Monday, June 08, 2009

Proportional Representation is the Enemy of the People

A lot of hoo-ha now that Britain has sent a couple of fascists to Europe.

However, closer inspection reveals that fewer people voted for Nick Griffin this time than in 2004, so any sorrowful explanations for Britain’s descent into race-hate you might find on the internet are irrelevant. If anything, it follows that Britiain is slighly less fascist and racist than it was five years ago.

(Not that the BNP’s squalid little victory isn’t a rotten thing – as Nick Cohen explained to me, even though there isn’t a serious threat of the BNP ‘sweeping the nation’, the BNP should be seriously opposed first because if you’re an Asian and a BNP member gets elected in your neighbourhood you will feel that your neighbours hate you, and second because extremist ideas can infect the mainstream.)

Anyway, the BNP succeeded only because Labour’s vote collapsed, thus increasing their share and giving them two seats under the Proportional Representation system.

Labour’s vote collapse is purely a protest against Emperor Guano’s exploding clown car of a Government, and although admittedly people are more likely to protest in an EU Parliament election because they don’t take it seriously (it’s the UEFA Cup of elections), the result does give you a glimpse of what PR would be like if applied to the Commons: a choice selection of noisy nutters, plus wholly disproportionate power to swing policy for the Lib Dems, plus a complete inability ever to get rid of the messy compromise Governments.

Like so many leftish, progressive ideas, Proportional Representation sounds good in theory, but ends in tears.


malty said...

The BNP have won a battle but this will surely cause them to lose the war. Having them out in the open instead of in the dark places of the world will allow the gullible element of the British public to be shown their real intentions, leading hopefully to their demise.
Heil Gordon, (sound of clicking heels.)

Gaw said...

Conversely Britain has lots of things that work in practice but not really in theory: the constitution (wherever it is), rugby, London, chips with curry sauce.

Gaw said...

Oh and Britain itself.

Kev said...

We have PR in Ireland and it is hugely popular, the bigger parties have tried to remove it in the past and been soundly defeated. It does, as you say, tend to allow in smaller parties and give them disproportionate power but it means that the people you vote for get in.

It also has to my mind two largely unstated virtues, the first is that it makes watching the election results far more entertaining, the tactical voting, the transfers, counts, eliminations, last minute comebacks add much needed drama to our resolutely dull politicians. The second is that it is possible to vote against people in a way that isn't there with first past the post. When Sinn Fein are running in your constituency this is quite pleasurable.

martpol said...

Likewise, a mix of PR and first-past-the-post has worked well in the Welsh Assembly, with the current Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition not doing too badly at all.

I think Brit has a point about PR in Westminster elections, however. The whole British political scene is based on having two major, opposed parties with centuries of political and social baggage. We have this engrained sense that politics should be about proposition and opposition, not compromise and negotiation.

There are plenty of European nations that work with coalition governments and can't understand the British way of doing things, but it would take a much greater upheaval than the current one to convince most of us that the switch to PR would work here.

Brit said...

I suppose you could (crudely) put it like this: do you want to elect a Government or a Parliament? With FPTP you elect the former, with PR the latter.

Kev said...

Yes that's the distinction alright, although the counter argument is that if you are in a constituency which is safe by one of the parties you are effectively disenfranchised, I have been able to see in the last few elections the difference that my vote (or people who voted in the same manner as me) has made.

I think it's probably a case of liking what you are used to. If there were a number of small parties a the big parties proposed essentially wiping them out it would be unpopular, if you're used to stable majority governments and it is proposed to replace them with unstable coalitions it would be unpopular.

It's worth pointing out that under a PR coalition system there is no way Brown would be able to hang on.

jonathan law said...

Leaving the practical consequences to one side for a moment, isn't there also a psychological, or even existential, argument against PR? In that just about every big decision you or I will ever make in life will have to be decided on a first-past-the-post, yes/no, either/or basis. That's just sort of how it is. If life is not a rehearsal, neither does it allow us a transferable vote. FPTP, it could be said, is the best and most natural system because it best reflects this alarming but at the same time strangely liberating fact.

For example, I might know several young ladies with various amiable qualities. But if I want to get married, I have eventually to choose one and let the others alone: I can’t marry 55% of Anne, 40% of Lucy, and 5% of the barmaid at the Queen’s Head. The same generally goes for choosing a career, or a religious affiliation, or even a meal in a restaurant. We are presented with Mutually Exclusive Projects. Taking one path automatically excludes the others.

PR tries to get around this, but only postpones the point at which a proper FPTP decision has to be made. So you can have a parliament elected by the most sophisticated, ultra-proportional system on earth, but when it comes to voting on the Such-and-Such Bill, it’s still Ayes to the right, Noes to the left. Similarly with decisions made by the prime minister or cabinet. There might be seven compelling reasons for going to war with Denmark and six equally strong reasons for avoiding war at any cost. But it's one or the other, and once the decision is made, it has to be pursued as if the reasons on the other side of the argument had no force at all – as if they had never existed. These become 'wasted' arguments, just as votes cast for unsuccessful candidates at the polls are said to be wasted.

Is this making any sense? I remember Matthew Parris mounting a vastly more cogent version of this argument many years ago but I have no idea when or where.

Brit said...

Perfect sense, Jonathan.

PR is also an idealist's vision: it assumes that the best decisions will be made by a calm committee of reasonable individuals keen to represent and give a fair hearing to all sides of the issue.

David said...

What's voting for? It might simply be a black box; we need to come up with legislators some how and having voters do it is better than leaving it up to the legislators themselves, the labor unions, industry groups, etc.

It might be purely a legitimizing mechanism; the tangible proof of Jefferson's consent of the governed.

Or it might be that we think that the people, corporately, make the best decisions either on specific policy grounds or about whether legislators are trustworthy.

All of us believe some combination of these things (I think that its 85% legitimacy; 10% black box; and 5% we're good judges of character), and what we believe will determine how we think voting should work. For me, FPTP is far better than the alternative.

Kev said...

I must disagree entirely. There are rare questions that must be decided with yes or no, we must not only consider war with Denmark there is also economic sanctions, boycotting of bacon products, cutting off gas supplies, reminding everyone about those cartoons again. The world and the issues in it are complex there are always shades of grey. Even if one must eventually vote in favour or against a bill one can debate it or amend it before that. I think you argue for simplicity ahead of complexity and I don't think things work like that.

If your hypothetical Anne has already married someone else do you try your luck with Lucy or do you have to wait around until Anne's husband is forced out in an expenses scandal?

As to it being an idealists vision you could equally argue that it means that no one should be trusted will all the power and no one viewpoint should be allowed to govern alone. Don't write them a blank cheque, keep them honest.

Brit said...

I want to elect a removable dictatorship plus a strong opposition, in the British tradition. I definitely don't want Kev's committee discussing the shades of grey, though I do have sympathy with the view that the whips currently have way too much power over party MPs.

martpol said...

If your hypothetical Anne has already married someone else do you try your luck with Lucy or do you have to wait around until Anne's husband is forced out in an expenses scandal?

And also, if you aren't one of the people lucky enough to find 'the one' in any case, are you condemned to simply sit around feeling disillusioned and alone?

PR at least allows for greater enfranchisement of well-meaning minorities (though it also lets in the not-so-well-meaning ones). As our (democratic) world becomes less and less defined by ideological battles - and therefore with the potential for more indeed to be decided by well-meaning committees - PR starts to make more sense.

Brit said...

I'd honestly rather have even more self-serving, backstabbing, ladder-climbing career beasts in Westminster than minorities who MEAN WELL.

martpol said...

Fair enough. I meant useful minorities like the Lib Dems or Greens or Plaid Cymru, not those with good intentions but nothing else.

Brit said...

That's funny because the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru were exactly the sort of parties I had in mind.