Does the Israeli election result prove PR just doesn't work?

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2009

Whenever electoral reform – ie, proportional representation or ‘fair votes’ – is debated, those who oppose it will almost inevitably use a variation on the following arguments:

• it produces coalition governments which are weak, divided and indecisive (far better, obviously, to have strong government regardless of whether a majority of people actually voted for it);
• coalition are created by political deals in “smoke-filled rooms” which the voters have no control over (unlike our Parliamentary system of whipping and Prime Ministerial patronage, of course);
• The government which emerges bears no relation to the individual parties most voters support (compared with first-past-the-post, where the government formed may bear no relation to the popular vote);
• it’s complicated and confusing for voters (I know, how can the poor things really be expected to understand how to order their preferences numerically, 1, 2, 3 etc?);
• large, multi-member constituencies erode the clear and direct link between voters and their MP in single-member constituencies (whereas under the current system, of course, parties only need campaign in marginal seats, with the vast majority left as largely uncompetitive one-party states).

Anyway, you can bet your bottom dollar that, even as I write, somewhere someone will be writing an article suggesting that Israel’s use of proportional representation is to blame for the current Middle East peace crisis. Oh wait – look! – the Telegraph already has written that article.

So I was pleased to receive today an email from Make Votes Count refuting the “myths and ill-informed comment” that generally accompanies British reporting of elections held under proportional representation. Here’s an extract:

1. The election was very close between the two leading parties. When elections are close, the result takes a while regardless of system – the US Presidential election of 2000 took over a month (and was terminated by a dubious Supreme Court decision), and the 2008 Minnesota Senate election is still undecided! See our pamphlet ‘Close Elections Globally’ for more examples.

2. Israel is a very divided society (religious, ethnic, attitude to peace) and there is a need for even small minorities to get representation. It has an extreme form of PR for this reason. Nobody would suggest having a single national constituency and a very low threshold for election in Britain. You’re not comparing like with like if you compare Israeli PR to elections in Britain.

3. First-past-the-Post wouldn’t exactly be the answer in Israel! You would have a government with low levels of public support, low legitimacy, and low ability to deliver any agreements it enters into.

4. The formation and success of new parties (e.g Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu) in recent years has drained support from Likud and Labour and makes the process of forming a coalition and maintaining a stable government more challenging.

For more information on the Israeli electoral system and commentary from MVC about the Israeli elections, see Make Votes Count’s blog.

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Does this really need the smug priggish rebuttals of the arguments for FPTP? There are some easy – equally priggish perhaps – rebuttals of your points in the British context:

• PR produces coalition governments which are weak, divided and indecisive (far better, obviously, to have strong government regardless of whether a majority of people actually voted for it)

– But FPTP tends to produce governments the majority of the people wanted, even if they voted differently (ie Tory in 83, Labour in 97, 01, 05)

• coalition are created by political deals in “smoke-filled rooms” which the voters have no control over (unlike our Parliamentary system of whipping and Prime Ministerial patronage, of course)

– FPTP doesn’t tend to produce coalitions. What you see is what you get: Labour plurality of vote, Labour majority in Commons, Labour government, and ditto for the Tories. Not PR.

• The government which emerges bears no relation to the individual parties most voters support (compared with first-past-the-post, where the government formed may bear no relation to the popular vote)

– FPTP almost always provides the party with a plurality with a Commons majority. That isn’t ‘no relation’ to the popular vote.

Of course the key argument against PR is that in Britain it would make the Lib Dems kingmaker every time, and very few people think that as a party the Lib Dems are intellectually honest enough to act in Britain’s best interests: the argument runs, very convincingly, that it would be all about extracting concessions for Lib Dem-voting areas, deals in Westminster rooms, and very little reference to the people – despite all the rhetoric of “power to the people.”

This is not meant to be an anti-Lib Dem rant – though maybe it is – but the experience of the devolved assemblies doesn’t give much hope.

by Anonymous on February 12, 2009 at 10:22 pm. Reply #

FPTP works well when there are only two parties to choose from. Unfortunately for posters like “Anonymous” this isn’t the case anywhere in the UK – three main parties nationally, four in Scotland and Wales. As a result there will always be a huge imbalance between the % votes cast and % seats gained.

To respond to the points in order:

1 – the Labour / Lib Dem coalition in Scotland held together for two four year terms, despite Labour having to change their leader twice in the first term and us changing our leader in the second. In local government in Scotland, only one coalition has fallen apart since the STV vote in 2007 – and that was in Dumfries & Galloway where there had been a coalition under the previous, FPTP situation.

2 – with PR, voters know that there is a likelihood of coalition, so it is accepted that there will be some negotiation and prioritisation of policies. But all three / four parties are close enough on policy that the likelihood of a deal is pretty good, regardless of who’s talking to whom. And minority government can work – it happened in Wales, and the SNP have survived against expectations for almost two years.

3 – not so. PR can produce an absolute majority – as long as you get a majority of votes. In Scotland in 2007, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire both had overall Labour majorities, despite the election being run on PR. Where there is a coalition, you will also ALWAYS get a situation where the majority (over 50%) of people have voted for the administration, not one where most (under 50% but the most votes) people have voted for it.

And on the link with the constituency – under STV, it’s certainly not diluted. In fact, because the areas are bigger, they’re more easily understood and there is a direct link with the town or communities, rather than some abstract description of a part of a town which nobody really understands.

by KL on February 13, 2009 at 9:27 am. Reply #

And the Lib Dems also won’t always be kingmakers. During the last Scottish Parliament, the SNP were buttering up the Greens to become their coalition partners because of the number of constituency seats the SNP were going to take from Labour. Of course, it was all academic because they ended up taking the list seats from the Greens and the Socialists instead, the two groups most likely to support them in a coalition!

by KL on February 13, 2009 at 9:31 am. Reply #

Israel is the arguement always wheeled out against PR. Italy is another.

People neglect to mention that even with FPTP, Israel would still be Israel and Italians politics would still be Italian politics – some things no voting system can fix.

by Benjamin on February 13, 2009 at 1:24 pm. Reply #

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