Is there an honourable case against Proportional Representation?
It struck me recently, that there would have been no need for a referendum if we had had proportional representation (PR) in the House of Commons. So, who is against PR? And why?
One prominent Tory MP is recorded as saying: “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.”
She seems to be raising two objections to PR; that it is a “narrow concept”, and that while the votes may be distributed fairly under PR, the power is not. I do not understand the first point, unless it is intended as a summary of the second point. The second point is familiar. Politician on left and right have long been aghast at the thought of centre parties holding “the balance of power” whether under a Tory minority government or a Labour. But surely this is a relatively simple error.
Suppose the House of Commons contains 300 Tories, 280 Labour, 30 Lib-Dem. Suppose, on a Tory motion, Lib-Dem and Labour MPs vote (in a principled way) against, and the motion is therefore defeated. The power that defeated the motion does not reside in the Lib-Dem 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. Surely I have said enough!
My protesting Tory MP seemed worried that centre parties in a proportional parliament have more power than extreme parties. But that is also nonsense isn’t it? No one can seriously advocate disenfranchising the moderate middle merely to give the extremes a chance to govern! It is a lunatic suggestion. Anyone who is against the moderate voices being in the majority is up against an immutable natural law — the bell-shaped curve of the "Normal Distribution" shows that the majority ARE in the middle. I hope no one will oppose PR on foolish grounds.
I have heard other objections to PR. Some people (arguing against PR) say, “Look at Italy”. To which I would reply “Look at The Netherlands”. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the combined opposition unanimously wanted to vote strategically, playing games with parliament and the whole process of government. But that argument is answered 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. The concept of parliament, and democracy itself, is based on the assumption that MPs do not play silly games. It is sometimes 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 little virtue in being decisive if you are going against the wishes of the country; and none if you are plain wrong. When one party holds a large majority for 5 years, legislation is not tested. Furthermore, the backbench and opposition MPs have little to do. Add to that the devastating effect this flip-flop system has on morale in the country; the people cease to vote, for they see that their votes are not counted, and the MPs overuse their privileges.
Perhaps we should consider also the problem of stasis; getting stuck on the fence. But this also is to underestimate the good sense of the House? Ocean liners do not routinely run aground for inability to decide whether to pass to the left or right of an obstacle.)
Proportional Representation is not a new concept. Many (if not most) countries have adopted it. 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. I hope no one will oppose PR on dishonourable grounds. But perhaps I have missed something.
Yours sincerely, Cawstein