15 February 2007

There are a lot of myths surrounding PR.

1. The Nazis came to power because of PR.

If you look at the Nazis vote under PR it peaked at 43% of the vote and they were by far the largest party. Under our system - 'first past the post', they would have won every seat in the Bundestag and had absolute power. It was much more difficult for them under PR because
they had to have the support of the German Tories (and later as their vote started to fall - they forced a dictatorship in a constitutional coup, and they needed the support of the Catholic Party as well to do this).

Ah! I hear you say, but the Nazis' vote grew because PR gave it a foothold.

Once again, this is a myth. The period of time from the late 20s to the early 30s is one of the most turbulent in history. In the same period the Labour party in Britain grew from being a minor party to a large one, but no-one suggests 'first past the post' (FPTP) as the cause for this.

What caused the Nazis support to grow was the depression, hyperinflation and the injustice felt by the Germans at the huge war reparations - these were unusual times and the Nazis would have arose just as fast (if not faster) under 'first past the post' (FPTP).

Germany and other PR countries have no neo-nazis in their parliaments. Most countries in Europe have PR and the countries that have the largest extremist far right support are the UK and France - both are countries without PR.

If we look at the growth of the BNP in this country it seems that FPTP is actually helping it because the Tory press feel able to press a particularly nasty xenophobic and racist line to try and suppress the Labour vote.

Under FPTP, this sort of negative campaigning is highly effective because, as the last election showed, increasing the split in the left of centre vote elects more Tories. Under PR the press will have to be more positive, only increasing the Tory vote will elect more Tories.

Also of course FPTP has led to complacency in Labour heartlands because there is no electoral advantage in piling up votes in inner city safe seats when the real electoral battle is in the wealthier suburbs. This vacuum has allowed the BNP to fill the gap. People vote as much for the BNP as a protest vote as they do for their racist views. PR will expose the BNP to more debate. We see that BNP councillors are rarely re-elected once the electorate see how crackpot and incompetent they are. This could be exposed earlier as a more open intelligent debate occurs under PR and every vote would count so the main parties would have to campaign everywhere. (Also worth remembering that the Tories won more votes than the BNP in Dagenham but only 1 seat compared to the BNP's 12).

2. We can't throw the b**tards out under PR.

In fact the exact opposite is true. FPTP leads to corrupt one party states. Up and down the country vast swaths are electoral deserts with the same party in absolute control for many decades despite only ever winning a minority of the vote. I could tell you the result of the 2009/10 election in about 75% of the seats, they might as well not bother holding an election in those parts of the country, the bookies wouldn't give me odds on any of these seats. How is this giving people the chance to throw out a government?

At the last election, do you think the voters who switched from Labour to the Lib Dems were happy with their new Tory MP as a result of their actions? But this is how the Tories won most of their new seats. This is the perverse way we decide elections in this country. People don't know that the results in their area are crucial, they usually naively vote for the party/leader they would like to govern the country. In some places I would be better off campaigning for UKIP if I wanted a Labour MP, and Green or Lib Dem if I wanted a Tory. It is Russian roulette who we get under this system, and it leads to all sorts of distorted results that defy what the electorate actually wants.

Under PR, the balance of power is always shifting and every party has to fight for every vote in every election because the electorate determine this shift in power, not behind the scenes power struggles within parties that we get under FPTP.

3. Small parties have disproportionate influence/ the Lib Dems would hold the balance.

This is once again rubbish. Ironically in the long term the Lib Dems would have the most to lose from PR. The Lib Dems at the moment are the dustbin party, they are the refuge for disaffected ex-Labour and ex-Tory voters who have nowhere else to go. The Lib Dem support would fracture. Also the whole dynamics of politics would change, there would be socialists and greens in parliament exerting a leftward electoral pressure on policy that isn't there at the moment.

Any government would need over 50% of the votes to govern under PR. The evidence from Germany and Scandanavia shows that the smaller parties only have influence that is proportional to their vote. For example in Germany the centrist FDP formed 20% of the government and cabinet posts because they made up 20% of the coalition. While it is true the FDP were in power with both the centre right CDU and centre left SPD. The emergence of the Greens in the nineties meant they fell out of power. In other words they were only in power because the electorate put them there. Same with the current CDU/SPD grand coalition. Polls show this is what the majority of German people both expected and desired. Most countries in Europe have PR and those established democracies that have had PR continuously since the war have enjoyed higher economic growth, better funded public services, higher political engagement, much less inequality and better environmental policies than us. This idea that the world would end under PR is complete nonsense. We should remember it is implementing the best policies that counts not some tribal support for a party no matter what their policies are.

Only the smaller parties that are closest in policy to the main ruling party get to share power and this means the majority of the electorate get closer to their wishes under PR than the minority rule of FPTP. The best way to explain this is to use a simple model as follows.

Party A, to cut taxes by 10%; invade Iran; 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 Iran 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 around 8%, lowers age of consent to 17, and doesn't invade Iran. This is much closer to what the majority wanted.

4. We will lose the constituency link.

The constituency link really is over-rated. Like I have already mentioned we effectively under FPTP, have a 'closed list' system in the vast majority of the country, because a donkey could get elected if in the right party. What makes FPTP even worse is we get no proportionality and often get results where the party that has less votes wins the most seats. A preposterous situation which is the opposite of what most people think democracy should be about.

In the last election 68% of the electorate didn't vote for their MP. In some constituencies this rises to 82%. With the vote this split, how on earth are voters to know who to vote for to 'get rid' of their MP? Most of the electorate (54%) cannot even name their MP.

Then there are the boundary changes that have to occur under FPTP, with arbitrary borders being shunted around and a lot of people having no idea what constituency they are even in and the outskirts of a constituency might bear little community cohesion with several other parts. This is bound to get worse with the Tories wanting to enlarge constituencies and give less regard to natural and administrative boundaries in an attempt to reduce the electoral bias that favours Labour the most.

Under regional 'open list' PR, all MPs will be properly accountable (not just a few in marginal seats) because it will be the electorate who decide the order of the list on the ballot paper (and therefore who is elected). Also because a range of different parties are likely to have elected MPs in an area, a constituent can likely turn to a local MP from the party they support. A much better way of them being represented.

I know I am not going to persuade the more knuckle headed supporters of FPTP but I know this argument is finely balanced within the party. In Brighton Pavilion we even managed to pass a resolution supporting a move to a more proportional system.

It is sad that we reneged on our promise of a referendum on this in both the 1997 and 2001 manifestos. From a position of strength, the argument could have been easily made. But it is still not too late to reinvigorate democracy in this country and change the electoral system. The Labour party is the only hope the disadvantaged have, we should not let them down.

The Labour party in New Zealand has shown the way and moved to PR where after 3 election victories they have increased their share of the vote each time and turnout has risen (mostly amongst the urban poor who vote predominantly for Labour). Compare that to how we have lost 4 million votes under FPTP, as we ignore our urban heartlands.


  1. The reducto ad hitlerum. Weak Rhetoric.

    I'll give you two ant PR cautionary tales: Germany's weimar republic was weak because of PR and was therefore unable to cope with inflation, rise of Nazis etc... and Italy. How many govt's have they had since the war? Why does it take a crook who owns most of the media to form a government which takes the average over one year?

    PR's for plonkers (or knuckleheads - as you say)

  2. I'll give you plenty of anti-FPTP tales; fascism has took hold in many countries around the world under FPTP.

    Plenty of African countries were left with our FPTP electoral system, yet fascist, even genocidal governments are rife there. Under your logic FPTP must be to blame.

    Your argument does not make any sense. Anybody who examines electoral systems knows that our present system is simply unjustifiable, which is why all new democracies choose some form of PR and why they are racing ahead of us in terms of economic growth, public services and quality of life.

  3. PS Italy has had faster post-war economic growth than us. The problems there are corruption and a biased medianot PR, seems our print media is as bad.

  4. Why don't yopu join the Liberal Democrats? They like PR... No-one else does.

  5. Joining the Lib Dems is pointless, it is Labour we need to persuade of PR - they are the only party that is going to change the electoral system, we blew our promise in 1997 and 2001, we still have one more chance to make sure we have a government the majority prefer at the next election.