12 October 2005

Proportional Representation (PR): The best thing we can do to alleviate poverty?

Jarndyce is hosting a great debate on the theoretical arguments for and against PR over at his site- Fair Vote Watch.

This is my summary of the main points about PR brought up by recent debates there and at the Sharpener, Brian Barder, Once More and Make Votes Count sites; and also by the excellent new ERS report; Conservatives and the electoral system, which highlights how the boundary commission works and how changing the boundaries will never solve the problems of first-past-the post (FPTP).

Why PR?

PR is not a cure-all for our political problems but any move to a more proportional system is progress for the following reasons;

1. Labour promised a referendum in its manifestos of 1997 and 2001 because of the injustice of minority rule under FPTP. Under PR the majority elect the government.

2. The evidence is overwhelming that PR increases turnout.

3. The increase in turnout is most pronounced in urban deprived areas and this will benefit Labour and other left of centre parties the most. This is evidenced by what has happened in New Zealand who have recently moved from a FPTP system to the system used in Germany - Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).

4. One of the principles of democracy is that everyone's vote is of 'equal value'. Only a proportional system can guarantee this.

5. Whatever issue you are interested in is affected by PR. That is why it is THE MOST important issue and not a minor academic issue of the 'chattering classes'. PR is about how we issue political power, would the Poll Tax and the invasion of Iraq have happened under PR?

6. A Harvard study of electoral systems and governments around the world over the last 50 years has demonstrated that left of centre governments dominate under PR, and as a consequence PR run societies are more equal in terms of wealth disparities.

"The details of actual tax and spend policies for the purpose of redistribution are complex, but the explanation for redistribution in advanced democracies is probably fairly simple. To a very considerable extent, redistribution is the result of electoral systems and the class coalitions they engender.

Electoral systems matter because they alter the bargaining power and coalition behavior of groups with different interests. In majoritarian systems, parties have to balance the incentive to capture the median voter with the incentive to pursue the policy preferred by their core constituencies. Because the median voter is closer to the distributive interests of the center-right party, any probability that parties will defect from a median voter platform once elected will make the median voter more likely to vote for the center-right.

This result contrasts to multiparty PR systems where governments are based on coalitions of class parties. In this context, center parties will tend to find it in their own interest to ally with parties to the left. This result follows because the middle class can use taxation of the rich to bargain a tax rate and benefit level with the poor that is closer to its own preference. There is no opportunity for a coalition of the center and right to exploit the poor in the same manner."

7. PR run societies have more equal societies, less crime, more social welfare, better infrastructure etc. while having similar or better economic growth. The evidence suggests the difficult long-term decisions that require cross-party consensus are more easily reached under PR systems and coalition goverments. This is because policy adjustments are more finely tuned and don't swing violently back and forth between opposing views hampering the efficiency of long term planning and regulation.

8. Under PR, internal party democracy is not constrained by a need to pander to a minority of non-aligned voters in the minority of seats that are marginal. Under FPTP, these voters tend to be unrepresentative of the general population, as they are more middle class they skew the debate to the right and hamper the progress of radical solutions into mainstream debate. Where you live in the country shouldn't determine how important your vote is.

9. More minority views, ethnic minorities and women are represented in Parliament under PR systems. This is healthy for debate.

10. The longer the delay in implementing PR the more alienated urban deprived voters become and the more right wing the Labour Party has to become to win 'the only voters that matter' in the marginal seats, alienating its core voters even more. The longer we delay the more we become like the US and the harder it will be to reverse voter alienation and the drop in turnout.

But Labour is winning elections under FPTP, the system bias is in our favour, how could PR be of benefit to us?

There is not a single Conservative MP in favour of PR despite the current bias against them, and thats for the following reasons;

1. The Conservatives could win the next election on just 30 something percent of the vote. On a 60% turnout this would be less than 25% of the electorate.

Despite the ERS report stressing that only 7 seats would be gained by the Tories from the current boundary review, a further 20 are highlighted as possible wins and only a small swing could bring them 20 more marginal seats. Although this would only mean a hung parliament, it is conceivable that the Tories might gain more votes amongst the special voters and do far better than this.

On a universal swing the ERS report suggests that the Tories need a lead of 11.7% to gain the 126 seats they need to win, but of course as the last election shows, the swing is rarely uniform. It is the Blairite 'special' middle class voters in marginal seats that count and only a small swing here to the Tories is all they need. Only 34,000 voters made the difference between winning and losing at the last election. As these 'special' voters are the most volatile and likely to change their vote, it is precisely these voters that will give the Tories a victory on a much smaller lead than 11.7%. A recent survey in the Guardian shows that under David Cameron 50% of these 'special' voters (who previously didn't vote Tory) are leaning towards voting Tory, this would be enough to give the Tories a majority.

2. Even if the Tories don't win next time, by keeping FPTP we are dooming the country eventually to a future Tory government on a right wing agenda, that the majority of voters will have voted against. Only PR will protect the majority from this.

3. Most psephologists agree (including John Curtice at Strathclyde University who has correctly predicted the last 3 elections to within a few seats), that it is unlikely Labour will win the next election. The most likely scenario is a hung parliament. This is because Labour's credibility will have been damaged by a recession and Gordon Brown is 'perceived' as more left wing than Blair and this will lose us more 'special' voters in the marginals while gaining us many more of our core voters in seats that don't matter because we will win them anyway. The only way to gain advantage from the far higher number of core voters is to make their vote of equal value by changing to PR.

4. The longer this system continues the more right wing the Labour party will have to become and the more it will have to suppress its internal democracy to attract the 'special' voters in marginals it needs to win elections. This will come at the expense of a far greater number of urban deprived left wing voters who will desert the party and become increasingly alienated. The longer this goes on the harder it will be to reverse this decline in turnout. This 'differential turnout' between our support and the more rural Tory support will store up problems for us (as it has in the US) when the boundaries are redrawn.

5. The Tories when elected will 'gerrymander' the system to their advantage and keep us out of power for a generation. They will justify this as 'payback' for the injustice of the the last election when they got more votes than Labour in England, but won 92 less seats. They will also cultivate some 'sympathy' votes from the electorate for this unfairness to carry through these measures. The Tories will enlarge the boundaries by reducing the number of seats and abolish the criteria to respect geographical and administrative boundaries. By combining their higher turnout amongst the more rural vote with a low turnout urban vote they will create more Tory seats.

Their last manifesto mentioned 'reviewing' the purpose of the boundary commission and reducing the number of seats to 500 in parliament. Peter Oborne in the Spectator has even shamelessly suggested drawing the boundaries determined by turnout not electorate size. This scandalous suggestion would disenfranchise potential Labour voters even before they got to the voting booth. It gives us an idea to how far the Tories would cheat the system. The current bias is accidental, the Tories would change this to a deliberate bias, like the partizan gerrymandering in the US. There they use computer modelling to gerrymander the boundaries. Don't think the Tories wouldn't do that here, remember how they decimated local democracy in the 1980s, if they can abolish the democratically elected GLC, they certainly can abolish the boundary commission and any pretence of impartiality in drawing the boundaries. If you want to believe the Tories wouldn't cheat like this, then fine support FPTP and see how long we are kept out of power, personally I think we should honour our promise of a referendum rather than trust the Tories to act fairly. I wouldn't trust a party that inflicted Thatcherism on us to have any qualms about cheating the system and copying their republican friends in the US. Also don't think the Lords would oppose them on this. They get rather 'uppity' about Labour governments legislation but become benign when the Tories are in power. This is from the Guardian during the Hunting debate last year.

"Since 1949, the Parliament Act has pushed through four pieces of legislation over the heads of the Lords: the War Crimes Act 1991 (the only time the Conservatives have used the act), which allowed prosecution of Nazi war criminals, the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which established a closed-list system, and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which lowered the age of consent for gay men to 16."

Its nice to see what the Lordship's priorities are.

6. By having a referendum now on electoral reform from a position of strength, it will be more likely we can win the referendum. Crucial to winning a referendum is the attitude of Labour voters, they won't react kindly to the impression it has been thrust upon Labour reluctantly in a hung parliament. This position of strength will also ensure we can push for the most proportional system that benefits democracy and ultimately us. The majority of the electorate are left of centre and are 'natural' Labour supporters, this is ignored under FPTP when the Tories are elected because the majority left wing vote is more split between the parties. Labour and the Lib Dems are perceived as ideologically identical amongst the electorate.

7. Despite their solid support for FPTP, the Tories don't even use it to elect their leader. 'The reason they don't is they know damn well that FPTP is a bad system in that it doesn't adequately reflect the wishes of the electorate. In fact, they cynically support it for Westminster, for exactly that reason.' (hat tip, Phil Hunt)

But PR means coalition government. Isn't coalition government weak and undesirable?

See point 7 of the 'Why PR?' argument above, to see that economic growth, social welfare and infrastructure are much better under coalition governments. Also one of the best governments we have had in this country was the war time National coalition between Labour and the Conservatives. Did anyone think the war time coalition was a 'weak' government?

The most cited examples of why coalition governments are bad are Israel, Holland, Italy, Germany and now New Zealand, because they have supposedly 'frequent' changes of government and because of the uncertainty caused by the delay of a few weeks in forming a government.

All of these countries (except New Zealand who only moved to PR in 1996), have had better economic growth and faster improvements in social justice and infrastructure over the past 50 years. It seems the difficult long term choices are made easier under coalition government. Isn't this the real sign of 'strong government'? This ability to make the difficult long term decisions has been a real advantage for PR governments.

But what about changes of government? If we look at the number of cabinet reshuffles, the change of government has been more frequent in the UK than in any of these countries. Italy, Germany and Israel have had just as much longivity of its leaders over the past decade or so as the UK. Schroder in Germany, Belusconi in Italy, Sharon in Israel, Clark in New Zealand.

But what about the delay in choosing the government? This is overplayed as a problem. The former government is still effective until the new government is decided, this normally takes only a few weeks, indeed it is mandatory that it is decided in a few weeks. How is this different to the situation in the US where the elections take place in November but handover is not until February?

The run up to and the election campaign itself gives uncertainty of outcome of the future government, the period of uncertainty is effectively no longer under PR than FPTP. Would this delay in forming a government cause problems in a national crisis? Of course not, it never has anywhere in the world where they have PR and it never will. To criticise it, is just meaningless. Most people deduced that a grand coalition under Merkel would be the result of the recent German election and that is precisely what has happened. This reflects the German people better than a pure Merkel government forcing through policies the majority did not want (which might have happened under FPTP). It is the reluctance of the SPD to form an alliance with the Left party that has forced this grand coalition. With the Greens and the Left party the SPD could have formed a majority government, but those who voted SPD knew the SPD had categorically stated they would not align with the Left party so implicitly these voters accepted the grand coaliiton possibility. Over 63% declared support for the coalition in a recent survey. For more information on what FPTP would have produced under the German result visit this excellent ERS article.

Fiona Mactaggert MP argues the following about coalition government;

"It is a commonplace of those opposed to electoral reform that it will lead to greater blandness and blurring between parties, because it more often results in coalitions. But actually it offers a more nuanced choice, instead of coalitions being organised behind the closed doors of political parties. The electorate are adult partners who can see the joins, and have more say about where they should be created."

Isn't it easier to change a government under FPTP?

The short answer to this is 'no' for the following reasons;

1. There are far more 'wasted votes' under FPTP than under PR. Voters in 80% of the country effectively have no say in getting rid of an unpopular government because they live in 'safe seats' that won't change even if the majority of voters there vote against a government. The majority of people do not vote for their MP and do not know who is best placed to defeat him. This can mean people waste their vote on candidates who have no effect on the result.

2. Because only a minority of the vote is needed to win a majority in parliament, this means a government can alienate a majority of the voters and still remain in absolute power, this would be impossible under PR.

3. Supporters of FPTP assume that parties are 'totally distinct' in policy and that voters support 100% of the party they vote for's program. This is obviously not the case. Voters vote for all sort of reasons, the party they identify with the most gets their vote. This does not mean it supports ALL its policies and rejects every policy of the other parties. Indeed there is usually considerable agreement on policy areas amongst parties. For example according to a Yougov poll, voters 'perceive' Labour and the Lib Dems policies as ideologically identical.

Under FPTP, what this means is; the more votes that are split between parties with similar policies, the less likely candidates advocating these policies will be elected. So the majority are ignored because they split their vote. This becomes a game of russian roulette for the voter who has to try and second guess whom voters will vote for to make their vote effective. Most don't realise who their MP is, and don't realise the positions of candidates so their votes are wasted. PR takes away this russian roulette by allowing voters to vote for the parties they like the best and knowing their vote is of equal value to everyone elses vote.


Time is short, Labour have to hold a referendum on PR from a position of strength in this parliament and win it, otherwise they risk a Tory government and 'gerrymandering hell'. We have a moral duty to do this, we have a party advantage incentive and we have a duty to democracy. Lets not delay, propose this resolution in your ward this month. Lets put pressure on this Labour government to see sense on honouring its promise of a referendum. Let the people decide.


  1. Just one more example;

    Imagine all the parties only have 1 policy.

    Party A to cut taxes by 10%.
    Party B to increase taxes by 5%.
    Party C to increase taxes by 10%.

    Election result;

    Party A 40% of the vote.
    Party B 25% of the vote.
    Party C 35% of the vote.

    Under FPTP; Party A forms the government and cuts taxes. This is despite the majority-60% of the population voting for a tax increase

    Under PR; Parties B and C form a coalition government and negotiate an increase in taxes between 5% and 10%, which is what 60% of the electorate wanted.

  2. Neil,

    Please see my reply to that example, at http://tinyurl.com/cnl6x.


  3. Brian, thanks for your response.

    The idea of a simplified model is to see the wood from the trees.

    By bringing it down to one policy I wasn't suggesting that people only vote on one policy, it is a model. The complexity of policies would be just a scaled up version, I can make the model more complicated by adding more policies and the results will be the same. As I will demonstrate below.

    The idea of using the one policy model is to demonstrate how the 'entirety' of a party's policies can be ignored under FPTP if parties with similar policies/ideology split the vote. The one policy here represents the 'entirety' of that parties' policies.

    Imagine that the above was a referendum. Wouldn't you feel cheated if you voted for a 10% increase (and only because there was a third option on the paper spliting the 'increasers' vote), you ended up with a 10% cut when the majority wanted an increase. Wouldn't an 8% increase be closer to the majority's views than a 10% cut?

    Obviously in this model parties B and C would form the coalition under PR because an 8% increase would be closer to both their positions than a 10% cut. BUT even if (and it wouldn't happen) A and C formed a coalition, a 2% cut would still be closer to the majority view than a 10% cut.

    Lets look at a more complicated model. Lets introduce 3 policy areas.

    Party A, to cut taxes by 10%; invade Iraq; ban gay sex.
    Party B, to increase taxes by 5%; against invasion; lower age of consent for gay sex to 16.
    Party C, to increase taxes by 10%; against invasion; Keep age of consent for gay sex at 18.

    Party A, 40% of the vote
    Party B, 25% of the vote
    Party C, 35% of the vote

    Under FPTP, Party A wins the election, cuts taxes by 10%, invades Iraq and bans gay sex, despite 60% of the electorate voting against all these policies. How can you justify this?

    Under PR, parties B and C forms coalition increases tax by 8%, lowers age of consent to 17, and doesn't invade Iraq. This is much closer to what the majority wanted.

  4. In Wales we have a rather complicated but effective "minority defending" form of PR.

    We can vote for our Member of choice as an individual constituency representative. We then get a second vote for a regional list by Party.

    Whilst Labour loses out on gaining a full majority. It is possible (though I, as a Labour member and Fabian, could never countenace it)are able to vote for a party we know will effectivly oppose those aspects of Labour policy we are uncomfortable with.

  5. New Labour is effectively a Tory/Labour coalition. The only way to get back the real Labour party is PR, because it gives people an effective choice to the left of Labour to put leftward pressure to countenance the rightward pressure of FPTP.