Totally out of proportion
The curious case of a voting system that ensures promises will be broken
My Twitter feed contains way too many comments about proportional representation (PR). It’s my fault. I follow the wrong people. But a few weeks ago, I received a Christmas card from a treasured friend with a PR message in it. That was too much. (You know who you are. This post is for you. Everyone else can read on or skip past, just as they wish.)
The central theme of these Irregular Thoughts is my desire to view issues from several perspectives. So let me acknowledge this before I go any further: I think I might be willing to accept PR as the way to go if the sole purpose of a UK general election was to elect members of parliament. But it isn’t.
By far the most significant purpose of a general election is to choose a government. And that’s where I think PR goes wrong. I accept that the problems are not immediately obvious – hence the outrage expressed by so many people that PR is not used in the UK – but the problems do exist.
What follows is not a vindication of “first past the post” (FPTP). It is hard to exonerate a system that can easily deliver 60% of MPs to a party winning just 40% of the votes. My analysis seeks to explain why the supposed benefits of proportional representation are an illusion. PR is not the solution it promises to be.
We know that when an election doesn’t produce a clear winner, parties go into negotiation over a coalition. Manifesto promises get traded in order to arrive at a set of policies that all the coalition partners are willing to sign up to. Key policies that had attracted voters to a particular party may be ditched.
A famous example from the UK’s 2010 election was the Liberal Democrats decision to abandon its manifesto promise to vote against university tuition fees. The LibDem party soon discovered that its decision had not gone down well with many whose votes had put the LibDems into the coalition. The party was so acutely aware of the disaffection created that it issued a very public apology to its (former) supporters. The apology doesn’t appear to have been accepted - but it was famously set to music by someone with a sense of humour.
Voting figures at the next election suggest very strongly that a large proportion of those who had voted LibDem in 2010 were not at all happy with the policies their party had implemented once they secured a place in the government. The LibDem share of the vote collapsed from 23% in 2010 to less than 8% in 2015, whilst the share achieved by their Conservative coalition partners ticked up slightly.
So, whilst PR may prevent the power of government being bestowed upon parties with less than 50% of the vote, it can – and typically will – deliver a coalition government with a hotchpotch of policies that don’t match any of the manifestos that had been voted on and may not, in fact, attract majority support.
The problems of PR don’t begin and end with the post-electoral compromises. Politics involves a lot of planning. Once a party realises that its only chance to enter government is through a coalition, the leaders will most assuredly plan for the long nights of negotiation after the election day before. Their manifesto will no longer be a firm plan for government; it will, of necessity, be an opening statement for those negotiations.
Some policies may be campaigned on because they are vote-winners that can subsequently be dispensed with in any post-election coalition discussions. Such a tactic sounds shockingly corrupt and unbefitting a candidate for high office. But no matter how ethically we expect that a prospective government should behave (and for some wannabe prime ministers, one might suspect that ethics may not play any part in their strategy), at least some policies will have to be dropped in any coalition negotiations. If a party has no real prospect of winning enough seats to enable them to govern alone, they will need to know, in advance of an election, which policies are behind the red line and which are negotiable.
That drawback is not unique to the PR system. We may have seen an example of it during the UK’s 2015 election under FPTP. In the run-up to the election, the smart money was on the Conservatives not being able to form a government without requiring a repeat coalition with the LibDems. Many commentators believe that the Conservative leader, David Cameron, campaigned on at least one highly significant promise – to hold a referendum on EU membership – which he saw as a vote-winner that he could subsequently drop in any post-election coalition discussions. Cameron has firmly denied this and, as matters turned out, the Conservatives won an outright majority so the expected negotiations never materialised.
The UK’s current electoral system doesn’t often lead to a coalition, whereas PR consistently does. In theory, there is nothing in PR that prevents a single party from achieving sufficient votes to govern alone – historically, but not recently, parties in the UK have achieved more than 50% of the vote – but the reality is that, for the reasons explained next, a PR system tends to dilute the votes for each party, rather than consolidating them.
Misallocation of power
The UK’s two largest political parties, Labour and Conservative, contain members with often widely divergent views, even amongst their elected MPs. The disagreements are typically explained away with the phrase that the party is a “broad church”, suggesting a moral or philosophical reason for the diversity of views.
The reality is that an FPTP system naturally leads to the creation of (at least) two large parties. Parties with a small percentage of the vote win a disproportionately small proportion of seats in parliament. Conversely, parties with the largest proportion of the votes win an exaggerated proportion of seats. This creates a very strong disincentive for MPs to break away into smaller, more like-minded parties: those who do almost always lose their seats at the next election.
As much as the party leaders may find certain sections of their party to be a massive nuisance, simple mathematics dictates that the party’s electoral prospects are enhanced by tolerating a range of views amongst their membership. Of course, there are times when a party leader reaches the end of their tether with certain members. But the dissidents’ views really have to be doing a considerable amount of harm before the benefits from removing them outweigh the harm from the party giving up the votes they attract.
But, under PR, all that reasoning is turned on its head. Seats are won in (almost) direct proportion to the votes cast. Not only does the electoral system enable small parties to win a proportionate representation in the elected house, but it also gives those parties a good chance of winning a seat at the table during the coalition negotiations after an election. There is no need for dissidents to remain inside a party they do not fully empathise with.
This has consequences. The narrower the “church” of the large parties, the smaller the chance that they will secure the magic 50% needed to form a government on their own - and correspondingly greater is the likelihood that they will need to form a coalition with one or more of the dissident groups which had broken away. And as part of a coalition in government, those MPs would have far greater power than when they merely sat on the backbenches – tolerated but unloved by the leadership.
So which is better?
The UK’s existing electoral system frequently delivers governments with a program of action which was supported by only 40% of those who voted. Understandably, this looks unjust – or even grossly unjust – not least when compared with the PR alternative of government by a coalition of parties that (in aggregate) have polled more than 50% of the vote.
But, as I said at the start of this piece, that 50% support is an illusion. A coalition government will be implementing a policy program that differs – possibly substantially – from the program(s) that secured the 50(+)% vote share in the first place.
So, which is the better option: a program of action supported by 40% (say) of the electorate or a program, cobbled together after the election, that has not been tested in the polls? The answer is not obvious – at least, not to me.
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 See, for example, Chapter 29 of his autobiography, where Cameron says that he would not have abandoned the policy in order to secure a coalition. He also says he believed the LibDems would have gone along with a referendum. But who can know what would have happened if the electoral numbers had given Nick Clegg a strong hand?
 There is obviously a degree of rounding to whole numbers of seats and, in some PR schemes, there is a minimum threshold of votes required to win any seats at all.