18 March 2006

Proportional Representation:

This is my response to Paul Burgin's views on PR.

"People vote for the manifesto general, not on whether they agree with page 32 or whatever"

This is a very very crucial and important point. PR allows the electorate a far more nuanced choice than FPTP. FPTP is a very blunt electoral instrument and effectively means accepting a manifesto in its entirety even if you only support 50% of it. PR allows you to influence which bits of the manifestos of different parties are implemented. It's difficult to explain without resorting to degree level maths (which is probably why so many people are turned off the subject, thanks by the way for bearing with me on this), but hopefully this simplified model will help.

Imagine all the parties have just 3 policy areas.

Cut taxes by 10%.
Invade Iran.
Ban gay sex.
Increase taxes by 5%.
No invasion.
Gay sex at 16.
Increase taxes by 10%.
No invasion.
Gay sex at 18.

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

Under FPTP, Party A wins a majority, cuts taxes by 10%, invades Iran and bans gay sex, despite 60% of the electorate voting against ALL of these policies. How can this be justified?

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

"the BNP and other such organisations, won't simply wilt because of a change in democratic structures, they are too dangerous for that."

The BNP are growing in strength under FPTP, ignoring them is not the answer, we have to beat their arguments head on constantly. FPTP leads us to be complacent of the far right. New Zealand has implemented PR (with a 5% threshold) and the far right have won NO seats.

"As for PR alleviating poverty, if only that were true!"

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."

"they will easily fiddle a few boundaries."
"Okay, but isn't that what the Boundary Commission is for!"

The last Tory manifesto hinted at revising the rules of the boundary commission to ignore geographical and administrative considerations, it also proposed reducing the number of seats to 500, thereby bringing rural Tory votes into more urban seats to make them Tory marginals. Peter Oborne in the spectator even scandalously proposes enlarging seats by ignoring voters who don't turn out. Urban Labour seats have much lower turnout. Labour voters would be disenfranchised even before they got to the polling booth, this already happens to some extent because unregistered voters mainly in poor urban areas (10% of total electorate are not registered to vote) are ignored in drawing boundaries. Extending this to the 40% who don't vote, would be disastrous for Labour, because their voters have been much less likely to turn out, this would effectively disqualify them from having an influence for ever.

Don't think the party that abolished local govt care about democracy. All they care about is winning elections. There is already a precedent for this in the US, where the winning party are allowed to gerrymander boundaries at will, to their advantage. The boundary commission over there was abolished, don't think it won't happen here.


  1. Prescott and McCartney unaware of secret loans arranged by Lord Cashpoint...

    The Lords commitee kept in the dark....

    Corruption in the affairs of state, secrecy in the party...

    ... and an eerie silence from many Labour supporting blogs.

  2. Benjamin, I have written about party corruption here.

    Every party has admitted taking secret loans.

    There is no better time for the power inquiry recomendations to be implemented. Let's cap individual donations and introduce a tick box on ballot papers which gives voters the option to donate 3 quid of state funds (or none at all if they don't tick any box) specifically to the local party of their choice.

    The Tories are silent on this subject, Labour have already made donations transparent, which is why all these secret loans are happening. Obviously this nonsense has to go as well.

  3. Praise the Lord!

    Neil, I got to hand it to you. You are a Labour Party supporter who at least is prepared to admit that this stuff stinks and puts forward a proposals to do something about it. I was beginning to lose faith in the intelligence of the Labour Party membership and supporters.

    And I agree, the Power inquiry proposals seem sensible enough.

  4. Neil, I think you've mentioned it, but which electoral system do you favour?

    I find it's very important when talking about electoral reform to be specifically for (or against) specific systems; as I've commented on Paul's post you link to, closed list PR is as bad as FPTP (look at Israel/pre-1990 Italy for examples of a failed democracy).

    I want STV, I'd accept AV+ (Jenkins), I dislike AV and am strongly against Lists, with a dislike of AMS although it does at least work. If you simply say "I want PR" then the anti- brigade can simply trot out their pet example of badness, but if you say "I want STV because..." in the way you've said "I want PR" then many of their objections fail or are irrelevent.

    However, (and this may shock you), your analysis is good enough that, despite disagreeing with the 'class' nature of some of it, and the strictly partizan nature of it, I'm about to write up a post, um, recommending your analysis...

    (I may have to reference my earlier post linking to you, of course, just so people don't get the wrong ideaa ;-) )

  5. Benjamin, glad you agree.

    It's going to be very difficult to get these proposals enough exposure.

    There is a lack of interest in the technicalities of how government works and most of the media have an agenda to keep the status quo because it suits their proprietors' power base.

    It's like trying to discuss how a car engine works, most people are only interested in how to drive, but without knowledge of how democracy works, like a car, it can quickly break down and nobody knows how to repair it.

  6. Matgb, I agree that 'closed list' PR is rubbish, it is always used by the anti-PR people.

    My preference is the Hansard '76 system. In 1976, Hansard proposed a completely 'open list' system where each party's candidates are ordered by the number of votes they received and the total number of elected representatives for each party is determined in proportion to their national share of the vote, provided they reach a 5% threshold. So just like under FPTP, the local parties decide each candidate in each constituency but the voters decide who is elected - which is the most voted for candidates out of each party.

    But failing that system being selected, I would also campaign for ANY system that is an improval on FPTP.

    This includes in order of preference; STV, AMS (MMP), AV+ and even AV (although AV is such a minor change that I'm in agreement with Robin Cook that it wouldn't even merit a referendum). I hope that answers your question.

    We also need to recognise that although these forms of PR would make a big difference, they are only part of the solution of disengagement. We need to reform party funding, devolve more power locally and to parliament from the executive, limit media monopolies and allow more referenda. It is a big ask, we need a mass movement and the Labour government will be key to any change.

  7. More parties means more choce between parties for each voter. It also means minority or coalition goverments, the composition of which depends upon negotiations between parties. So you have more choice as to who to vote to, but less certainty as to the results of your vote.

  8. I think you have MORE certainty to your vote because you know it is going to count towards the party whoose policies you like the most, which are then more likely to be implemented.

    Just because someone votes Labour doesn't mean they reject ALL Tory & Lib Dem & Green policies and accept ALL Labour policies, and vice versa in any other combination you can think of.

    Most votes under FPTP are either completely wasted because you are in a safe seat, or wasted because you vote for a minority party.

    The best govt this country EVER had was the 1935-45 National coalition, poverty and inequality were drastically reduced and you could hardly accuse it of being a weak govt.

  9. So Neil if we had PR now, would you be happy that the liberal democrats could using the threat of withdrawing from the Lib-Lab coalition to form a Lib-Con coalition, remove the party from power for which received the largest share of the vote, possibly even require the removal of Our Blessed Leader Rex Toni?

  10. Anon: I would be perfectly happy with that. Voters would punish the Lib Dems if they ever joined with the Tories and the Lib Dems would lose half their membership to us. Plus remember that PR will mean more socialists and Greens in the Commons.