In this essay I compare the merits of Proportional Representation (PR) and First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral systems. In particular I look at the potential impact on our political landscape had we adopted PR in previous UK General Elections and finally at the impact PR has had in Scotland.
The success of the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) in the recent German elections was greeted with horror in the UK press. The AfD gained over 13% of the vote and 92 (from a total of 709) seats in the Bundestag, while the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Merkel suffered an 8% drop in vote share from 42% to 34%. As a result, the Christian Democrats have been unable to forge a workable coalition due it would seem to the inability to agree on immigration. So, there may well be fresh elections to resolve the matter. However, as Martin Kettle observes (Guardian 20.11.2017), while in the UK there’s panic if a Government isn’t formed within 48 hours of an election, the German electorate are much more relaxed about the idea that forming a workable coalition can take time.
Contrast that with the UK in which David Cameron (remember him?), in order to try to shoot the UKIP fox and quell dissent in his own Party, offered an In – Out referendum on the EU if he won the 2015 General Election (FPTP = winner takes all), this despite UKIP at the time having zero seats in Parliament. The result is that we appear to be heading out of Europe.
The argument in favour of FPTP is that they provide strong Governments. Unfortunately this ‘strength’ has all too often led to the unfettered pursuit of political ideology. After its initial success in creating the National Health Service in 1948, successive Labour Governments nationalised coal, steel, shipbuilding, railways the motor and energy industries, in fact almost anything that could move. In doing so they ceded enormous power to the Trade Unions which were then able to hold successive Governments to ransom (the Tory, Heath Government and subsequent Wilson and Callaghan Labour Governments) as a result of their joint bargaining power. The UK endured the 3 Day Week and was described as ‘the sick man of Europe’
When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, the ideological pendulum swung in the opposite direction with mass privatisations of some Nationalised industries (including Britoil – see Norway and Statoil), the closure of coal mines, shipyards and steel foundries which created wastelands of whole swathes of the country which have yet to recover. She also conducted a scorched-earth policy against the Trade Unions, in particular the National Union of Mineworkers and its leader Arthur Scargill, which reached its climax in the failed miners strike of 1984. Thatcher’s final political legacy, again enabled by the freedom to act bestowed by FPTP, was the Big Bang which dismantled much of the legislation that ensured the Financial sector’s integrity, thus paving the way for the Banking crash of 2007. More recently, Tony Blair’s strong Labour Government took us to war in Iraq. It should be no surprise really that two of the countries worst affected by the Banking crash and which were prepared to fly in the face of UN Resolutions to prosecute the Iraq war, were the UK and USA, two of only three advanced economies which still use a FPTP electoral system (the other is Canada).
So for over a century now we’ve had a constant battle of ideologies, first one way then the other, knocking down what went before, prior to building some new totem. From mass Nationalisation, to mass Privatisation and so on. By contrast, because PR makes it much more difficult for any single party to gain a majority of seats, in order to form a Government, political parties need to collaborate and to make compromises, thus greatly reducing the potential for ill-conceived legislation.
PR is sometimes criticised for leaving Countries in limbo while political parties indulge in horse trading, which takes time (e.g. Belgium). However, this is surely less time consuming than the repercussions of ill-considered legislation that can be bulldozed through as a result of FPTP. The process is similar to Japanese industrial consultation processes, which are exhaustive and tellingly, highly frustrating to British businesses. In the 1980’s, ICI developed identical manufacturing facilities in Japan and the UK for a new product. The British facility was built and into production faster than its Japanese counterpart. However the Japanese easily beat the British into full production due to thinking through the entire process more thoroughly at the outset.
The irony is that the UK Government has been at the forefront of introducing PR electoral systems elsewhere, notably in the devolution settlements of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland (of which more in a moment) but for UK General Elections PR is apparently a no-no as it will produce endless ‘hung Parliaments’ which, we are told, the British public don’t like and don’t understand. There’s also the argument that a Party’s manifesto has to be ditched when entering a coalition Government because it no longer has a mandate to pursue its policies. Since when has being elected with as little as 35% of the vote (which translates to about 25% of the total electorate) provided a secure mandate? The final argument is the loss of the link between a Constituency and its MP. In order to maintain this broken system therefore the Electoral Commission is charged with redrawing constituency boundaries to ensure a balance of constituency size and political persuasion to avoid potential gerrymandering!
One of the worst iniquities of the FPTP system is that of the wasted vote. A General Election in the UK usually boils down to a few hundred thousand votes in those ‘swing’ seats with a slim majority. Most of the rest are ‘safe’ seats in which it’s highly unlikely that the incumbent Party can be ousted. If you don’t vote for that Party then your vote is wasted. In PR every vote counts as was amply illustrated in the recent Scottish Local Elections which uses full-fat PR and where voters were encouraged to give each candidate a ranking irrespective of their politics on the ‘vote till you boak’ principle.
I’d like you to consider the political landscape after the 2015 General Election using PR, which would almost certainly have produced a coalition (most likely Labour /Lib Dems/Greens plus SNP confidence and supply) with say 20 UKIP MPs as part of the opposition. I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t have been an EU Referendum. As with the AfD in Germany however, the baying of UKIP MPs on the opposition benches would almost certainly have led to tightening the EU free movement policy. This, I understand, allows anyone in the EU to stay for up to three months in another EU country after which, if they want to stay longer, they must either have a job, be a student or be able to support themselves. Successive Labour and Tory Governments never implemented the bureaucratic mechanisms required to police these rules in the belief that the costs outweighed the benefits. Immigration then became a major factor in the Brexit vote, aided by the rather strange insistence on counting overseas students as immigrants (when recent ONS statistics showed that 96% of overseas students return home after they graduate).
In his article ‘Lessons from Scandinavia’ (iScot Magazine, Nov. 2017) , Calum Martin suggests that the Scandinavian countries have avoided the death-star embrace of Neoliberal Free Market Capitalism due to a strong Social Democratic political ethos. What he doesn’t say but which is undoubtedly a key factor is that the strength of Social Democracy in Scandinavian countries is due to PR which curbs the excesses of both left and right wing parties and in the case of the latter, ensures that rampant Neoliberalism is kept in check.
My final observation concerns the Scottish Government. When it was conceived in the 1990s, devolution was seen as a way to counter the apparently rising tide of Scottish Independence. The new Parliament (Scottish Executive as it then was) was to have a PR electoral system. Not just any old PR however but the d’Hondt system which it was believed would ensure the SNP could never achieve a majority. To quote George Robertson, Scottish devolution would ‘kill independence stone dead’ We now know that, irony of ironies, devolution and PR were the making of the SNP and the independence movement. While it’s true that PR makes it difficult for the SNP to form a Government, the same applies to all political parties. The hubris of the Labour Government of the time was that they saw Labour dominating elections forever. They failed to factor in the possibility that devolution and PR might stimulate the electorate to vote differently once they saw that every vote counted and that, unlike other parties whose allegiances were ultimately to Westminster, any SNP MSPs would have Scotland’s interests front and centre.
Having watched Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech at the Labour Party’s 2017 Autumn Conference in Brighton, electoral reform clearly isn’t on his radar. Meanwhile the Tories have always preferred FPTP as it enables them to win elections on a minority of the vote due to the way it splits the opposition vote (which is ironically, how the SNP almost swept the board in the 2015 GE). When they look North at the transformation that devolution and PR has wrought in Scotland, their resolve against the introduction of PR in UK General Elections can only have hardened. In which case the sclerotic UK will continue to lurch, first one way, then the other, forever looking for some political holy grail when a key component is right under their noses.