Essay:The case for proportional representation
"To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world." - thus begins the list of grievances with King George III as stated in the United State's Declaration of Independence. So let me begin by submitting the following fact to a candid world:
In the 2010 UK General Election, the results from the popular vote, that is, the overall voting patterns of the public of the United Kingdom broke down as follows.
Conservative Party: 36.1% Labour Party: 29% Liberal Democrat Party: 23%
The actual power allotted to these parties in parliament, that is, the proportion of parliamentary seats they received broke down as follows.
Conservative Party: 47% Labour Party: 39% Liberal Democrat Party: 8.7%
The gross unfairness and unjustness of this system becomes immediately apparent. That a party could form a near majority government with 64% of the voting public actively opposed to it (one makes the assumption that, in a non-transferable system, not voting for Party A is tantamount to actively opposing Party A, in a transferable vote system the degree of support and opposition can be quantified), or that a party could gain popularity and yet lose a significant amount of power reflects badly on any nation that considers itself free. This point is so readily apparent, obvious and undeniable that to spend an entire essay repeating it would be entirely unnecessary. Examples, counter-examples and political know-how, awareness and jargon are not needed to see the facts and draw this obvious conclusion. Instead, it would be far more productive to look at the arguments in favour of the current system, those opposing change and reform.
The opposition to change comes primarily from the Conservatives. This is to be expected for two reasons, firstly they are the party destined to lose most from a reform, and secondly that the opposition to change is the definition of conservatism. No one can blame conservative ideologists for this, this is the way the system works, those who favour change and those who oppose it. To paraphrase a famous quote, "it is the job of a liberal to keep on making mistakes, it is the job of a conservative to ensure those mistakes are not corrected". However, the non-ideological or power hungry arguments in favour of the "first-past-the-post" system are, at best, weak.
Arguments against proportional representation
Preventing the rise of the BNP
Before looking at the arguments against change, it's worth getting one of the worst out of the way first. That a proportional system would give additional power to smaller political parties is undeniable. That this includes the likes of the British National Party and the UK Independence Party is regrettable. However, these parties represent the views of a proportion of the electorate at large, and this clear fact cannot be ignored and swept away on a whim while any pretence of a fair democracy is in place. If we were to specifically choose an electoral system purely to silence these movements we may as well ban them outright and cease pretending to be free democracy. This is purely one of the weakest arguments, and may as well be an argument for a totalitarian dictatorship.
Even if it is broken, don't fix it
Firstly, that the system has worked well since it was implemented since 1688. The case above clearly demonstrates that the system is flawed. Representation in its current state stems from a time when it was impractical, if not impossible, to take in the views of a massive group of people when it came to elections. The system was set up so that a small, localised group could fairly elect their representative, who would be dispatched for government to represent this block of people as a whole. That this system was implemented when only rich land owners were allowed to vote doesn't need to be dwelt on; however, it should be noted that in the time before telecommunications and mass transport, the practical advantages of the system cleanly outweighed the mathematical idiosycracies that allowed a minority of people to exert its power as a majority. In the modern age, we can count votes and add them on a national scale, people can travel and move between constituencies at will. The restrictions of the past that caused this flawed system to develop no longer apply.
The stability and decisiveness of government
- Note; this was written prior to the election result and the announcement of a full coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, which hasn't heralded the apocalypse as predicted and has seemed to have generated a relatively progressive government.
- Note2; the above note was written not long after the election, when the Lib Dem side of the coalition still exerted some force. In 2012 we're under no illusion: we got a Tory government that we didn't vote for.
A fairly notable argument in favour of the current system is that it ensures a stable, outright majority government most of the time. The current case of a hung parliament is a rarity in such a system, but a regular occurance in a proportional system. However, the very fact that it is a rarity in the current system is the reason that it is a difficult and potentially problematic situation. In a proportional system where it is commonplace, it can be prepared for, it is expected, the "deals" are almost prearranged rather than dangerously ad hoc - and the leading coalition of parties would still hold the approval of the majority of the votes. Following the 2010 UK election, a Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition government would hold such a majority of popular support, and their progressive ideologies would not be completely at odds with the 52% of the population that voted for them - on the other hand, a Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition would undoubtedly put a highly conservative government in power against the wishes of 64% of the total population. Coalition governments and proportional systems have so far been unproblematic for quite a large number of nations operating such systems.
Accountability to constituents
The link and accountability of representatives is a noble feature of the current system, however, reality shows that this is far from the real case. The very existence of parties (a venerable "elephant in the room" when discussing political reform) ensures this isn't the case as MPs are essentially forced into line by threats on their careers. The reason that an overall majority of more than 50% of seats in the House of Commons is needed is so that legislation can be passed by the governing party; this requires that all party members vote in line with the government. If every member of parliament voted purely in line with their constituencies wishes, and policies were passed on individual merit (such as what has to occur when a party forms a minority government) such a requirement as an overall majority would be unnecessary in the first place - indeed, parties wouldn't even be required. Still, a representative can still be elected with a majority of their constituents not supporting them. At least with a transferable vote scheme, a majority would indeed support that candidate, even if many were only as a second or third choice.
Implementing an unchanged manifesto
An interesting case against proportional representation and the inevitability of continuous coalition governments is that when outright majorities are the norm, a manifesto can be enforced as it was presented to the public during the election. This is indeed a good thing, the country knows what it is voting for and there is no chance that it would be compromised in the forming of a political alliance. However, this neglects the original point against the current system; that a party can come to power with the support of only a minority. When a manifesto can be presented and then implemented unchanged, having it forced upon a people where the majority did not endorse it is unfair and unjust. At least in the case of party coalitions, similar manifestos can be melded to agree with the majority of people who voted for them. Such would be the case for a Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition, where both parties can be considered progressive, would form a combined manifesto that, while not supported entirely by the public majority, certainly isn't actively opposed by the public majority. More polarised coalitions, such as the potential for an impotent liberal party to endorse a conservative manifesto against the combined wishes of the majority would be avoided.
The vast majority of claims against reform are post facto justifications for a system that is in effect purely by an unwillingness to change and to progress. At worst it could be considered that it is only laziness and bloodymindedness that prevents this much needed progress. Proportional representation is not perfect, no system of democracy ever will be, however the arguments levied against it are far weaker indeed.