Proportional representation systems are problematic

Thursday, 2nd June


Proportional representation? Thanks but no thanks!

• SEVERAL readers have written letters extolling the virtues of proportional representation, and pointing to the unfairness of a FPTP, first-past-the-post, election.

On the face of it they have a strong case, votes for one party pile up in some constituencies while opposition votes are ignored.

It is only when one looks a little more closely that the weaknesses of PR become apparent.

First it is not at all clear which of the many systems of PR its supporters wish us to follow; they come in a bewildering variety of forms and it is only possible to debate this question properly if the supporters make plain which they favour. That said, it is worth pointing to some obvious flaws in PR systems.

— First, they tend to allow many more, smaller parties into parliament. This is entirely fair since they have the necessary support. This would allow the far left to gain seats, which is why the far left backs the idea.

However it would also mean that far right neo-fascists would sit in the House of Commons. How happy are the supporters of PR about this with all the publicity and legitimacy this would bring?

— Secondly, it would mean governments would be much more likely to be coalitions consisting of a variety of parties.

This has benefits but it does mean that it is impossible to say to any such government: “this was in your manifesto, why are you not implementing it?”

Promises made during elections are ditched in the post-election coalition negotiations, which take place without public scrutiny, or public approval. These inter-party negotiations can go on for a very, very long time.

Belgium was without a government for 541 days, leaving civil servants to rule. Also unsatisfactory.

— But if you want to see the really awful results of PR just look at South Africa or Israel. Both employ the “party list” system.

Parties make lists of candidates to be elected and seats are distributed by elections authorities to each party, in proportion to the number of votes it receives.

Very fair, but the results are appalling.

It means that all political activity is inside the parties, as candidates scramble to be as near to the top of the list as possible, with the guarantee of a seat in the legislature.

The public counts for nothing.

Even worse is that in many systems the MPs have no constituency to which they are answerable.

So if voters have a major grievance – a hospital that is failing or a bridge that is dangerous – they have no one to hold to account. They can try to sack the whole government but that’s not a real threat.

For all these reasons PR is flawed. It produces unaccountable politicians, elected under systems most voters don’t understand, and encourages extremism.

Thanks but no thanks!


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