Friday, March 17, 2006

Keeping Proportion about Representation

As I said earlier, I thought I would take a deep breath and blog about my feelings on PR, given the debate it occasionally generates in the blogosphere (BTW the power of the blog was mentioned very briefly in tonight's West Wing, which was interesting).

For a start, Antonia mentions on the issue in her blog:

"I like knowing who the government is when I wake up the next morning after the election. I like coalitions inside broad church political parties made before the election not in smoke-filled rooms away from public gaze as the very reasons one might vote for a party get traded away. I like governments that stay the course and have a chance of implementing a manifesto. I like MPs with a clearly-defined geographic responsibility so that they have to help their constituents rather than list members flitting around with no responsibilities free to undermine constituency members and fight a four-year election campaign. I like local parties choosing their candidates, not faceless lists chosen by central office. I like candidates’ names on the ballot paper, not just names of parties. I like not having the BNP in the House of Commons.
As for gender balance, there are mechanisms to improve that under FPTP as well, not just under the variety of PR systems."


I totally agree, ( wow that's about the fourth time ;) ) and Antonia has articulated well the very fears I have about PR. That whilst it has a good appeal (In so far that it claims to be more representative) when you look at the democratic costs, coalitions, smoke filled rooms, geographic responsibility etc.. I feel we might as well stick with 'First Past the Post..'

Neil takes issue with this argument, piece by piece, with the following (BTW I hope you can bear with me here and my apologies to all concerned if you feel I am not being at all helpful):

"I like knowing who the government is when I wake up the next morning after the election."

Is that really a reason? The incumbent continues in office for a few weeks (at most) while the coalition is formed. Usually it takes a few days if it isn’t a close election. In the US it is almost 3 MONTHS after the FPTP election before the handover!! In Canada under FPTP they have had EIGHT coalition governments out of the last 16!

“Of the 16 elections that have taken place in Canada since 1957, eight have produced majority government and eight have produced parliaments with no overall majority. The average lifespan of a minority government is about 18 months, and the Conservative party’s position in parliament in 2006 is weaker than any of these predecessor governments. The chances are that a reluctant Canadian electorate will have to go back to the polls before the end of 2007.British media and political discussion of the German election in September 2005 saw a great deal of criticism of proportional representation in Germany - although the result reflected the wishes of the electorate and a broad-based government has now been formed. Can we look forward to discussion of the chronic instability of first-past-the-post in Canada after two indecisive elections in a row?”

Alex FolkesElectoral Reform Society


" I like coalitions inside broad church political parties made before the election not in smoke-filled rooms away from public gaze as the very reasons one might vote for a party get traded away."

So manifestos (that are rarely honoured - 3 times Labour has promised a referendum on electoral reform for example) decided by a party that can only win a minority of the vote is better than a government decided by the majority. You are having a laugh!

"I like governments that stay the course and have a chance of implementing a manifesto."

We are heading to a situation, now that the Lib Dems have many more seats where we could get ‘hung parliaments’ continually like in Canada. Except being based on the electorate’s choice, it will be based on the curiosities of the boundaries under FPTP.

"I like MPs with a clearly-defined geographic responsibility so that they have to help their constituents rather than list members flitting around with no responsibilities free to undermine constituency members and fight a four-year election campaign."

The trouble is ‘clearly-defined’ boundaries lead to the situation where the party could get 7% more nationally than another party and ‘lose’ the election. On the other hand, changing the boundaries more frequently destroys this so called constituency link. The link is rubbish anyway, as you point out, sometimes 90% of the electorate don’t vote for their MP. Unless you study the latest local polls and previous results, most people end up not knowing the candidate best placed to beat the incumbent MP. FPTP, rather than making the MP more accountable makes them much less. It is such a travesty of democracy, I could tell you now which party is going to win in 85% of the seats in the 2009/10 election and bookies wouldn’t take any of the bets because they know in safe seats people don’t have a real choice. This is not democracy where only a small number of people in a small number of marginal seats decide the government.

"I like local parties choosing their candidates, not faceless lists chosen by central office. I like candidates’ names on the ballot paper, not just names of parties."

You are conveniently talking about the worst form of PR, a closed list system. Like FPTP, closed list PR has no place in a modern democracy. Under open-list PR or STV, ALL the candidates are chosen by the electorate, the voters have far more power than FPTP.

"I like not having the BNP in the House of Commons."

The evidence suggests that the reason for the growth in the BNP is the FPTP system which shuts down debate. The BNP thrive on the protest vote. They are their worst enemy, when people hear how ridiculous their policies are, their vote declines. It is FPTP that could lead to the BNP growing in strength not PR.Of course PR would flush more racists out of the mainstream parties as well. The Tories were virtaully running a BNP campaign at the last election with their insiduously racist posters and targeting of immigrants/asylum seekers and gypsies.

"As for gender balance, there are mechanisms to improve that under FPTP as well, not just under the variety of PR systems."

Yeah but PR is far more successful. Turnout is 10% higher on average especially amongst the urban poor and the gender and ethnic balance is much much higher.On this Antonia, you are very very wrong. PR is uninteresting and too academic for a lot of people, but it is the most important subject because it is about apportioning power. PR is the best thing the left could do to alleviate poverty, if only we could recognise this.

----------------------------------------------------
Neil, as we can see, puts forward his case somewhat forcefully and some of his points are fair, in that we need reform or else we are in trouble. Not just the Labour Party, but the current democratic situation as well. That said, Antonia is arguing for the principle and on that I think she is right. People vote for the manefesto general, not on whether they agree with page 32 or whatever, and what's more the BNP and other such organisations, won't simply wilt because of a change in democratic structures, they are too dangerous for that. As for PR alleviating poverty, if only that were true!

Louisa makes another fair point here (from the comments page on her Europe posting):

"Personally, I think that though coalitions aren't always good, they equally so are not always bad, and I would far rather have a coalition which represents more effectively (yes, it's not perfect, and yes, people don't vote for coalitions) than an extremely strong government with less than 35% of the vote doing really important things. We live in a democracy, and I think the values of the people are more important, and consensual government is more important, than "getting things done". What's the point in getting things done if the public doesn't want them done?But I know that this issue is often a matter of opinion- it can't always be debated"

The bit about 34% is valid, although it must be pointed out that none of the opposition parties did any better. That said, the way I feel about it is that electoral reform is needed, although I disagree strongly with PR per se for the very reasons Antonia gave.
But what about AV, otherwise known as the Alternative Vote. It's democratic, representative, no threat of coalitions, and each constituency MP gets in on a maj vote and allows for second and third preferences. However, Neil's response to my comments on this when I posted them on his blog yesterday were:

"I would accept AV as a step in the right direction but that still leaves the system wide open to more gerrymandering whether on purpose or accidental (as at present). You just wait until the Tories get in with just 20% of the electorate voting for them (as they eventually must under this system) and see what they do to the boundaries. The Labour party have been warned. If the Tories were willing to back a military coup to get rid of a Labour government under Harold Wilson, they will easily fiddle a few boundaries. "

Okay, but isn't that what the Boundary Commission is for! As I stated earlier, what about the principle? All systems are open to abuse, so long as you have the barriers in place to protect the system, then surely that helps to make a positive difference!

4 comments:

Neil Harding said...

"People vote for the manifesto general, not on whether they agree with page 32 or whatever"

This is a very very crucial and important point. PR allows the electorate a far more nuanced choice than FPTP. FPTP is a very blunt electoral instrument and effectively means accepting a manifesto in its entirety even if you only support 50% of it. PR allows you to influence which bits of the manifestos of different parties are implemented. It's difficult to explain without resorting to degree level maths (which is probably why so many people are turned off the subject, thanks by the way for bearing with me on this), but hopefully this simplified model will help.

Imagine all the parties have just 3 policy areas.

PARTY A,
Cut taxes by 10%.
Invade Iran.
Ban gay sex.
PARTY B,
Increase taxes by 5%.
No invasion.
Gay sex at 16.
PARTY C,
Increase taxes by 10%.
No invasion.
Gay sex at 18.

Party A wins 40% of the vote
Party B, 25% of the vote
Party C, 35% of the vote

Under FPTP, Party A wins a majority, cuts taxes by 10%, invades Iran and bans gay sex, despite 60% of the electorate voting against ALL of these policies. How can this be justified?

Under PR, parties B and C forms a coalition, increases tax by 8%, lowers age of consent to 17, and doesn't invade Iran. This is much closer to what the majority wanted.

"the BNP and other such organisations, won't simply wilt because of a change in democratic structures, they are too dangerous for that."

The BNP are growing in strength under FPTP, ignoring them is not the answer, we have to beat their arguments head on constantly. FPTP leads us to be complacent of the far right. New Zealand has implemented PR (with a 5% threshold) and the far right have won NO seats.

"As for PR alleviating poverty, if only that were true!"

A Harvard study of electoral systems and governments around the world over the last 50 years has demonstrated that left of centre governments dominate under PR, and as a consequence PR run societies are more equal in terms of wealth disparities.

"The details of actual tax and spend policies for the purpose of redistribution are complex, but the explanation for redistribution in advanced democracies is probably fairly simple. To a very considerable extent, redistribution is the result of electoral systems and the class coalitions they engender.

"Electoral systems matter because they alter the bargaining power and coalition behavior of groups with different interests. In majoritarian systems, parties have to balance the incentive to capture the median voter with the incentive to pursue the policy preferred by their core constituencies. Because the median voter is closer to the distributive interests of the center-right party, any probability that parties will defect from a median voter platform once elected will make the median voter more likely to vote for the center-right.

"This result contrasts to multiparty PR systems where governments are based on coalitions of class parties. In this context, center parties will tend to find it in their own interest to ally with parties to the left. This result follows because the middle class can use taxation of the rich to bargain a tax rate and benefit level with the poor that is closer to its own preference. There is no opportunity for a coalition of the center and right to exploit the poor in the same manner."

"they will easily fiddle a few boundaries. "

"Okay, but isn't that what the Boundary Commission is for!"

The last Tory manifesto hinted at revising the rules of the boundary commission to ignore geographical and administrative considerations, it also proposed reducing the number of seats to 500, thereby bringing rural Tory votes into more urban seats to make them Tory marginals. Peter Oborne in the spectator even scandalously proposes enlarging seats by ignoring voters who don't turn out. Urban Labour seats have much lower turnout. Labour voters would be disenfranchised even before they got to the polling booth, this already happens to some extent because unregistered voters mainly in poor urban areas (10% of total electorate are not registered to vote) are ignored in drawing boundaries. Extending this to the 40% who don't vote, would be disastrous for Labour, because their voters have been much less likely to turn out, this would effectively disqualify them from having an influence for ever.

Don't think the party that abolished local govt care about democracy. All they care about is winning elections. There is already a precedent for this in the US, where the winning party are allowed to gerrymander boundaries at will, to their advantage. The boundary commission over there was abolished, don't think it won't happen here.

MatGB said...

what about AV, otherwise known as the Alternative Vote. It's democratic, representative, no threat of coalitions

Um, you're kidding, right? FPTP creates a threat of coalitions all the time, AV makes them slightly more likely.

Canada, for example, uses FPTP, and regularly needs coalitions; Malta uses full STV and doesn't need coalitions at all.

AV is better as it's more representative, "list PR" is as bad as FPTP in different ways, AV+ and STV are the only real options, with one (AV+) giving more control to party heirarchy, the other (STV) giving more control to the electors themselves.

I favour STV, I'd accept Jenkins Commission AV+, AV itself would be a necessary first step for both but isn't, in itself, a panacea or a solution to the underlying problem.

The problem, by the way, is the median voter chasing that Neil highlights. It leads to populism and centrism, and the corruption that we can see in the third term we are now under; I've always voted tactically for Labour before, the system now forces me to vote tactically against them.

A system that enforces the only real alternative electorally being a bunch I still instinctively hate is not a good system by any definition.

Paul Burgin said...

Neil:

I would never suggest ignoring the BNP, I just honestly feel that I would not want to encourage a constitutional reform which would benefit them in any way.
I agree with both of you about the median voter chasing. This has meant that, at a general election, only a small proportion of the population in key marginal seats are targeted simply because it is rare to see a sesmic shift in the political landscape under FPTP (See 1906, 1923, 1945, 1983, and 1997)
I agree with AV, but my fears over PR (and I am taking into account what you are saying Neil), is that in some nations, like Italy for example, it has caused no end of problems with instability just around the corner.

Neil Harding said...

Instability is actually more likely under FPTP.

If you want stable long term leaders and governments, what about; The Social Democrats and Gerhard Schroder (8 years)in Germany, Labour's Helen Clark (9 years and still going) in New Zealand, The Social Democrats - Goran Perssen in Sweden (10 years and still going) and yes, unfortunately Silvio Belusconi in Italy (Italy has problems but they are related to historical interference from the US to prevent communism and lack of control of the media and other corruption. It is not anything to do with having PR).

If you want difficult decisions to be taken look to their better economic growth and public services. The stop-go policies under FPTP have caused untold damage. Taking the difficult long term decisions is easier under PR and that is the true test of a strong govt.

As for the BNP; None of these countries have the far right represented at national level. It is places that have FPTP and other majoritarian systems where the far right are on the march, unchecked by a complacent system.