Monday, 1 August 2016

Is there an honourable case against Proportional Representation?

(An open letter to an MP who opposes PR)

Dear Andrea Leadsom MP,

      It struck me recently, that there would have been no need for a referendum if we had proportional representation (PR) in the House of Commons.  I believe you oppose proportional representation for elections to the Westminster parliament. 

("The principle argument against the present system is that it is not fair - it is not a proportional system. However, proportional representation is a narrow concept. The 'proportionality' relates only to the relationship of votes to seats and not to the proportionality of power. Under PR, 10% of the votes are designed to produce 10% of the seats, but not necessarily 10% of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. Indeed, a party with 10% of the seats may be in a position to wield disproportionate negotiating power.”)

     You are quoted as raising two objections to PR; that it is a "narrow concept", and that power is not distributed fairly under PR. I do not understand your first point, unless it is intended only as a summary of your second point. 
     Your second point is familiar. Even Harold Wilson was aghast at the thought of the Liberals holding "the balance of power" both with a Tory minority government and with a Labour. But surely this is a relatively simple error. Suppose the Commons contains 300 Tories, 280 Labour, 30 LibDem. Suppose, on a Tory motion,  LibDem and Labour vote (in a principled way) against, and the motion is therefore defeated. The power that defeated the motion does not reside in the LibDem portion of the opposition, but in all 310 opposers !  The motion is defeated only if there are more MPs against the motion than for; each MP counting for one vote. Have I said enough? 
     You seem to see the possibility of a centre party MP supporting a Labour motion and supporting a Tory motion and you cry “Foul!  He is supporting more motions than I. He is exercising more power than I.” But that is also nonsense isn’t it?  If you are against the moderate voices being in the majority, I am afraid you are up against an immutable law — the bell-shaped curve of the Normal Distribution. You should not disenfranchise the middle merely to give the extremes a chance to govern
     Perhaps I should consider the possibility that the combined opposition (LibDem + Labour + whoever) unanimously  wanted to vote strategically, playing games with parliament and the whole process of government. But that proposition is defeated by a number of considerations: such behaviour defeats good government, the perpetrators would be punished at the next election, the same game could eventually be played against them. I think the whole idea of parliament, and democracy itself, is based on the assumption that these people do not play silly games.
    I have heard two further objections to PR, which you have not raised. (1) "Look", some people say, "at Italy”. To which I would reply "Or at The Netherlands". And (2) it is remarked that the present flip-flop system makes for large majorities and “decisive" government.   But that is surely the DISADVANTAGE of the present system, and by no means its strength? There is no virtue in being decisive if you are wrong, or going against the wishes of the country. Furthermore, with a large majority for 5 years the backbench MPs have little to do. Add to that the devastating effect this flip-flop system has on morale in the country, and morals in the House; the people cease to vote, for they see that their votes are not counted, and the MPs overuse their privileges.
     Proportional Representation is not a new concept. Many (if not most) countries have adopted it. I do not know of any occasion when the adoption of PR has been reversed by people wishing to return to a system like ours. The referendum of May 2011 was not about PR; it was a choice between staying with the present system or changing to the Alternative Vote system which is not proportional, has few advocates, and few users.
     The 'First Past the Post’ system favours two large parties, and large parties cynically favour it in return. 
     Please do not oppose PR on dishonourable grounds, nor on foolish grounds. If I have misunderstood your position, please can you explain more fully. 

     Yours sincerely, Ian West
Ian West,
Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire.

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