Strong and stable government?

This topic was discussed in a webinar run by the organisation “Make Votes Matter”. 
There were five speakers: two were from British politics (one Labour and one Conservative) and three were from other countries which use proportional representation (Australia, Germany and Mexico).

Strong and stable government webinar by Make Votes Matter

Does proportional representation deliver?

The two speakers from British politics each spoke fervently about the need for a different system than first past the post (FPTP) in the UK. Stephen Kinnock from Labour started the webinar by stating that the aim of proportional representation (PR) is so that every vote counts, and that the government of the day must reflect the proportions of votes actually cast for the various parties.

He pointed out that under our current FPTP system, elections are won and lost in the 100 marginal seats. In the 2019 election, 43% of the votes produced 57% of the seats, and a win for the Conservatives. A worse example of such election distortion in FPTP is that in Scotland, in the 2015 General Election SNP took 50% of the vote but 95% of the seats.

In the 2017 elections, it is estimated that 7m people voted tactically, but this is damaging as people are not expressing their real voting preferences.

Since 1945, Conservatives have won 41% of the vote to Labour 40% but the conservatives have been in office for 63% of this time.

Benefits of Proportional Representation

He pointed out the countries which have adopted PR, all have the following features:

  •  More women and minorities in government
  •  Higher voter turnout
  •  Better long-term planning and political stability
  •  Handling more environmental legislation.

But under FPTP, as in the UK, there is a tendency for extreme wings to take over parties.

David Gauke, an ex-Conservative MP, admitted that he used to support FPTP because of its strong constituency links and because it gets rid of governments effectively, but he cautions that these features applied in the simple two-party system which prevailed in past decades: each of the two main parties consisted of a broad coalition and it worked.

But this was in decades when the divide between the two main parties was based on economic security: Conservatives were drawn from the economically secure and the Labour voters felt less secure. But he pointed out the UK now shows cultural divides too, which results in strange new coalitions, of the economically insecure with the cultural traditionalists, for example.

In the battle for red wall seats, cultural conservatives became dominant, dragging the party toward populism. The moderates have little leverage in safe blue seats. This means that there is now no party for the pragmatic internationalists, who are fiscally conservative, pro-market and pro-business. Yet these would be prepared to collaborate to see off the extreme. This explains why some of these moderates in the centre right, who used to be hostile to PR, are now coming round to it, as he is. 

The moderator explained that this is why ‘Make Votes Matter’ will have a stall at the forthcoming Conservative conference.

So now, having summarised the points against FPTP stated by the British politicians, we can turn to the speakers who explained the merits of PR for their countries. 

Germany

Terry Reintke spoke of the German experience and from her experience in the European Parliament where she is a leader of the Green alliance. She pointed out that since WWII Germany has had only nine chancellors, an indication of stable government.

She stated that in her experience debate is more civilised and inclusive. Even at election time, more voices are heard, and politicians are less confrontational as they know they have to seek collaboration soon. They recognise there is space for compromise. Debate is more topic orientated, and civic society groups are more involved.

Australia

Malcolm Bowden spoke from Australia which began discussing whether to have PR as far back as the 1850s. Tasmania has actually functioned with STV (Single transferable vote) since 1890. The federal Parliament of Australia has been elected by preferential voting since 1918 and the Senate since 1948. All of the six State legislators get elected either by STV or AV.

“Australians love their preferences,“ he declared, “it gives them a sense of control.” This has produced coalition governments, for instance Labour with the Greens. Since the 1990s there is also a marked increase in the number of independents who reach the legislature. However, he said that PR in single member constituencies is not much better than FPTP.

Mexico

Georgina from Mexico pointed out that Mexico had enjoyed political pluralism only in the last 45 years, the transition into democracy occurring in 1977. In the course of this struggle for pluralism there were parties that were underground, and also political activism in entities such as the trade unions for education and for energy firms, dubbed “entities of public interest” by those remaking the constitution.

In the reform of the year 2000, 300 seats were elected by FPTP, 100 seats via PR from party lists and 200 from the entities of public interest. The party lists get a bad reputation for political patronage, even family members put on them. So there is a political push, successful in some Latin American countries, to have open lists for PR, not closed party lists. More recent reforms, in 2014 and 2020, have moved towards gender equality.

Question time

Matters that came up at question time were:

  • What if the public likes the stronger link to a local constituency?
    This does not seem to be of concern in the countries that use PR with multi-member divisions. It means there are more, not less, lines to the legislature for local people.
  • UK voted against PR in 2011.
  • Malcolm is against referendums as a way of moving forward.

“Britain has already had a referendum on PR – Proportional Representation – in 2011.” This argument against the UK moving to PR is incorrect. The 2011 referendum was about AV, but was ‘sold’ as PR. The reason the public and electorate believe the statement to be true is because the then Government told them that AV is PR.

Pure PR

Proportional Representation in its purest form would reflect exactly the seats in Parliament, in the elected house (in UK, the House of Commons), to the proportion of the electorate who voted for a particular party. The FPTP system simply cannot ever achieve proportionality. For instance, in one election UKIP had circa 4.4million votes and just one MP. (the Electoral Reform Society explains all systems very well).

The AV, or preferential vote, system is an electoral system whereby voters rank candidates in order of preference. If there is an insufficient majority for any one candidate, the candidate with the fewest number of first-preference rankings is eliminated and the votes of those who voted for this candidate are redistributed according to their second preferences, the process being repeated until one candidate achieves the required majority.

This system may seem fair, but it still elects only one candidate per constituency, meaning that all the other candidates, or parties, and therefore votes, are still not represented. The system has no mechanism to allow for the full representation of parties/voters according to their proportion of the vote. Therefore, it is not PR.

To support that it is not PR, the ERS analysed the 2015 election result, and concluded that, had it ‘been run under AV, the Conservative majority would have been even larger despite winning just 37% of the vote.’


Make Votes Matter YouTube channel

Previous events included: 


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