26 October 2023 – Update on political party membership.
There is a growing consensus that the UK’s surreal electoral system is beyond a joke, with vast numbers of people unrepresented or misrepresented after every general election (including 2019). But there is a lot of confusion about what a Proportional Representation (PR) system could or should deliver. If you want a detailed discussion of different PR systems see my article Proportional representation; A brief guide in West England Bylines, 24 August 2022.
26 October 2023
There I argue that the best system is STV, as promoted by the independent Electoral Reform Society. According to the House of Commons Library, political party membership up to late 2022 (the most recent figures) was barely 900,000 people – less than the RSPB’s million and only 4.4% of the electorate. In other words, party membership in the UK is very much a minority sport – so why go for a system of PR based on party lists? For the voter who is not a member of a party or who doesn’t closely identify with a party – i.e. most of us – the best PR option is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system’.
Let us start by clearing up some myths or wishful thinking:
– First, PR is not a cunning plan to deny the Tories a majority ever again. If you agree to the need for fair votes, you must accept that some people – perhaps a majority – may get elected whom you detest. Tough luck: don’t blame the system; blame yourself and work towards a better result next time.
– PR does not necessarily mean coalition governments. If a majority (not a plurality) vote for a particular party, then that party can govern on its own. And anyway, what’s wrong with coalition governments? Labour opponents of PR often object to the idea of a coalition, but surely it’s better to achieve some of what you want rather than none of what you want?
– Governments elected by PR are not inherently unstable. Compare the UK and Germany. The UK has experienced seven complete changes of government (i.e. no party in the incoming government was in the outgoing government) since the war; Germany only two. Or the Netherlands: no complete change of government since 1918.
– Some people claim that PR means allowing ‘extremist’ parties to be elected. Well, obviously, if PR means PR then this could happen. But what is meant by ‘extremist’? If a party is deemed a threat to the state it can be banned. If not, there is nothing to stop it contesting elections and, possibly, securing representation. But, again, don’t blame the system. It is your duty to stop them.
It is worth recalling that at the Nuremberg trial Goering said that if the Weimar Republic had used FPTP the Nazis would have come to power sooner.
Won’t PR mean enormous constituencies with MPs remote from their constituents? No. Why should it? The Netherlands is one huge constituency returning 150 MPs, but this is not a necessary feature of PR. It makes sense to group constituencies together in manageable units. For example, the six Gloucestershire single-member constituencies could be grouped together to form one six-member constituency with fair representation. At present each of the six MPs represents only Tory voters.
So what exactly is the point of PR? It seeks two things: firstly, the composition of Parliament should be a ‘mirror of the nation’s mind’, a term coined by Australian J F H Wright in 1980; secondly, there should be due representation for significant minorities. Logically, this second aim requires multi-member constituencies, where more than one candidate is elected. Any electoral system based exclusively on single-member constituencies is therefore doomed to fail the basic requirement of PR. Think of France, Belarus or… the UK.
Some red herrings
– Some people argue that there should be quotas for women in Parliament. But introducing a rule that x% of MPs must be female means a restriction on a voter’s choice. Remember, with the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) version of PR the voter decides who she wants to represent her.
– A similar argument has been put forward for quotas for candidates from ethnic minorities. All I can say is that if you want to create ghettoes, this is the fastest way of doing so. And again: why not let the voter decide who she wants to represent her?
– And on the subject of choice, we can kick into touch the ludicrous idea that voting should be compulsory. This is another pointless way of restricting a voter’s choice. If I want to exercise my choice not to have anything to do with an election, why force me to waste my time going to the polling station and scribbling rude words all over the ballot paper?
– Finally, do we need a Referendum to introduce PR? No. If PR is in the manifesto of the party or parties forming the government after the next election there is absolutely no need: it is part of their legislative programme.
What happens next?
The people clearly want PR, but will the political parties take it on board? There is a split in the Labour party between the members, who very much want PR (and a return to the EU) and the dinosaurs who want nothing to do with it. My hope is that at the next election there will be a hung parliament, with Labour forced to make concessions on the voting system to the progressive parties.
Keir Starmer is dreaming of ten years in power to reverse the UK’s decline. But if the Labour government does nothing to change the electoral system Labour will be out again and the disease of short-termism will come creeping back.
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