The Horrors of Proportional Representation

Kevin Vance

“Who’s Afraid of a Big Bad Hung Parliament?” That’s the question asked by Peter Riddell in the Times of London. Despite Riddell’s assurance that Britain will be just fine in the event of a hung parliament after next Thursday’s elections (and despite my American citizenship), I am very afraid.

I’ve no doubt that in certain circumstances a minority government or even a coalition government could function well enough. However, in the present situation, if David Cameron’s Tories fail to win a parliamentary majority, the Liberal Democrats will become a coalition partner in the next government, and Nick Clegg could become prime minister. Since the founding of the party in 1988, the cornerstone of the LD platform has been a reform of the electoral system in the direction of proportional representation. An agreement (probably with Labour) on proportional representation will probably be required by the Lib-Dems in order to participate in government as a coalition partner.

Britain’s current first-past-the-post-system allows a plurality of voters in single-member constituencies to send a candidate to parliament. A system of proportional representation would send members to parliament based on the proportion of voters in the nation or a particular region who favored a particular political party. Proportional representation could be implemented in a number of ways, with Israel’s example being the most radical form of proportional representation. In Israel, voters indicate their party preference at the time of elections, and members of the Knesset are selected from party lists based solely on the proportion of the national vote that each political party receives. The more strength the Lib-Dems have in the next parliament, the more a potential British PR system would imitate the extreme Israeli version.

In the Winter 2008 issue of Azure, former Jerusalem Post editor Amotz Asa-El makes the best case against proportional representation that I’ve read. While his piece is intended as an argument against the very radical PR system in Israel, it also works as an argument against PR in general. He presents the original 19th-century debate over proportional representation between John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot:

Mill’s arguments in favor of PR were presented in his Considerations on Representative Government, published in 1861, in which he praised the proportional idea for a variety of reasons. First, he believed that it would facilitate the political representation of “every minority in the whole nation.” Furthermore, Mill claimed, a legislator elected proportionally would represent a voluntary constituency of true supporters defined by their political beliefs, rather than an arbitrary constituency defined by geographical coincidence. The plurality system, according to Mill, forces a politician to represent all voters within a given district, including those who voted against him; under the PR system, however, “every member of the House would be the representative of a unanimous constituency.” Most important to Mill, a proportionally elected governing body would rectify the deficiencies of the plurality system, in which a relative majority imposes its will on smaller, non-represented minority groups. “Injustice and violation of principle,” Mill asserted, “are not less flagrant because those who suffer by them are a minority.”

Bagehot’s counterclaims were published a few years later, in The English Constitution. Bagehot argued that PR would see the election of “party men mainly.” Those crowning them “would look not for independence, but for subservience.” Eventually, parliament would come to comprise “party politicians selected by a party committee and pledged to party violence.”Worse yet, a proportional system-or “the voluntary plan,” as he called it-“is inconsistent with the extrinsic independence as well as with the inherent moderation of a parliament-two of the conditions which, as we have seen, are essential to the bare possibility of parliamentary government.”

In a PR system, politicians are only accountable to their party, rather than to electors in a particular locale. Since the only political incentive acting on members of a proportionally elected body is the pressure to remain high on the list of party candidates, members (or candidates) have no reason to compromise on issues that are central to their parties’ political platforms. Candidates have no reason to seek a majority—or plurality—of voters; they must only curry favor with their party. Extreme gerrymandering in the U.S., especially in California, hints at this problem. Although they aren’t explicitly seeking the support of one particular ideology, candidates for state government generally must only win the votes of the voters who represent the ideology for which the district’s lines have been drawn.

Small parties will spring up – even one-issue parties – as elected representatives become a mirror of the electorate itself. Ideally, a majority of voters would form a coherent government, of sorts, through the ballot box. Voters should be empowered to choose between various compromises of various political arrangements.

When voters don’t form natural coalitions before elections, as they usually do in a first-past-the-post system, their representatives must form unnatural coalitions after an election. They must appeal to the single-minded or perhaps bizarre or nefarious interests of small minorities in order to form a government.

In some cases, the executive power is divided as payoff to minority partners in government, leaving a nation more vulnerable to foreign enemies.

Unless Britain wants to get into the business of banning political parties, the nation will at best suffer only the embarrassment of unseemly or anti-democratic parties being represented in Westminster. At worst, some of these parties may come to wield political power in a coalition government. Would Britain be better off with parliamentary representation of the fascist British National Party, or the communists? One commentator suggests that the BNP could reach 60 seats in a PR system.

An ever more likely scenario is that one day, in the not-too-distant future, one of the separatist parties of Wales or Scotland would become kingmaker under proportional representation, leading to further or complete unraveling of the United Kingdom.

The national parliaments of Wales and Scotland already use a moderate form of proportional representation. In those parliaments, some members are elected on a regional PR basis, while others are elected according to the current Westminster model. Among MPs elected on a first-past-the-post basis, the separatist parties are relatively weak. Among the MPs elected by proportional representation, separatists make up an astonishingly high number. Because of proportional representation, separatists run the minority government of Scotland.

In case British voters do flirt with a proportional system by sending enough Liberal Democrats to parliament, it’s worth remembering the most notorious historical example of this system: Weimar Germany.

The Weimar electoral system divided Germany into thirty-five regions in which votes were cast for lists of candidates fielded by the national parties. With the German population at 62.4 million, and electoral districts averaging 1.7 million inhabitants, a party needed to receive either 60,000 votes per district or 60,000 surplus votes garnered from several contiguous regions in order to enter the Reichstag. Then, further seats could be obtained with only 30,000 surplus votes collected from anywhere in the republic. This system ensured that almost no votes were wasted, but it also set the threshold for election at 0.04 percent on average. This effectively guaranteed that almost any political party, however small, would be granted some form of representation, and thus political power, in the Weimar legislature.

Asa-El drives home the point about the problems with the Weimar electoral system in a footnote. In the elections of 1930, instead of becoming the second-most powerful party in the Reichstag, the Nazis would have actually lost seats under a first-past-the-post system. The strength of the Nazis, combined with the inherent weakness of coalition governments under a PR system, was a recipe for disaster in Germany.

Even though the U.K. is almost certain to come out better than the Weimar Republic, British voters would be wise to vote for the flawed Tories next Thursday, and kill the Lib-Dem dream of proportional representation while voters still have the chance to avoid a very bad situation.

1 Comment

  • April 29, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Very well put. Good points and good writing.

    I might add one other prickly characteristic of the proportional system: in the proportional system, the people you are voting “with” are dispersed across the nation, and the assumption is that you are most naturally connected based on your ideologies. Because there is no constituency of congressional district for each representative, people are not grouped based on there geographic location, and hence the particularities of people’s existing economic and social relationships. Ideology thus completely trumps any semblance of a demos, or political entity at a lesser level. In the single-member constituencies, the people within a district are still bound together by the popular choice, but a proportional system gives different representatives to neighbors.