakers, either of Welsh or English(!) Hair splitting, and ridiculous!

    Noble lord Norton seems to favor confrontation as the best form of government.
    PR is not about confrontation but about representation in a way which will pre empt the “forgone conclusions” of nearly all general elections.

    I have twice voted in my life, for a man who was 12 votes away from winning,(he won with my vote) and at the next election only 60 above it(he won again with my vote)

    The other twenty odd voting opportunities I have had, were all foregone conclusions.

    That Lord Norton is FPTP.

    I am surpised that GB has not chosen AV+, but it may be he wants a little bit of usage of AV, before using AV+ the next time on.

    • lordnorton
      12/02/2010 at 6:37 pm

      Gar Hywel: You seem to be way off beam. The fact that the coalition is a result of post-election bargaining is a rather fundamental point. That the parties to the coalition accept non-speakers is utterly irrelevant.

      I would rather voters were offered a choice between potential governments than an opportunity to vote for candidates without knowing what they will get at the end of the process.

  19. 04/02/2010 at 2:16 pm

    I’m intrigued by the possibilities of AV or STV systems but I’m not sure it would solve the biggest bugbears with the current system. From my point of view these are:

    1. “wasted” votes in safe seats
    2. The inability to say “None of the Above”
    3. Being able to object to what your representative has done

    Where I live I’m in a very safe seat so although I do make sure I get out and vote it can often seem rather pointless. About the only thing my vote ensures is an extra +1 in the national totals which are meaningless compared to the electoral mathematics. Maybe if the national vote also meant something? While I’m a strong opponent of lists for the Commons maybe the national vote breakdown could influence the breakdown of new appointees to the Lords over the next term?

    There have been times when I’ve been very conflicted on who to vote for as all the candidates have been pretty shoddy. Sometimes I might vote for a minority party that I have some sympathy with but I would prefer the ability to say “None of the above” and force a new election if that option wins the FPTP “majority”.

    As for the final point I think any sort of right of return would have to be carefully thought out. We do after all try and elect people who we trust to make the decisions rather than ones that will vote the same line as we would. However certainly in the last parliament there have been some individuals that their constituents would like to remove from office having seen what they were up to. However I think to prevent mendacious meddling the bar would have to be set a lot higher.

    It could be that the last point would be better served by encouraging MPs to interact more with their constituents. While my MP has a blog type thing there isn’t really any way to engage in debate around the topics of the day. I’m sure MPs in general could engage better than the odd newsletter or personal one and one communication via letters.

  20. Gar Hywel
    04/02/2010 at 2:49 pm

    can mean any of a bewildering array of systems.

    14 in EU too many for you?

  21. Wolfgang
    04/02/2010 at 9:21 pm

    The are various problems with the current system.

    1. MPs are elected to as a representative. Voting for a person should be separated from what issues you want enacted or revoked.

    You might like him/her as a representative, but not want his policies.

    2. Policies aren’t implemented as promised

    3. Things are implemented that you weren’t told about

    4. The package on offer will include things you don’t want. ie. It’s too broad a set up.

    5. You can’t get rid of the scum if you find out after you are elected.

    6. They do as they are told by the whips with minor rare exceptions

    7. Unpopular governments can sit out their term at great damage to the country.

    8. People like Norton who are unelected and not responsible to anyone get to force you to do things.

    [Don’t forget Norton thinks selling laws for cash isn’t a problem because it wouldn’t have worked]

    • lordnorton
      12/02/2010 at 5:47 pm

      Wolfgang: do you ever bother to read what anyone else writes? It’s difficult to know where to start to correct your misapprehensions. Parties in government actually tend to implement their manifesto promises. The last time the success rate was calculated (by Richard Rose) it was extremely high. Proposals not in a manifesto have to be brought before Parliament and can run into trouble as a result. MPs vote with their like-minded colleagues: the whips facilitate that, they don’t force cohesion. Cohesive parties are in any event core to an accountable political system. The fact that unpopular governments can sit out their terms of office is a feature not confined to this country. At least it is possible to change leaders mid-stream under our system in a way not usually possible with an elected head of state serving for a fixed term. People like me can’t force other people to do things, given that authority rests with Parliament and, within that, predominantly the House of Commons. Nor did I say selling laws for cash wasn’t a problem: I was pointing out that individual peers can’t sell laws for cash. They may break the rules by seeking to facilitate access or promote causes.

    • 12/02/2010 at 6:01 pm

      Wolfgang: Your particular mixture of demands reminds me of one example in particular; California, the USA’s number one failed state. You seem to be grasping at the idea of a representative democracy with a strong directly democratic element (i.e. lots of referendums). I would invite you to look to the Golden State to see how your proposals would work out. Switzerland is a more positive example of a representative/direct democratic mix, but I do not feel it quite matches your preferred concoction.

  22. lordnorton
    05/02/2010 at 10:39 am

    Dean Duke: Thanks for the link to the story in The Irish Times. That is extremely useful.

  23. lordnorton
    05/02/2010 at 3:44 pm

    Carl H. (Feb. 5 at 11.26): Crossing the floor is not a measure of independence of MPs in voting behaviour. There is actually a good body of literature on MPs’ voting behaviour as well as on the role of the whips. Having written a good part of it, I know how extensively researched it is!

    Croft (Feb 5 at 11.45): If the whips had to do that with all MPs, they would soon become exhausted. They may try to apply pressure – or rather engage in bluff – in respect of a few waverers. Other members are left alone, including those who are planning to vote against their own side and who are absolutely determined in their views: they are not going to be swayed by the whips, regardless of the approach they adopt.

  24. Senex
    05/02/2010 at 4:22 pm

    Lord Norton: In quoting Popper and endorsing FPtP, do you assume a homogenous society undivided along ethnic lines? The PR lobby seem to suggest that our constitutional democracy must move toward consociationalism in order to avoid violence. Is FPtP the reason why certain members of the NI legislature refuse to take their seat in Parliament?

  25. Gareth Howell
    05/02/2010 at 5:48 pm

    You should not need to cross! You should just be able to move gently round seat by seat!

    The party seating alignments in the other place took some working out, and the arrangements in this place are no better.

    Have a sense of proportion!

    Whether any architect would be capable of
    creating a horse shoe in such limited space, is anybody’s guess.

    Say NO! to confrontation; YES to a reform of the physical structures of the two chambers!

  26. Wolfgang
    05/02/2010 at 7:25 pm

    As far as no one having the whip removed recently, no proof either of the whips being all powerful or that the members all go along with the party line can really be ascertained. It is like trying to analyze unreported crime, it is immeasurable.

    They have had the whip taken away. The reason is not rebelling, but because they have been found out to be on the fiddle.

  27. Iqbal_M
    05/02/2010 at 8:13 pm

    Lordnorton, what about PR-STV in Council elections in Scotland in 2007, it has given local government in Scotland new life?

  28. 05/02/2010 at 8:25 pm

    What an enlightening posting from Lord Norton: not only with respect to PR, but in his deft handling of and response to subsequent queries. Nothing like it at all in Canada. Shame!

  29. 06/02/2010 at 10:46 am

    What an enlightening posting from Lord Norton: not only with respect to PR—and AV and FPTP—but in his deft handling of and response to subsequent queries. Nothing like it at all in Canada. Shame!

  30. Carl.H
    06/02/2010 at 9:54 pm

    Power2010 defionately worth a look especially as PR seems to be getting the most votes.

    http://www.power2010.org.uk/votes

    • lordnorton
      07/02/2010 at 12:45 pm

      Carl H: That is hardly surprising. The nature of the exercise means that one cannot set too much store by it.

  31. Carl.H
    07/02/2010 at 1:17 pm

    Lord Norton do you believe the public are being led into PR and does that worry you ?

    I get concerned when I see things like Power2010 where the voting preferences seem chosen deliberately to not give proper choice yet they state claerly “POWER2010 is a unique campaign to give everyone the chance to have a say in how our democracy works for us.

    I hadn`t heard of this campaign until yesterday. 4000 ideas were put forward, distilled by 130 citizens, apparently representaive of the population organised by Southampton University Academics.

    Certainly I have not heard of anyone asked to take part in the original idea`s scheme but that`s not abnormal nor do I hear of anyone who takes part in statistical polls, possibly as the working classes rarely get involved, haven`t the time or feel the call etc., maybe just intruding into their privacy.

    This particular campaign does appear to me to be coming from someone with political motivation. The information for instance on PR is lacking in substance and does not explain the alternative or give a chance to vote against it. There is some argument in the blog below the information however:

    http://www.power2010.org.uk/votes/entry/introduce-a-proportional-voting-system/

    • lordnorton
      11/02/2010 at 12:59 pm

      Carl H: I very much share your concerns and I agree with what you write. I had been thinking of making similar comments.

  32. 07/02/2010 at 2:50 pm

    Tony Blair was our Prime Minister for over a decade on the party-line whims of about twenty thousand people on my home turf of Sedgefield.

    Alternative methods may have their drawbacks, but let us not for a second make the error of suggesting that our current mess results in the will of the people being writ large across the makeup of government.

  33. lordnorton
    11/02/2010 at 1:00 pm

    McDuff: There is no perfect system, though to read some comments you would think some people believe that there is. Our system does at least inject an element of accountability that I find preferable to other systems.

    • 11/02/2010 at 1:44 pm

      I, on the other hand, find the notion that a minority of people get to elect a government that is effectively unaccountable for five years no matter what madness it gets up to, to be pretty disheartening.

      FPTP promotes a norm of “ping pong” between two major parties, neither of which I have any great affection for, it turns into more of a Hobson’s choice. You can have the devil you know, or the devil you don’t know. And the devil you don’t know is just the devil you know from 14 years ago, scrubbed up a bit. I’ve no love lost for Labour, I assure you, but with the Tories seemingly insistent on beating them at their own game by winning the race to the bottom and chasing the Daily Express headlines about “broken Britain”, the option for people such as me who would rather like the stranglehold that these mediocre organisations have on our political system to be broken seems to be “vote against Hazel Blears and hope for a hung parliament”.

      Labour getting out and the Tories forming a government may well be “accountability at the ballot box” for Labour, but it won’t be the mandate for regressive economic policies that many hardline, lifelong Tories will be sure to want to make it. The Market-Fundamentalist, lie-about-the-NHS-in-the-States-where-you-think-nobody’s-watching, Hannanite wing of the party certainly seems vocal at the moment.

      Meanwhile, the largest alternative party which you’re so keen to keep out of having any say in government managed to gain 23% of the popular vote but only 9% of the seats in the legislature.

      To me, that all seems like a very limited kind of accountability and representation, and a fine way of inspiring a new generation of cynics who don’t see any point of engaging in the political process because they know Cameron’s basically got this election nailed down purely because he’s the only alternative to the current clown show, not because he’s going to be any good.

      You don’t find that immensely depressing? I don’t call that accountability, really. I think you wouldn’t be far off the mark if you guessed that the results of the last election were a victory of the people who voted for “I can’t stomach the bloody Tories again” over the people who voted against “five more years of bloody Labour.”

      Is it really your idea of representation that a vote for “anything’s got to be better than the current shower” can be interpreted as a radical legislative mandate by the incoming government, and that nobody can do anything about it for five years?

      • 11/02/2010 at 4:14 pm

        McDuff: As much as it pains me to say this, doesn’t the saying go that “you don’t vote people into government, you vote them out of government”? This applies as much elsewhere as here in the UK.

        The thing with PR is, how do you vote people out? In the current system, you want rid of Labour so you vote Tory. With the minorty governments created by PR, it will all be about coalitions and back-room deals. Labour may go from 40% of the vote to 30% but if it can persude the Liberal Democrats into a coalition…

        The British public are hardly thrilled by the politicans. Imagine if you couldn’t get rid of them. Can someone explain, how does PR let me kick people out of government?

      • 11/02/2010 at 4:21 pm

        And, while I realize that few care online: please accept my apologies for the atrocious spelling in that post. I’ve just realized my spell-check was switched-off.

  34. lordnorton
    11/02/2010 at 4:27 pm

    McDuff: I agree with the response of governing principles. Your comments are premised on the assumption that other systems allow a majority to elect a government. Generally they don’t, but rather produce manipulated majorities. Because under our system a government can be swept out at the next election – and knows it can – it tends to be responsive to public opinion in between elections, in a way that governments in other systems often are not. There is often a far greater gap between politicians and electors in other systems than in ours.

  35. 11/02/2010 at 5:04 pm

    governing principles

    If Labour can convince the Lib Dems into a coalition, it will be more representation for the 23% of the electorate that voted for them than they’ve ever had. If the Labour government had to allow the Lib Dems to hold a quarter of cabinet posts it would certainly suit my tastes a lot better than throwing Labour out and replacing them with the Conservatives.

    Lord Norton

    My comments are not premised on the notion that the majority in other systems gets to elect a government. No system of democracy truly allows that. My comments are based purely on the assumption that who the new boss is matters when getting rid of the old boss.

    The Iraq war must surely rank as one of the biggest political issues of the last decade, and a million people turned out in London to state, quite clearly, that they weren’t that keen on it. The government, however, felt free to ignore these people wholesale because, well, what are we all going to do about it, vote Tory? The Tories were for the war too! If this was an issue for you, your choices in the election were: vote for a party whose policies you dislike, or vote for losers with no hope of achieving any meaningful contribution to the workings of government.

    Similarly on Immigration: the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is in its 5th day now, and is there any hope that these women will be able to enact positive change on our government’s regressive and horrifying immigration policies? Not a chance, because the Tories are keeping mum — they don’t want to risk poking the hornets nest that is the Murdoch/Dacre right-wing press this close to an election. And who else have Labour got to fear? Nobody at all, that’s who.

    The system as it stands means that the government needs only be responsive to the extent that the other major party is capable of providing an opposition. Otherwise “voting out” the government is symbolic at best.

  36. lordnorton
    11/02/2010 at 6:04 pm

    McDuff: I do get annoyed when I read or hear the claim: ‘There were a million people who marched against the Iraq war but their views were ignored’. Lord Willoughby de Broke made the same claim in the debate on his Bill last Friday and I did think about picking him up on it. I was against the war with Iraq – I could not see that it was in Britain’s interests to get involved – but I do find the statement about the march ridiculous. The claim seems to be that because 1 million peopple marched this somehow should have stopped the war. There is no evidence that the marchers were representative and the fact that their view was not embraced by the Government does not mean they were ignored. There is a world of difference between being ignored and someone listening but disagreeing with you. Your other comments do not undermine anything I have written. Your observations, along with those in response to governing principles, suggests that you think the best system is one that complies with your particular wishes.

    • Wolfgang
      12/02/2010 at 7:35 pm

      The problem is that we can march and you just ignore us. Two fingers up from politicians to the electorate.

      Introduce referenda by proxy, the right of recall, and its the electorate who has the policitians by the short and curlies.

      You won’t be able to do anything unless you get a majority of the electorate, on the basis of 1 person one vote.

      Perhaps one reason why you don’t like the idea. You would be redundant, and lose the gravy train cash. You couldn’t dictate any more what the rest of us have to do

      • lordnorton
        12/02/2010 at 9:49 pm

        Wolfgang: Your capacity to be offensive appears to be on a par with your inability to take cognisance of what others have written. The fact that people march does not mean that they are ignored. There are usually people who march on both sides of an argument. Referendums are blunt majoritarian tools that, unless multi-optional, are as important for what they omit and can produce results that conflict with voters’ priorities. Referendums will not render legislators redundant as the tasks they fulfil are distinguishable from those fulfilled by referendums.

  37. 11/02/2010 at 6:13 pm

    Dear McDuff,

    You say this all now but wait until the electoral maths changes in 20 years or so. A lot of liberals were horrified Thatcherism lasted so long. Imagine an unending Thatcherite coalition. In my experience, the Tories are a far more cut-throat party. In the end, they would probably end up becoming lethal coalition creators/maintainers.

    Be careful what you wish for…

    • 11/02/2010 at 9:10 pm

      Backroom deals are already cut. Coalition building brings backroom deals out into the open. And it’s worth noting that a “Thatcherite” government with a Parliamentary share of 35% of the vote would hardly be able to dictate absolute terms to a party with 20%. One might even consider that such an arrangement would have ameliorated the worst excesses of the Thatcher era. We can, of course, only speculate about that, but then so can you only speculate about the era of unending horror that representative government will unleash…

      • lordnorton
        12/02/2010 at 6:43 pm

        McDuff: “Coalition building brings backroom deals into the open.” You must be joking. It is a characteristic of many legislatures elected under systems of PR that the parties fervently protect the privacy of the committee rooms for doing deals. Some years ago, I suggested at a seminar of parliamentarians in Strasbourg that legislatures should be more transparent in the deals that were made by parties behind closed doors. Let’s just say that members from various west European legislatures elected under PR got very animated in their opposition to such a suggestion!

      • 13/02/2010 at 11:25 am

        Lord Norton

        I forget to translate from cynic to English sometimes.

        Backroom deals are obviously cut between politicians and members of political parties all the time, regardless of the system of government. Some we find out about in a relevant timeframe, others only later when politicians blab in their various “tell all” diaries.

        While we might not know precisely who said what to who, what we do know when politicians leave the room is that Parties X, Y & Z are no longer part of the “Loyal Opposition”. That elevates the backroom deals made during the normal business of government to the status of “Cabinet decisions”.

        It’s a small thing, but low expectations can lead to finding advantages in peculiar places.

      • 13/02/2010 at 11:26 am

        There’s a longer reply to your earlier post, but it appears to be stuck in the moderation queue.

  38. 11/02/2010 at 9:05 pm

    Lord Norton

    Complies absolutely with my wishes? No, not really, but it would be nice to think that I had a chance to elect someone to government who at least came close to approximating my views.

    As far as the Iraq fooferaw, you cannot eat your cake and have it too. Frankly, the protest isn’t the reason the government were wrong to go to war. They shouldn’t have done it because it was an ill-advised and embarrassing imperialist venture that remains a textbook example of hubris and bad judgement. But the point remains that should we make the entirely reasonable assumption that a million people marching on the capital city from all over the country were at least somewhat representative of the general population — an assumption backed by the polling data, I might add — that your contention that those people unhappy with the government’s action could, when unhappy, turf them out on polling day is not true. Perhaps Labour were not turfed out because only 1/60th of the population opposed the war and they all went to London that day to make their unrepresentative case, it’s hard to peer into the hearts and minds of everyone. But more likely they were not turfed out because a vote for the Tories was not a vote against the war, and a vote for the parties that opposed the war didn’t count. Whether the march to war was right or wrong, I believe it’s arguably a significant counterexample to your assertion that FPTP makes governments accountable.

    Further, even leaving aside the question of forming governments, at the very least, I would suggest that the makeup of the legislature should reflect the proportion of votes cast. Is it equitable and democratic that a 37/33/23 split in votes should result in a 55/30/10 split in Parliamentary seats? When it comes to voting on laws, why should those who vote Labour or Tory get to play ping-pong as to who gets free reign while that not inconsiderable minority at the rump end gets to be marginalised?

    There are many good reasons for breaking a two party system, not least of which is that it allows an expansion of the Overton Window beyond the mantras endorsed by a small and select group of party policy makers. I’d be happy to allow UKIP and the BNP to take a couple of seats each if it meant breaking the deadlock between two parties that seem intent on racing each other to the bottom.

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