Proportional Representation: a beginning, not an end

by Stephen Tall on June 24, 2005

For the last six weeks, the anti-war Independent has placed itself at the head of an army of crusaders hailing proportional representation as the saviour of our democracy. The case is quite simple. At the last general election, Mr Blair’s Labour Government was re-elected with the support of 36% of voters, and 22% of the electorate. This popular mandate was sufficient to secure 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, a comfortable majority over all other opposition parties of 66. You do not need to have seen a ghost to believe ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. It’s a no-brainer.

Always keen to parade its liberal credentials, however, the Indy yesterday gave the Foreign Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, 800 words to expound on his opposition to PR. It is an elegant exercise in muddle-headed articulacy, a trait of which Mr Straw is the past master. His argument agin breaks down as follows:

    1) Smaller parties would wield power in disproportion to their size;

    2) More decision-making would take place, off-piste, after the election;
    (I must break off, parenthetically, to note with wry amusement the following utterance with which he backs up this point: “Parties may have set out their positions in their manifestos, but the document which matters is the coalition programme agreed behind closed doors after the election. So what voters see is not necessarily what they are going to get.”
    I assume Mr Straw’s tongue was firmly embedded in his cheek when he wrote this, or perhaps he has forgotten Labour’s manifesto promises not to introduce tuition or top-up fees? (A policy with which I have much sympathy; I just wish Mr Blair had had the courage to test it out on the electorate first.) Or maybe, more ironically, Mr Straw has forgotten his Party’s manifesto commitment to hold within its first Parliament a referendum on voting reform? The words ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘steaming’ spring to mind.)

    3) Consensual coalitions make for weak, status quo government;

    4) Only first-past-the-post provides for directly accountable democracy.

Extensive rebuttals of each of these trite-and-testy antipositions is not what this article is about, though. Instead I shall confine myself to six sentences:

    1) No, PR gives parties representation proportionate to their popularity, and no party is going to commit electoral hara-kiri by leaping into bed with an extremist fringe movement;

    2) Think I’ve answered this one;

    3) Well, I don’t recall Mr Major’s 1992-97 Government being the most dynamic and reformist of administrations. But this is the typical ‘ends justify the means’ argument: the public wants the smack of firm leadership more than they want a government most of them have chosen.

    4) Rubbish: how accountable is your MP if you live in a safe seat where they weigh, rather than count, the ballot papers? In 1951, over 200 MPs were elected by a majority of the electorate in their constituency; not one single MP could stake this claim in 2005.

What this article is about is attempting to provide a more philosophical backdrop to the argument for PR than the “It’s just so unfair” sulk in which the Indy is indulging. It is understandable, but worrying, when newspapers (and politicians) put forward easy, pat solutions to complex, endemic problems. And the idea that PR will fix the difficulty of democratic engagement is unreal. Headlines such as, ‘The proof: vote reform *will* boost turnout’ (The Independent: 15 June, 2004), strain credulity, based as it is on a simplistic analysis of other countries’ voting patterns. Did the introduction of PR for elections to the European or Scottish Parliaments, Welsh Assembly or London Mayoralty trigger a great upsurge in voter interest? No, it did not.

Now, of course, there are other factors at play in each of those elections: the power at stake was felt to be either too remote or too diffuse to motivate voters. And it is correcting that perception – and, more important, that actuality – which is the key to reviving voter interest. To pretend, however, that PR is the answer, rather than simply a part (though a very important part) of the process is to build castles in the air which will come crashing to the ground. Almost 78% of the British public voted in the general election of 1992; just nine years later it had slumped to 59%. This crash and burn cannot be attributed solely to the electoral system. Those of us who are advocates of electoral reform need to find a more persuasive rationale. So here goes…

First, that the very essence of PR, pluralism, is the natural progression of politics today. We live in a fragmented, consumer society with weak party political alignment: class war is dead. Disagreements within parties are at least as sharp as disagreements between parties. The public sense this, which is why the prevailing general election posturing of “my party right or wrong” is increasingly viewed with scornful detachment.

I will use myself as an example. I have unabashed New Labour traits, which is why I joined the Party back in 1994, and voted for Mr Blair in that year’s leadership election. (I deserted in 1999, perhaps proving the adage that liberal progressives are much happier in opposition.) For instance, I believe in injecting market competition into the delivery of public services. There are many economic recidivists in the Liberal Democrats, and they are probably in the majority, for whom such talk is blasphemous. Yet my involvement with party politics – and, with it, the privilege of representing 4,000 of my residents on the city council – aligns me with many of those with whom I disagree, and divorces me from many whose views I share. This is a crazy, and destructive, way of doing business.

Pluralism, the recognition that those who cannot command a popular majority must engage with others, will accelerate this de-alignment. It will force those of us who participate in party politics to work with our opponents where we agree. The uncomfortable truth (and one of the reasons why PR is kept at arm’s length by Labour and the Tories) is that this will expose the parties’ ideological fault-lines to public gaze. There will be a growing realisation that, though we live in a three-party political system, the partisan dividing lines are extremely fuzzy. Currently, it is the very nature of our adversarial politics which binds together the individual strands within our necessarily ‘broad church’ parties. The worry of the political establishment is that pluralist politics will begin to unravel those strands in new and unpredictable ways. The old, sclerotic two-party state has gradually withered; PR will swiftly scythe it into the history books.

There is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason why PR is a touchstone of progressives: it treats each individual voter as having equal value. In the last election, much of the political parties’ efforts were focused on a select band of voters: the so-called Mondeo Men and School-gate Mums (for instance) in a few dozen marginal constituencies. If you lived in a safe Parliamentary seat, the chances are you would scarcely have known an election was on but for the saturation media coverage.

The professionalisation of politics has resulted in fewer and fewer citizens being targeted more and more efficiently by the party machines. As someone who has been closely involved in several campaigns, I can tell you that my party focuses rigorously on those geographical areas we know harbour most of our potential supporters. We have to: like any organisation we are making the most of our scarce resources. Many Liberal Democrat election victories are the result of this ‘differential turn-out’: we motivate our identified voters better than the other parties motivate theirs. This is all well and good as an election-winning tactic. But it is a lousy way of invigorating our democracy, or of forming an appreciation of the competing wants and needs within the whole locality.

I am not going to claim that proportional representation will, overnight, transform our political narrative: that you will see smug, moneyed Tory-boys regularly canvassing the inner-city streets; or patronising, sincere Labour-ites donning Barbours and wellies to try and understand rural life better. But they will not be able to write off vast swathes of this country, and those who live in it, as “not our natural territory”: every voter will matter, every vote could make a difference.

I think it is naïve and disingenuous to believe that PR will arrest the decline in turn-out in and of itself. But what I do believe it can do is incentivise the political parties to develop a suite of policies which have wide, encompassing appeal: which speak to everyone. It is possible for the three mainstream parties each to achieve this. But they will have to do so within an electoral system which enables fringe, extremist or single-issue parties to achieve representation; and within a pluralist political system which will reveal the polyglot nature of our political parties. The challenge all of us who are involved in party politics face is alarming, but exciting: how to articulate a coherent, relevant Big Idea into which an ever more savvy and choosy electorate can buy.