Friday, 4 June 2010

Re-examining proportional represention

I've been in support of changing our antiquated plurality-based First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system ever since I learnt about the deficiencies and general unfairness of it. However, the coalition has highlighted to me some weaknesses changing to proportional representation (PR) presents. Whilst I believe that it's indefensible to have a system where the votes of millions of people are wasted, the coalition Government where both the Conservatives and Lib Dems sold out to each other has resulted in a Government with a mish-mash manifesto that I think few people would have wanted and a Government that is likely to collapse upon itself, but is unwilling and unable to call an election due to their commitment to a fixed term Parliament.

[caption id="attachment_755" align="alignleft" width="187" caption="Millions of votes are effectively wasted under FPTP, but PR has its flaws"][/caption]

Firstly, I ought to briefly outline our current system and the alternative that proportional representation would provide. Using the FPTP system means that the UK is split into constituencies with roughly equal population sizes (hence the large number of very small constituencies in cities), within each constituency candidates will stand, and the one who gets the greatest number of votes wins the seat. They do not need 50% of the vote - just a greater number than the 2nd place candidate. This often results in the candidate having more people who voted against him than who voted for him; unless they had 50% or more of the vote, a greater number of people wanted someone else to represent them, but their vote was split. The seats in Parliament are allocated in this way through elections in each constituency, with the party winning the greatest number of seats forming the Government. In almost all elections, one party will have more seats than all other parties combined, allowing them to get their legislation passed with little problem. That didn't happen this time, which meant that the Tories either had to attempt to form a minority Government (without an overall majority) or, the option they took, an agreement with another party, which took the form of an official coalition. The problem with our FPTP system is that the proportion of votes parties receive aren't much different, but the number of seats are starkly different: in 2005, Labour received 35% of the vote, whilst the Conservatives received 32% (both rounded), but they won 158 fewer seats because their vote was split throughout the country and not concentrated in enough constituencies. This highlights one of the most fundamental arguments against FPTP - that millions of people are effectively disenfranchised: if they didn't vote for the winner in their constituency, their vote counts for nothing and has no impact upon the outcome.

Proportional representation attempts to rectify this by allotting seats in close or exact proportion to the proportion of votes cast. A form of this is used for the UK's European Parliament elections, giving us the striking situation of UKIP having more seats than Labour and the Lib Dems. The system used is regional party list - the UK is split into sections: London, South East, Scotland, etc. and each of those regions are allocated a number of seats. The seats are then given in proportion to the votes with each region. For example, if the East of England region had 10 seats allocated, and 50%  of those living there voted for the Conservatives, they'd get 5 seats, if 10% voted for the nutcase Green Party, they'd get 1 seat. Therefore, people voting for smaller parties are able to influence the outcome, unlike in General Elections where their vote is wasted. (I've used simple numbers because I'm inept at maths.)

[caption id="attachment_756" align="alignright" width="300" caption="During the coalition talks, protestors made their demands for PR clear, but voting system referendum we will get is not proportional"][/caption]

Now the rambling introduction to FPTP and PR is out of the way, I can move onto another area of rambling: why I'm having second thoughts about proportional representation, and how my concerns could potentially be overcome. As I mentioned in the opening of the article, we've seen that a hung Parliament can be a rather unappealing thing: no party got an overall majority, so they have to turn to another one and battle it out to forge a tenuous pact. I believe this coalition is far more stable than a Lab-Lib-rainbow one would have been, but it's not ideal, and I think we'll see the internal squabbling coming to the surface soon. At a time when strong government is necessary, having Cameron and Clegg having a bitchfight over policies isn't something that appeals. They're smiles and sunshine in public, but I expect the relationship behind closed doors will soon begin to deteriorate. This isn't an attack on the two personally - if the coalition had been between Brown and Clegg, the same problems of being unable to agree and reaching some naff compromise agreements would have been faced. Not only this, but we've also ended up with this pile of mashed-together policies that no-one voted for. Those who took the time to skim through and vote based primarily upon the manifestos and policies of the parties have effectively wasted their time because we've ended up with a plan for government that no-one voted for: it's a manifesto of two parties conjoined who also came up with some bright ideas whilst they sat in little rooms discussing what they should do and what policies they could both throw into the bin.

If you would prefer to avoid this by having a single party in government, you'll never get that with proportional representation. One party will likely come out fairly clearly on top, but there's practically no chance of them having an overall majority with which to govern alone. This would mean that after every single general election, the parties would get together and squabble and squirm until they reached something they could both well enough pretend to be satisfied with to pursue until their government splits along party lines and another election is called. Parties working together is fine, and rather nice, but I despise them secretly discussing together and coming out with what is effectively a manifesto that, after reading, we have no ability to shout "Tosh" loudly and vote for another party.

Related to this is the fact that there's the risk  of a rainbow coalition of losers, with the second, third, fourth, and all the other small parties coming together to whack each other with sticks and write down some policies. This would always be inherently unstable, as smaller parties are often very different to each other: contrast the Irish republicans and Unionists, and the BNP and RESPECT, for example. They'd never be able to agree to work together, and if they did, it doesn't bear thinking about what coalition Government plan of action would be. (I am aware that the BNP does not have seats, and RESPECT lost theirs, but under PR, they'd likely both win some). Presuming no multi-coloured pinstriped dotted checked coalition is formed, we'd end up with the equivalent of what we've got now: a coalition of the 1st and 3rd parties. This would mean that the party which received a large chunk of the public's votes and came second would remain in opposition, whilst the third-largest party gets to stick its oar into the Government's agenda. Presuming that the Lib Dems remain in third place, we could end up with them becoming a mainstay in Government, with the public constantly having to put up with them demand concessions in order to agree to a coalition, even though they received fewer votes than the 1st and 2nd parties. They could become a mainstay in Government, with a band of dedicated Lib Dem supporters being the only ones preventing them from becoming another minority party; the rest of us would be powerless to stop them influencing policy, which highlights a way that PR could actually be seen as undemocratic once voting is finished.

A reason opponents to proportional representation sometimes put forward is that our FPTP system keeps out extremist parties. It was also, much to my annoyance, put forward by Labour MP Tom Harris in a blog post about why he didn't support PR. I don't see this point as being an argument at all, but an arrogant statement that implies that that we should actively try to work against democratic process because we disagree with what extremist parties - such as the BNP - stand for. It implies that we know best, and those who voted for the BNP don't deserve to have the party that they feel represents their beliefs in Parliament. I'm sure you'd find plenty of BNP voters who despise Labour and the Lib Dems, but I think you'd find few of them saying we should deliberately change the system to help to prevent them getting seats. I couldn't care less that Mr Harris disagrees with the BNP; if he believes in democracy, he shouldn't be using an argument that attempts to justify no representation for certain voters simply because he disagrees with their views. That's absurd and patronising, and I think it potentially speaks volumes about his arrogance. Secondly, how do we define 'extremist'? One man's extremist is another's party of choice. I personally consider the Green party to be a bit extreme, but I wouldn't argue against PR because I feared they might gain more seats  from PR. If we start letting self-righteous politicians like Harris dictate what parties are extremist and therefore deserve no representation, we have a very sorry state of affairs on our hands.

If we must go down this route, and you are in favour of preventing 'extremist' parties from gaining seats, here's a point I was very impressed by when someone put it forward in a recent politics lesson. Extremist parties are, by definition, extremist and rely upon support from the fringes of society. If they had widespread support, they wouldn't be deemed extremist. Therefore, why do we need to try to prevent them gaining seats if they only have support from a minority? (They didn't say it in quite such a pretentious way). The natural counter-point to this that they may grow to have widespread support, but then you're making an argument against letting democracy take it course by saying that, even if they grow to have a huge backing of support from the public, we should try to prevent them getting seats because we disagree with them.

Finally - in a fairly bitter twist to what proportional representation is supposed to promote - it could prevent independent candidates from ever getting seats. They're pretty rare under our current system, but do win seats occasionally. This is usually by focusing upon a particularly important issue in their constituency, such as Dr Richard Taylor, who won two successive victories in 2001 and 2005 on the platform of promoting health in his constituency and saving the local hospital. Under a proportional system, independent candidates would lack the resources and time to tour the entire area of the country to convince people, and the local issues in one town or area would be different to another. The only way around this would be to give each constituency more than one MP, which would be costly and crowd Westminster. (I still don't know why no-one has ever suggested building a new Parliament - if there aren't even enough seats for MPs to sit down and debate in the Commons, it seems to me that it's time to put practicality and common sense above tradition.)  Similarly, another issue is that party-list proportional systems could allow parties to get rid of those who don't toe the party line by placing them at the very bottom of their list. We could see such Labour firebrands as Diane Abbott, Austin Mitchell, John McDonnel, and Kelvin Hopkins, who do not always blindly follow their leaders and have openly criticised and disagreed with the Labour Government  in the past - placed at the bottom of the party lists, giving them practically no chance of being elected, since closed party list systems begin dishing out seats based on the order of candidates the party chooses. The to-be Cabinet and the most loyal MPs would be placed at the top of the list, giving them almost certain re-election, whilst hardworking but rebellious MPs could be lost in a party's pursuit of all MPs being on-message and getting an easy ride from their own party if they form the Government.

Overall, it's difficult for me to reconcile my belief that all votes should count and should have an impact, with my beliefs that coalition Governments are unappealing due to their instability and the policies for Government that they come out with that we were unable to vote upon. I have, however, come up with a few potential - albeit quite radical and weird - solutions to this.

The first would be to retain the FPTP system of election to the House of Commons, whilst making the Lords fully elected via a proportional system - either national party list or regional party list. Keeping the Commons with FPTP would ensure that the Government would still almost always be formed by having one party with a clear majority and clear manifesto upon which we voted at the election. Making the Lords fully-elected would, for one thing, fix the built-in antithesis: It has a governing party majority due to Peerages created by the Governments (and the Con-Libs are now going to appoint more Conservative and Lib Dem peers to ensure their legislation is not slowed down by a Labour-dominated Lords), yet even still, the House is sometimes responsible for making the life of the Government very difficult. Whilst this can sometimes be good by preventing the Government becoming too dominant and controlling, it can also slow down legislation that has widespread public support - such as the fox hunting ban. However, provided they're not in a rush, the Commons always maintains the power to bide its time and then stick two fingers up at the other place by invoking the Parliament Act, which allows legislation to be passed without the consent of the Lords. (This legislation was altered in 1949, adding to the 1911 Act, by your friend and mine Clement Attlee to ensure his nationalisation of major British industries wouldn't be blocked by the House of Lords. (The 1911 Act ensured the Liberal Government's People's Budget could be passed despite opposition from the rich bastards in the Lords.)) If the Government is desperate to get something passed quickly, though, they may give into the demands of the Lords, such as conceding to a reduction in the amount of time terrorist suspects can be detained without trial.

In order for the elected Lords to be able to represent their voters properly, the House would have to be strengthened to ensure that the Government is accountable to them. This would likely mean repealing the Parliament Acts so the Lords is able to hold them accountable. In order for legislation to be passed, it would require the consent of the Lords, but given that it would be made up of a mixture of different parties, the Government would be likely to encounter a lot of difficult in getting their bills passed, which could slow things down and lead to minority parties banding together to stop the Government getting their way. In addition, the Lords would also need to be given more power to make legislation, with more opportunity for the parties within the chamber to put forward bills. This ensures that the representative Lords would be able to have a greater impact.

An alternative to this would be leaving the Lords lacking in power (whether elected or staying as it currently is: the majority appointed and 92 undeserving self-serving privileged toff-bastards who inherited their seat from Daddy) but creating another chamber which holds similar power to the Commons. The majority of legislation would still come from the Government in the Commons, but this third chamber would be able to prevent legislation passed without concessions.

However, I don't particularly like either of these solutions - they could result in the smaller parties preventing the Government getting anything done, which would slow down progress and lead to the Government becoming more preoccupied with keeping the small parties happy than working out what they're going to do and how they're going to do it.

A third solution is the most outlandish of them all. Following standing as a candidate in Hackney South and Shoreditch at the recently passed General Election, Denny de la Haye is now hoping to take direct democracy to the masses by founding a party - Demoex; the British version of a party in Sweden that's held onto a seat for 8 years. His new party aims to field candidates on the direct democracy platform, meaning that MPs' constituents will vote on legislation, and then the vote of their MP would reflect the majority will of the constituents. If the UK did embrace direct democracy, there would be less of an issue with PR resulting in weak Government and a lack of democracy, as each piece of legislation would have to be approved or shot down by the public. Of course, direct democracy can't become a solution unless there are many Demoex MPs in Parliament, otherwise they are effectively just another independent MP who is largely powerless to control the Government's dominance.

[caption id="attachment_757" align="alignleft" width="211" caption="Neither emerged victorious from my battle, but the war wages on."][/caption]

I'd like to make a conclusion on whether I prefer PR or FPTP, but I don't think I can. I believe proportional representation would be far more democratic and fair, and I'm not even sure elections under FPTP could be called a democratic system - it's more of an elective dictatorship. However, for me, the biggest flaw that PR has is that it results in a lack of democracy in that the parties discuss between themselves and then come out with a plan for Government that no-one was able to read before the election and make a judgement upon. Theoretically, the parties in coalitions could put something completely outlandish and lacking in support in their coalition agreement, and there would be nothing we could do about it  until the next election. This would have been a special risk if there had been a rainbow coalition instead of a Con-Lib one; Labour would have had to pander to the desires of the small parties - the single Green MP and other small parties like the SNP and DUP could have had a disproportionate say in the programme of Government despite receiving very few votes nationally. I have decided that I will be voting in favour of changing to the Alternative Vote system when the referendum is put forward (so long as it doesn't happen before September, when I turn 18 - that would really annoy me), but I'm still undecided about PR. The Alternative Vote seems to be fairer in that it will allow us to vote for our preferred candidate - who may represent small party - but if no-one wins 50% or move of the vote, our second, third, etc. choices are redistributed, allowing those who voted for small party or independent candidate to have an impact upon the outcome of the election.

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