Saturday, April 02, 2011

Voting Systems - why I don't like PR.

Now, Britain is in the grip of referendum-fever. The excitement over the potential change to the voting system is palpable. It is also non-existent. In a very British way there is a general sense of apathy. For the record, I think AV (The alternative vote) is a good system and I will be voting for it. Whilst, I will probably end up writing more at some point, for today I wanted to explain that I don't want Proportional Representation. That despite its advantages, I don't think it's a good system.

Firstly, I need to expand on my thoughts about democracy. The idea of democracy is that government exists for the people and by the people. (To coin a phrase). The principal of representation is of course at the heart of all this. For me, the genius of democracy is not that people get what they want per se. Mob-rule doesn't work very well, but that it holds leaders accountable to the electorate. It is in this context that I would evaluate any potential voting system.

In the UK, we have a relatively simple 'First past-the-post" system. The reasons for this are in-part historical but the idea is very straightforward. Each constituency has one MP. Of the candidates who stand, whoever gets the most votes wins. Whichever party has the most seats in parliament then forms the government. Either on their own if they have an 'overall majority' or in coalition is they don't have enough MPs on their own. It is also possible to form a minority government but that is a rarity in the UK. Given that most people vote for a party rather than an MP, this system favours bigger parties over smaller ones and favours parties with 'concentration' of support in particular areas. This distortion means that parties can have 100% of power with only about a third of public support, and that parties with as much as a fifth of popular support have much less representation in parliament.

So, one of the alternatives is Proportional Representation (PR). This is the simplest system in theory. Quite simply, the number of votes are counted nationally. And the proportion of MPs is then allocated to each party according to the proportion of votes.

Proponents always begin their argument by explaining how inherently fair such a system is.

My objections to PR are as follows:
  1. PR makes coalition government very statistically likely. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing but does have implications. Especially when it's a coalition of lots of parties.
  2. In order to make a working majority such coalitions often have to include multiple small parties. These parties will seek concessions from bigger parties in return for their support. This often, in practise means that a party with 5% support has more power than one with 30% support. Extreme parties regularly hold the government to ransom in Israel. This for me undermines the fairness argument.
  3. PR makes the parties more powerful. Before each election, each party will produce a 'list' At the top of list will be the party leader, and then the rest of candidates are listed in order of priority. If a party wins enough votes for one seat, then only the leader becomes an MP -  if they win enough for 100, then the top 100 become MPs and everyone from 101 downwards misses out. In the real world, many of the most effective parliamentarians are ones prepared to dissent and stand up to their party leaderships, the relatively independent MPs are often best able to represent their constituents effectively. The party whips have an important role in delivering on a manifesto. However, I do not think that making the party machinery more powerful would be good for democracy. How many members would stand up to their leadership if it means being moved from the top 50 on their party's list to the maybe 250 where they have much less of a chance of being elected?
  4. PR breaks the link with the constituents and their MP. Arguably, the greatest strength of the current system is that each MP represents ~100,000 people. If you have an issue, you can write to or visit your MP to raise it. This constituent-MP relationship is one of the best things about representative democracy.
At some other point, I will probably talk about my thoughts on AV, STV and FPTP, but I think that's enough for now.There is no such thing as a perfect system, but I think AV is actually pretty good. FPTP has some strengths but also significant weaknesses.

One other very good reason to vote for AV is the no2AV advertising posters; if this is the best they can come up with then there can't be any good arguments!

Baby Poster
Soldier Poster


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