Tonight, I will be taking part in a debate at the Bolton West Conservative Association’s regular Pizza & Policy Debate Night. It’s a fun evening with some lively discussions that are always entertaining, no matter which side of the debate you find yourself on (or even if you’re just watching in the audience, because what’s the point of holding the event if the people coming along to it aren’t entertained?).
My role tonight is to debate against adopting Proportional Representation as a means of electing politicians. To be honest, I think I’ve got the easier side of this debate (the last one I spoke at was a loser for me from the start, because I was speaking to support a sugar tax that I fundamentally disagree with). Arguing a side you favour already makes things far easier.
So why do I sit on the side against PR? It’s pretty simple but let’s break this down into parts, because that makes it easier to follow.
What is Proportional Representation?
Basically, PR is a system of assigning seats in a governing body based on the number of votes a side has received. In a PR system where Conservatives polled at 40%, Labour polled at 40% and the other parties polled 20% combined, the 650 seats in the UK Parliament would be split so that 260 Conservative MPs were elected, 260 Labour MPs were elected and the other parties got 130 MPs between them. It becomes a little more awkward when it’s not whole numbers like that because 1% of 650 comes out at 6.5 MPs and nobody wants to get cut in half.
That’s just the first problem – the “half an MP” issue. What if being able to form a Government came down to how the Electoral Commission’s interpretation of how to divide the number of seats. Rounding up or rounding down could make the difference between a majority government, a minority government or a coalition. At that point, the structure of the UK Government would not be decided by the people who voted but, instead, by an unelected Civil Service body. That’s not democracy.
The Extremism Problem
How many people know Nick Griffin, former leader of the racist British National Party, once represented the whole of North-West England as one of its MEPs? We can’t say for certain how many people knew that but he won enough votes in a European Parliament election that he got one of the eight North-West MEP seats. Therein lies the next problem with Proportional Representation – it doesn’t take that many votes to get an extremist elected.
Now proponents of PR will spin this as a positive, because it’s equally true that it doesn’t take that many votes to get a minority interest party of any calibre elected, but that doesn’t take away from the danger this kind of extremism getting power poses. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times under PR) a coalition will need to be formed. What if the situation comes about where the backing of an extremist party is needed in order for a government to be formed at all?
It doesn’t have to be someone like the BNP being called on to join a coalition, either. There will be other extremists. In the UK, do you want a situation where Labour need to call on the Communist Party of Great Britain (who, given the current political climate, may well end up with seats under PR) in order to form a far-Left Government? I don’t – and I hope you don’t either.
The danger of extremists getting into power isn’t stopped there, either. Once extremists get someone into Parliament, that elected extremist has a bully pulpit from which to air their views. They also get the veneer of legitimacy, which makes it easier for them to spread their views. Extremism spreads far more easily than we would all like to admit; so let’s not be too carefree about this.
Coalitions Become Inevitable
It’s long been said that smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, favour Proportional Representation because it favours them. The smaller parties are likely to benefit because their votes are more spread out than those of the major parties; whose votes are bulked together in their “safe seats” plus they have large voting blocks in the more marginal areas, too. Elections are won and lost primarily on which way the marginals vote, with the safe seats staying safe unless there’s political turmoil at the time of the election.
That’s not the case under Proportional Representation – there are no “safe seats” under PR, everything is up for grabs. So in the 2015 election where UKIP got 4 million votes but only one MP while the Lib Dems faired about the same in terms of votes but got more seats, we would instead have seen UKIP and the Lib Dems getting the same number of seats because it’s the overall number of votes that matters. As a result, the larger two parties (Conservatives and Labour) would have had to lose seats to accommodate these smaller parties (plus any other small parties that gained seats).
The Conservatives would not have had a majority in 2015 under PR, and neither would Labour. A Coalition would therefore have to be formed. Who would ally with who? That’s a debate for another day. How long would each Coalition last? Again, we can’t say but it would be an interesting debate for another time.
What is clear is that any Coalition would be less stable than a majority Government, because that’s the nature of Coalitions. So a PR system would see fewer outright majorities, which is obvious just from a vote share perspective, and therefore a less stable Government.
You No Longer Have A Local MP
Who is your MEP? You probably can’t name them all but can you name one? Did you vote for that person? No, you didn’t. Nobody did. You voted for a party or a specific Independent (who may have received enough votes to get a seat but who probably didn’t). Under Proportional Representation, you would be voting in a similar fashion to how you vote in the European Parliament elections. So you can say goodbye to having a local MP who works for your community and who is elected on a platform of working for your community.
You may still get local MP surgeries, so you can still go to your MP with problems that only an MP can solve. You may still get MPs championing the issues in your area at Prime Minister’s Questions and in other Parliamentary debates. You won’t get an MP who is directly accountable to you, however – because you won’t ever be able to vote them out; not directly anyway.
Since PR allocates seats based on a percentage of the vote, you are not directly electing a representative any more. Which seat will be allocated to which Party under PR? Will there even be constituency seats any more? If there aren’t, who do you go to for help under PR the way you go to your local MP now? It’s an alien system, it wouldn’t be as directly representative.
Which means it’s far more difficult to get rid of an MP you don’t like. If they are favoured by their party but not by their local area, there’s a good chance that MP would still be an MP after the election, because you vote for a Party not for an Individual under PR.
The Most Stable Democracies Don’t Use Proportional Representation
The people who favour PR tend to pull out the old argument that “the world is moving toward proportional representation” and that’s true – but it misses a key point (aside from the “if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” response to that argument, of course). Many countries are starting to adopt a PR or PR-like system – good for them, I hope they like it. Do you know who isn’t using PR?
America, Canada, France and the UK. What do all these countries have in common? They are stable, powerful and successful democracies. These countries have long histories of getting along very well without the need for Proportional Representation – and in fact, we can credit a lot of their success to having fairly stable Governments. Now, the proponents of PR will point to Germany as an example of a stable, powerful country that uses PR and that’s fine until you realise that Germany has had successive Coalitions that take weeks, sometimes longer, to form after each election and that brings inherent instability to a country.
With First Past The Post, you know who is elected and who is forming the Government the morning after an election (barring some outlier elections such as 2010. It presents clarity and continuity of Government. You just don’t get that under PR. Under PR, you don’t know who’s going to be in charge for weeks; which means much-needed legislation and responses to crises are always going to be delayed.
There are far too many downsides to the PR system for it to ever be considered an alternative to First Past The Post. The arguments in favour of PR all have major downsides that its proponents will, of course, try to argue away but the fact remains that there are downsides, those downsides are significant, and those downsides are not outweighed by any perceived advantages.
First Past The Post may not be the most perfect system ever invented but that isn’t sufficient an argument to warrant getting rid of it in favour of something even more flawed.