16 March 2006

Antonia's attitude to PR is typical and very wrong.

Just noticed this comment by Antonia (a month ago) on why she dislikes proportional representation. I felt I had to nail some of these common myths about PR, because they are typical amongst Labour members and typically very wrong indeed.

"I like knowing who the government is when I wake up the next morning after the election."

Is that really a reason? The incumbent continues in office for a few weeks (at most) while the coalition is formed. Usually it takes a few days if it isn’t a close election. In the US it is almost 3 MONTHS after the FPTP election before the handover!! In Canada under FPTP they have had EIGHT coalition governments out of the last 16!

“Of the 16 elections that have taken place in Canada since 1957, eight have produced majority government and eight have produced parliaments with no overall majority. The average lifespan of a minority government is about 18 months, and the Conservative party’s position in parliament in 2006 is weaker than any of these predecessor governments. The chances are that a reluctant Canadian electorate will have to go back to the polls before the end of 2007.

British media and political discussion of the German election in September 2005 saw a great deal of criticism of proportional representation in Germany - although the result reflected the wishes of the electorate and a broad-based government has now been formed. Can we look forward to discussion of the chronic instability of first-past-the-post in Canada after two indecisive elections in a row?”
Alex Folkes
Electoral Reform Society

"I like coalitions inside broad church political parties made before the election not in smoke-filled rooms away from public gaze as the very reasons one might vote for a party get traded away."

So manifestos (that are rarely honoured - 3 times Labour has promised a referendum on electoral reform for example) decided by a party that can only win a minority of the vote is better than a government decided by the majority. You are having a laugh!

"I like governments that stay the course and have a chance of implementing a manifesto."

We are heading to a situation, now that the Lib Dems have many more seats where we could get ‘hung parliaments’ continually like in Canada. Except being based on the electorate’s choice, it will be based on the curiosities of the boundaries under FPTP.

"I like MPs with a clearly-defined geographic responsibility so that they have to help their constituents rather than list members flitting around with no responsibilities free to undermine constituency members and fight a four-year election campaign."

The trouble is ‘clearly-defined’ boundaries lead to the situation where the party could get 7% more nationally than another party and ‘lose’ the election. On the other hand, changing the boundaries more frequently destroys this so called constituency link. The link is rubbish anyway, as you point out, sometimes 90% of the electorate don’t vote for their MP. Unless you study the latest local polls and previous results, most people end up not knowing the candidate best placed to beat the incumbent MP. FPTP, rather than making the MP more accountable makes them much less. It is such a travesty of democracy, I could tell you now which party is going to win in 85% of the seats in the 2009/10 election and bookies wouldn’t take any of the bets because they know in safe seats people don’t have a real choice. This is not democracy where only a small number of people in a small number of marginal seats decide the government.

"I like local parties choosing their candidates, not faceless lists chosen by central office. I like candidates’ names on the ballot paper, not just names of parties."

You are conveniently talking about the worst form of PR, a closed list system. Like FPTP, closed list PR has no place in a modern democracy. Under open-list PR or STV, ALL the candidates are chosen by the electorate, the voters have far more power than FPTP.

"I like not having the BNP in the House of Commons."

The evidence suggests that the reason for the growth in the BNP is the FPTP system which shuts down debate. The BNP thrive on the protest vote. They are their worst enemy, when people hear how ridiculous their policies are, their vote declines. It is FPTP that could lead to the BNP growing in strength not PR.

Of course PR would flush more racists out of the mainstream parties as well. The Tories were virtaully running a BNP campaign at the last election with their insiduously racist posters and targeting of immigrants/asylum seekers and gypsies.

"As for gender balance, there are mechanisms to improve that under FPTP as well, not just under the variety of PR systems."

Yeah but PR is far more successful. Turnout is 10% higher on average especially amongst the urban poor and the gender and ethnic balance is much much higher.

On this Antonia, you are very very wrong. PR is uninteresting and too academic for a lot of people, but it is the most important subject because it is about apportioning power. PR is the best thing the left could do to alleviate poverty, if only we could recognise this.


  1. I symppathise with your arguments Neil, but as someone who is against PR, might I suggest that the real issue is educating the masses or looking at alternatives such as AV, rather than straightforward PR

  2. I would accept AV as a step in the right direction but that still leaves the system wide open to more gerrymandering whether on purpose or accidental (as at present). You just wait until the Tories get in with just 20% of the electorate voting for them (as they eventually must under this system) and see what they do to the boundaries. The Labour party have been warned. If the Tories were willing to back a military coup to get rid of a Labour government under Harold Wilson, they will easily fiddle a few boundaries.