29 May 2009

Proportional Representation Really Scares Our Corrupt Political Classes: What Better Reason To Support It?

So, Jack Straw, David Cameron, William Hague, sadly a majority of the cabinet and all Tory MPs, plus the Tory press, lead the charge against proportional representation.

Ranged against them are some usual PR advocates, Alan Johnson (our best hope if he ousts Brown, calling for Alternative Vote Plus AV+), John Denham (calling rightly for a citizen's convention to recommend how we elect our MPs) and then there are fairly recent and important converts to PR - Jon Cruddas, Roy Hattersley, thinktanks - Compass, Progress, the Fabians, Christian Socialists and a whole range of political luvvies, right-on musicians and artists.

So no contest there then, the political status quo will remain.

But then there are the PR haters who would tolerate a 'little change'. Peter Hain is a long standing advocate of the Alternative Vote AV (used in Australia), he has been joined by David Blunkett (who says he could 'tolerate' AV) and even Jack Straw has mentioned he could accommodate it.

In an article today, Hain outlines (and Blunkett also) the usual myths against PR (weak unstable government and too much power to small parties and the party hierachies) that I am sick of continually having to rebut but here I go yet again.

The UK has had more general elections, more government reshuffles (currently more than one per year) and more leaders since the war than either Germany, Sweden or even Israel, who all have proportional list systems.

Canada which has the same 'Westminster style' first-past-the-post FPTP system as us, have had more general elections and governments than Italy (which is an electoral chameleon country which has had both first-past-the-post and proportional systems). In fact the UK has had a similar number of governments to any PR country. So it is a total myth to say PR delivers unstable government.

As for weak government - we only have to look at the higher economic growth and better public services of Germany and Scandanavia to see that the supposed weak government and legislative paralysis that PR brings exists only in the minds of first-past-the-post stalwarts. Sweden punchs well above its weight internationally and increasingly Germany previously hampered by its Nazi past is starting to assert itself again. To say that any of these PR countries is 'weak' is just meaningless waffle.

Justin at Chicken Yoghurt points out that when you look at a list of the most democratic states and compare it to the electoral system they use:-
"Of the top 21 countries on the Index of Democracy, 18 use proportional representation. The three that don’t are Australia (at 10), United States (at 18) and the UK (at 21)"....(Those three countries, by unhappy coincidence, were the only three to commit active troops to the invasion of Iraq.)
There are currently 2 independent MPs in the House Of Commons plus 1 Respect and 1 Kidderminster Hospital Concern, so 4 in total, that is 0.6% of the total number of MPs. I doubt whether the number of independents will reach double figures even after this expenses scandal - so no more than 1.5% of MPs - hardly a revolution no matter how much the Tories would like you to think it was. Currently 243 MPs or nearly 40% of MPs have been implicated in the expenses scandal as being on the take. So to argue as the Telegraph does that it is just a matter of replacing a 'few bad apples' rather than changing the electoral system is obvious nonsense.

In Ireland under the Single-Transferable Vote STV, they have 3% of their MPs who are independents FIVE TIMES OUR FIGURE. So it seems first-past-the-post is a bigger bar to independents than STV.

Of course when voters and party members have more choice of parties than the present two-party stitch-up, there is less need for independents anyway, as you can be independent within a party.

More real competition between the parties is what is needed. Under PR your vote actually counts and gets someone elected. This encourages more internal party democracy. So, under PR, where members and voters have more say as to who is elected, 'the party' is not such a dirty word as it is in this country, where members views are ignored and suppressed and voters only have a limited choice of Labour or Tory led governments.

So in conclusion, we need a proportional system to get rid of corrupt MPs sitting in safe seats. James Graham of the Quaequam Blog is particularly hostile to Alan Johnson;s suggestion of AV+, but even he would campaign for it in preference to our present debacle of a system.

So Peter Hain couldn't be more wrong when he criticises PR, but he does unfortunately have a point when it comes to MPs support - as he points out - 'turkeys do not vote for christmas' and MPs in safe seats will need to be eased out gently - which is why Alan Johnson thinks AV+ is all we reformers can get and Hain thinks only AV can win MPs support.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is perfect reform and 1 is hardly any change at all, AV comes in as a 1. To paraphrase the Hagley Road To Ladywood Blog's analogy - first-past-the-post is like going to a shop and only having a choice of 2 particularly coarse toilet papers that both uncomfortably scrape your arse, with AV you at least get to register your interest in something better, even if you are still given one of the coarse ones to take home.


  1. Neil, is your email address still:


    I emailed you the code for part 2 of my Fun Online Poll on PR, that's all.

  2. mark, don't have that email anymore, will mail you my new one.

  3. Another point people tend to overlook is that introducing STV would of itself change the behaviour of the parties (once they understood its implications) - towards behing more inclusive, among other things. In principle STV encourages independent MPs because anyone can stand without "splitting the vote" of whatever strand of opinion they broadly come from. But in Ireland only 3% of TDs are independents, precisely because the parties know that, and so they take the trouble to present a wider slate of candidates in each multi-member constituency. This also removes the need for primaries, by the way. The voter can choose between different representatives of the same party at the general election itself. An STV election thus contains its own primary election all in one go.

  4. PZT: excellent point! I think STV in 5 seat constituencies is a very good option. Even 3 seat constituencies would make a massive difference but that could mean an effective threshold of around 25% in some constituencies - which I think would be too high.