Saturday, 1 May 2010

In defense of PR

Further to my one-before-last post, in which I advocated voting for the Liberal Democrats in order to help bring about a situation where a hung parliament might lead to the introduction of PR, and in light of the fact that both Labour and Conservative campaigners have been frantically highlighting the perceived dangers of hung parliaments (and therefore, by implication, of PR, which tends to lead to a hung parliament [or, more positively, a balanced parliament]), I intend, in this post, to address the main criticisms that I have heard people make about the concept of proportional representation as a means of electing the national parliament.

Criticism 1: PR is less likely to deliver an overall majority to any party, and therefore leads to coalition governments which are both weak and impossible to vote out.
- One of the advantages that many people claim for the first-past-the-post system is that it usually delivers a government with a majority of seats in parliament, thus enabling it to get its planned programme of legislation enacted into law without too much difficulty. But surely the notion of one party holding a majority of the seats in parliament is only justifiable if that party is supported by the majority of the electorate. If it is not supported by the majority of voters then effectively what we have is a group of people representing a minority of the population, forcing their will onto the majority. That doesn't seem very democratic to me. A coalition government may be weak, in the sense that no one party within the coalition may be able to achieve everything it would like to, and in the sense that its actions must involve negotiation, bargaining and compromise, but that is inevitable in a situation where politicians are representing a public with a diverse range of political viewpoints, and must surely be preferable to one party lording it over the legislative chamber without a genuinely democratic mandate from the voters. Decisions arrived at through negotiation and compromise may even sometimes be better than those which originate with one party and then enjoy free passage through parliament by virtue of a majority. As for the argument, which is sometimes made, that a coalition government can never be voted out, this is only true to the extent that the electorate can never be 'voted out'! A coalition government, elected using proportional representation, needs to hold the confidence of a parliament which reflects the political 'shape' of the electorate as a whole and, unlike the zero-sum game of first-past-the-post elections - where the representatives of one part of the electorate hold total power for a period and then lose all power, to be replaced by the representatives of another part of the electorate - under PR a coalition government, while it may not necessarily be so easy to vote out, will, if it wishes to continue in power, change it's composition to reflect the changing political demographics of the electorate. Of course, if a large enough part of the electorate become completely disenchanted with the coalition government then, following a general election using PR, the new government (whether it was a coalition or not) would, no doubt, look very different to the previous one.

Criticism 2: PR would lead to political stalemates, with governments unable to act because of the lack of a clear parliamentary majority.
- This is really a very similar criticism to the last one and, while it's true that under PR it is often harder to get legislation passed, this is, in my opinion, no bad thing. It is felt by many people that there are already far too many laws on our statute books and, as mentioned in my previous answer, the need for negotiation and compromise is an important way of ensuring that any legislation which is passed is as acceptable as it can be to the public as a whole. In the devolved parliaments and assemblies of the UK the various parties involved in coalition governments are learning to thrash out compromises and come to agreements which, though they sometimes do take a long time to arrive at (eg. the decisions involving the handing over of police powers to Stormont) do, as a result of the compromises involved, tend to have the support of a broader section of the electorate than they would do had they been foisted on the public by a government which, while not being supported by the majority of voters, nevertheless held a majority in parliament.

Criticism 3: PR would allow minority parties, such as the BNP, to hold a disproportionate amount of power.
- It's true that under PR a situation could arise where a minority government might need to strike a deal with an unpopular minority party in order to get a proposed piece of legislation passed through parliament. This does mean that small parties could potentially hold a very small amount of power (though only to the extent that the more mainstream parties would be prepared to compromise with them - the more extreme ideas of parties like the BNP would almost certainly not be up for discussion) but it would not be a disproportionate amount of power. The ability any small party had to influence decisions made in parliament would be in direct proportion to the level of its electoral support, and that is how it should be in a democracy, even where parties representing those with deplorable and offensive views are concerned. The proper way to address the problem is to work to eradicate racism and other offensive attitudes and viewpoints from society; then there will be no chance of them having any influence in the realm of politics.

Criticism 4: PR takes away the connection between MPs and local areas as MPs do not represent particular constituencies under PR.
- This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument against PR but also the most easily dealt with. The system of PR which I am most in favour of (and which is, I believe, the one favoured by the Lib Dems) is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which delivers a result which is both proportional in party terms and keeps the connection between individual MPs and local constituencies. For a detailed explanation of how STV works, see here.