20 May 2009

Old Labour Still Don't Get PR.

It is welcome to see LabourHome having more debates about PR, but so despairing to see the same tired old discredited (and right-wing) arguments used against PRs introduction.

Weak government, unstable government, legislative paralysis, Italian corruption, Lib Dems in perpetual power, too much power to minority parties, too much power to political parties in selecting MPs, the 'constituency link' lost, 'smoke filled rooms', 'PR brought us Hitler' to the ludicrous 'we can't throw the buggers out under PR'. All of it bullshit and here's why.

Konrad Adenauer, German leader from 1949 to 1963, Willy Brandt leader from 1969 to 1974, Helmut Schmidt 1974 to 1982, Helmut Kohl, 1982 to 1998 and Gerhard Schroeder, 1998 to 2005. All elected by PR - all well respected strong European leaders with very good longevity. It seems 'weak and unstable' doesn't apply to PR elections at the top at least. And there are plenty of examples of strong leaders elected for long periods under PR, Olaf Palme (12 years as PM) and Goran Persson (10 years) in Sweden, Helen Clark (9 years) in New Zealand.

In fact it isn't just leaders elected under PR which have good longevity, but PR elected governments actually last longer than governments do in the UK. Countries that have had proportional systems continually since the second world war have had less general elections and less post war leaders than the UK (which has had post-war 17 general elections and 12 leaders)- strong stable government in Germany (16 general elections,8 leaders), Sweden (19 elections,8 leaders), Netherlands(14 leaders,19 elections), even Italy has had less general elections (fifteen)and Israel a similar amount(18 elections,12 leaders). If you want to see really weak and unstable government look at Canada (21 post-war elections, 12 leaders) - a country that has the same first-past-the-post system as the UK.

What about the corruption and instability of Italy? For a start Italy has had many different electoral systems in its time including our system first-past-the-post. Proportional systems cannot overnight eliminate historic problems with mafia corruption and outside US interference in elections and of course Italy has the most biased and owner concentrated media in Europe which doesn't help. Yet Italy has managed strong economic growth and has high political engagement - a legacy of occassionally having proportional elections maybe?

Coalition government has a bad reputation in the UK because people remember the Lib-Lab pact in the late 70s and all the right-wing propaganda that has built from that since then. But coalition government under PR and coalition government under first-past-the-post are two entirely different beasts - one is representative of what people voted for the other is not.

In Europe parties are elected in proportion to the vote they receive and have long had to negotiate and work together and produce results, in Britain petty quarrelling and point scoring and fractious puerile debate dominates our Westminster and local politik as one party can dominate for generations on a minority of the vote (especially in local goevrnment). This breeds corrupt and inept politicians unresponsive to public demands (most MPs elected for life in safe seats). Coalition governments are successful under PR in Europe and even in Scotland and Wales, where it has been recently introduced, because unlike the stop-go and constant reversal of policy we get in this country under first-past-the-post, a consensus is followed and radical ideas listened to. It is a bit like cooking on a gas hob compared to electric. With gas the heat can be fine-tuned to cook to perfection, with PR, governance can be fine-tuned to provide better governance, while electric you have much less control and the same is true with first-past-the-post as it swings from one extreme to another.

Of course strong and stable government is not just about the number of elections or leaders, it is about strong economic growth, quality of public services, environmental protection, political influence in the world and general public engagement with politics. But on all these issues the UK scores badly in comparison with PR countries like Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and even electoral chameleon countries like Italy - all spend more on their health and education services, have had stronger post-war economic growth, better public transport, higher party membership and higher turnout in elections and who would argue that countries like Sweden punch more than their weight on the internatonal stage. Germany with its Nazi past to contend with and federal regional system of devolved power has been hampered in the past, but is now starting to assert itself with authority. And PR run countries make swifter decisions in their parliaments than our outdated feudal like system which can take an age to pass even the most simple law despite having no effective (or even elected) break on the power of the executive - if legislative paralysis is anywhere it is here in the UK and in the United States.

So what about disproportionate power to minority parties under PR? Well coalition in the UK under our present system could end up with the Lib Dems and Nationalists wielding disproportionate perpertual power that is for sure - just like the Bloc Quebecois does in first-past-the-post Canada, but ironically the one policy the Lib Dems are famous for - PR, would lead to their destruction if implemented.

The Lib Dems are a fractious bunch, disaffected ex-Tories and ex-Labour lumped together for political expedience with no clear purpose or ideology. Under first-past-the-post the Lib Dems are the 'dustbin' national party that protest voters unite behind to have any chance of getting someone other than Labour or Tory elected. Most of their votes are still wasted (but much less so than other minor parties (apart from the geographically concentrated nationalists).

Without the glue of first-past-the-post to hold them together, Lib Dem members and voters can peel off to vote for their real cause or ideology, whether pro-Europe Tory or left of Labour Socialist or Green. The rump of liberals left will be no more than 10% of the electorate (like it is in shown to be in other countries where proportional systems removes the need for tactical voting).

The main example used of the liberals supposedly being in perpetual power is the example of the FDP in Germany - but this party has not shared power in Germany since 1998 (the rise of the Greens have dimished their importance). Yes, it managed to form coalitions with both right of centre CDU and left of centre SPD, but only because it was the third largest party and maintained a centrist position that could accomodate both main party's positions and 10% of the vote.

*from this point I managed to accidently delete the rest of the post - I will try and rewrite the rest from memory - extremely annoying!!!! Bear with me while I rewrite it (bit by bit).

So the point I was making here was that the liberals in Germany - the FDP got about 10% of the vote and were in several coalition governments. Did they have disproproportionate power? In short, no. Any government under PR must get at least 50% of the vote to get 100% of the power, unlike first-past-the-post where 35% is enough. So any governing coalition partner would expect to get twice the amount of power as their vote - the FDP got around 20% of the cabinet posts which suggests it was entirely in proportion with their share of the vote. Although in government slightly more often than other parties, they were very much the junior partners in government with both SPD and CDU and from a centrist position would only moderate a few policies. This might seem strange to those of us used to first-past-the-post, where small national parties have no power at all, but it is fairer and more importantly a more efficient system. And that is the crux - judge PR by its results - better value public services and higher growth, not the right-wing myths in the Tory press.

Internal party democracy is integral to any political system, but what makes our system so bad and PR much better is that our system encourages party leaderships to repress internal democracy. With 2 parties having a duopoly on power, voters and members have nowhere else to go that can exert an influence. Whereas PR enables competiton between many parties as to who can offer members the most say. If a party is not democratic, members can leave and voters can vote elsewhere knowing their vote will count - actually get someone elected. This is crucial to the health of our overall democracy.

So what of the accusation that PR hands over too much power to parties? Like I say the 'Party' has a bad name in this country because it is so undemocratic - Tory members have no say over policy and Labour members are increasingly ignored. Parties under PR have to be democratic to survive, they compete for members or they lose seats. But leaving that aside our system is still worse. Considering the above it is not surprising that party membership in this country is at an all time low, less and less people are having a say in selecting our MPs - the majority of which are being selected into 'seats for life' (no surprise they felt unaccountable about their expenses - the tip of the iceberg I feel). There is no more 'closed list' a system than first-past-the-post. But what of the 'constituency link'?

The Tories (and Labour MPs in 'seats for life') are the biggest defenders of the constituency link. Yet if the Tories win the next election they have promised to scrap geographical and administrative considerations in drawing constituency boundaries and cut the number of MPs. Already 58% cannot name their MP and 68% do not vote for them, what meaning will a constituency have if it pays no attention to geographical and administrative boundaries and becomes so large there is no recognisable community cohesion? My parents live in a constituency where they have always had a Tory MP and always will despite not voting for him. This is true for the majority of people, how does this represent them. Wouldn't it be better to have a choice of representative from the party you voted for? This would be the situation under PR where maybe 5 MPs of representative political stripes would properly represent constituents.

This 'smoke filled room' idea of coalition government under PR is also a false premise. Every party is a coalition and there is nothing more 'smoke filled' than a parliamentary Labour meeting or Tory backbench '1922' committee? This is where at present manifestos are drawn up behind closed doors, out of sight of constituents. Most importantly this is where different wings of the party decide on policy they will conveniently omit from the manifesto which is probably more significant.

In government manifestos are not always followed (it is not always desirable to follow them) - they are only a guide to voters and most issues that crop up are not in manifestos anyway. Think of Labour, a wide coalition from Alan Milburn to Jeremy Corbyn deciding policy - at present voters cannot choose which wing of the party they prefer and members are increasingly shut out as well, under PR the people are given this choice. PR allows people to see the joins in coalitions and decide which bit of policy they want. It is far more open a system than first-past-the-post will ever be and currently we do have to put up with behind closed doors decision making. PR encourages more open debate and radical ideas, whereas our present system encourages petty point scoring and secrecy. PR will bring a breath of fresh air and clean out the inept and corrupt politicians encouraged by MPs sitting in 'seats for life' and local councils knowing they will be in power for decades or more no matter what they do.

Finally 'PR brought us Hitler' and 'we can't throw the buggers out under PR'. You might as well say the Tories brought Hitler to power because it was the German Conservatives that backed Hitler and gave him his majority. PR held Hitler back. The Nazis got 40% of the vote and 40% of the seats. Under our system they would have won every seat in parliament. Under PR they needed the backing of the German Conservative party to form a government.

What about their rapid rise from minor party to major party, did PR assist this? Once again, it did not. These were turbulent times of depression with hyper inflation and mass unemployment stirring up movements all over the world. In the UK, it was the Labour party who grew from obscurity to government in little over a decade under a first-past-the-post system. Germany had it worse with their added grievance at heavy war reparations, this and the backing of US banks and the German upper classes fearing the spread of communism, helped the Nazi rise in a similar period to the rise of the Labour party in Britain. The electoral system was coincidental in both cases, in fact under first-past-the-post the Nazis might have attained power even quicker.

To the 60% of voters who consistently voted against the 18 long years of Thatcherism, the idea that it is 'easy to throw the buggers out' under our present system is laughable. It took absolute univeral loathing of the Tories and near 70% voting against them to finally get rid of them. In 2005, 65% of voters voted against new Labour and yet they got a healthy majority in parliament. Isn't it just better to have the government the majority votes for? Time for PR.


  1. I didn't read the original but that still makes sense, albeit it's a tad lengthy.

    But can you give up this 'FPTP is a right-wing plot' theory? FPTP favours Labour and Tories in equal measure, and they are the ones most against it (or their MPs are against it, same difference).

    I'd guess all the small parties favour PR, for the equal and opposite reasons.

    PS, you cheated a bit on Italy. They may have had fewer elections, but they've had a lot more 'governments'.

  2. mark, thanks for saying it made sense. It became a bit scrappier than original. Not a single tory mp supports pr, yet plenty of labour mps do. It has been in every labour manifesto since 1997 but not a single tory one. So how can you say it is favours tory and labour equally? On the right of the labour party is the fiercest opposition and tory mps are still to the right of most labour. That is why i say fptp is rightwing. As for Italian governments. Think of how many changes to cabinet there are in our governments between elections, we even change pm regularly without an election. Every time there is a cabinet reshuffle there is a change. In fact by this measure Italy have had less governments.

  3. Neil, there's no point in categorising everything you don't like as 'right wing', as if that somehow made it worse. I accept that a few Labour MPs might support it.

    PR or FPTP-with-top-up-seats do seem like good ideas (whether right or left wing is immaterial), and we ought to give it a try; if people really don't like it, we can always change back after ten years or something. Or people can continue to doggedly vote for one of the two larger parties under PR, which'd come to the same thing.

  4. mark, correct me if i'm wrong, but doesn't ukip oppose PR? As it is mostly rightwingers who oppose PR, it seems reasonable to point this out. I actually like some right wing ideas so i don't mean to suggest that everything rightwing is bad , just most of it. :o!

  5. Not that it affects the argument either way, but in the 1970s, when I was in the Labour Party, there were quite a lot of Tories in favour of proportional representation (in those days it was backed by "The Times"), and if you tried to raise voting reform within the Labour Party (as I did), all you got was accusations of being a Tory stooge. PR was seen as a sinister right-wing plot.

  6. pzt. I know back in the 70s there were significant number of tories for reform, the 'conservative action for electoral reform' is a relic of that era, but now there are virtually none - despite their 12 years out of power. Psephological research has moved on a lot since then and it is now quite well known amongst those at the top of politics that fptp benefits the rightwing. They will never change it which is why we have to concentrate on persuading the labour party.