Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Why we need PR and not the Alternative Vote, which is just modified first-past-the-post

Why AV would make little difference

The Alternative Vote system which is proposed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown would make little difference to election results. It would reduce the average proportion of votes thrown away unrepresented in each constituency from 60% to 49%. Is binning every second person’s vote unrepresented democracy? Or is it just a sticking plaster to avoid real treatment that would represent the full variety of views in the electorate and end the dominance of the big parties and their leaders? It would not provide representation proportional to the number of votes cast for each party or candidate, just a slightly improved form of First-Past-the-Post which would continue to over-represent the big parties and under-represent votes for smaller parties and independent candidates. As a result it would discredit electoral reform, as people would soon see AV didn’t reduce the power of the established party’s leadership’s one bit.

Multi-member Proportional Representation – e.g STV

A referendum should give an option to vote for real proportional representation, which is only possible by having multi-member constituencies, as in systems like the Single Transferable Vote. The larger the number of MPs elected for each mulit-member constituency the more representative the parliament would be of the views and interests of the whole electorate. For instance with say 6 or 7 one hundred member constituencies the candidates elected would be in direct proportion to the percentage of the vote they got (whether for a party or an independent candidate). This would involve very big constituencies, making it hard to campaign across the entire constituency – but since only 1% of the vote would be required for a candidate to get elected candidates wouldn’t have to campaign across the entire constituency - and since constituents could go to the nearest MP’s constituency office when seeking help on problems or campaigning on issues it wouldn’t make things difficult for them either. In most existing STV systems the multi-member constituencies elect 3 to 5 MPs rather than 100.

This would also allow constituents to choose which MP they wanted to go to - and if they weren’t happy with the response from one then they could go to another. This is unpopular with some MPs, mostly those with seats which are ‘safe’ under ‘first past the post’ because they have an in-built majority for that MP’s party. That doesn’t mean that having the choice of who to go to depending on whose constituency office was nearest to them and who they trusted most would be unpopular with voters.

There are many arguments made against proportional representation systems, none of which hold up to any real examination.

Why PR isn’t the cause of the rise of fascism – unemployment and poverty caused by deregulation of the economy are

First there’s the argument that it allows disproportionate power to small extremist parties. At it’s most hyperbolic this argument’s proponents talk about how the ‘Nazis would march again’ under PR, or claim that it was PR which ‘let the mafia in’ in Italy and claim it would let the BNP into power in the UK.

In fact the Nazis did not get into power due to PR. They got into power because the Treaty of Versailles treated World War One, a clash between rival empires, as though it had been entirely the fault of Germany and placed the entire cost of the war for all countries involved onto Germany – a cost no single country could ever bear. As a result many Germans were left searching through rubbish for food and filled with resentment at the French government for imposing this on them. This combined with the Great Depression (caused by a lack of regulation of big banks and firms in the US spilling across the entire world due to unregulated free trade) to cause mass unemployment and poverty – leading to a rise in support for anyone offering jobs rather than ‘sound money’. As only the Stalinists and Nazis seemed to offer this option, support for both increased massively. Conservative politicians and businessmen decided the Nazis were the lesser of two evils for them and a ‘bulwark against Communism’ and formed a coalition government under Hitler as Chancellor (equivalent to the British Prime Minister in the German system). They believed they could control him – they were wrong.

There has never been a resurgence of fascism or communism in the same scale in Germany since, despite it’s proportional representation system for elections, because after World War Two the Marshall Plan (of massive US aid to create markets for American goods in Europe and reduce support for Communism) created the opposite result from the one the Versailles Treaty had. With rapidly falling levels of unemployment and poverty in Western Europe there was little support for fascist or communist parties. The worrying increase in support for neo-fascists in the last couple of decades has been due to economic crises caused by deregulation – smaller versions of the Great Depression, like the current Credit Crisis (which is now ending due to government intervention that was anathema at the time of the Depression). The fact that Germany has remained stable without any significant fascist or Stalinist element in any government since 1945 shows PR does not “let the fascists march”, deregulation causing unemployment and poverty does.

In Italy the mafia were formed in the nineteenth century, long before there were any elections by proportional representation – and became a criminal organisation by the early twentieth century. They have infiltrated Italian society so completely that repeated changes in the electoral system have made no difference to mafia influence. So the problem there is not PR – it’s that foreign occupation allowed the development of underground nationalist secret societies that became organised crime networks.

What’s more much of the BNP vote in the UK is motivated by a protest vote against the Labour party abandoning working class voters in 'New Labour''s attempt to occupy Conservative party policy positions rather than provide alternatives to them in some of it's policies. The only thing that can provide a viable non-fascist alternative to the BNP is PR, which would make voting for independent candidates or democratic small parties like socialists and greens a viable option rather than a wasted vote.

Does PR lead to ‘shoddy deals’?

Another argument is that PR results in politicians deciding election results by ‘shoddy deals’ rather than the ‘principled government’ created by first-past-the-post elections. Let’s be honest though, no single party or candidate can possibly represent the full variety of viewpoints and interests in any country. There are simply too many of them and they conflict too much. The only way to represent ‘the people’ who have a wide range of views – not just one – is to end the childish system of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and have coalition governments that represent all viewpoints. It’s arrogance for any party or politician to claim that they alone represent the whole population. PR can represent a wide range of viewpoints through coalitions. First past the post cant. Nor are big political parties free of ‘shoddy deals’ or compromises among different factions of the party.

Does PR create ‘weak’ government?

Then there’s the argument that PR gives ‘weak’ coalition governments while first-past-the-post gives strong ones. In fact big parties are as prone to factional infighting as coalition governments – look at the Blairites versus the Brownites in New Labour or the Eurosceptics versus the Europhiles in the Conservative party. What’s more ‘strong’ government in practice means undemocratic government that doesn’t represent the views of the majority and runs roughshod over the views of the opposition – even when the government was elected on the votes of a minority of the electorate. Margaret Thatcher’s bloody minded destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industry in order to weaken the trade unions and the Labour party is one good example. Tony Blair’s Iraq war is another.

Does PR ensure party leaders and officials dominate politics?

Finally there’s the claim that PR gives power to party officials and leaders to control which candidates are nearest the top of the party’s electoral lists and so ensures the dominance of “the political class”, “party hacks” etc. However this is not down to the electoral system – it’s caused by a lack of any law or constitutional article forcing parties to be internally democratic in candidate selection. Under first-past-the-post party leaders and officials constantly replace candidates chosen by constituency parties or party members with their own choices. They even suspend entire constituency parties if they choose a candidate the party leadership don’t like. The only way to solve the problem is to have a law or a codified written constitution making it a legal requirement for parties to allow either constituency parties to choose their own candidates by a majority vote or, in PR elections, to have a requirement that party members decide by majority vote which candidates are where on the electoral list.

Independent candidates of course have no problem with electoral lists or party leaders. Small parties also tend to be more democratic internally. The problem for both of them is getting enough people to believe that a vote for them is not a ‘wasted vote’ under the electoral system. Under first past the post or Alternative Vote this is almost impossible as they’d need at least a third of the vote in the first case and half of it in one constituency in the second in order to get elected. Under PR though votes for small parties and independents count – which encourages more people to vote for them.

So the systems which give power to the party hacks and political class from the big established parties are actually First Past the Post – and it’s variant the Alternative Vote. Proportional representation systems like the Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies give far more influence to the electorate.


Gary said...

I enjoyed this piece but I have to say I disagree with your main point here.

I do think that the most important problem facing our democracy is the need for reform of parliamentary procedure. Without that, electoral reform will make little difference and can be nothing more than a red herring.

There must be an end to government domination of the parliamentary timetable, while select committees and their chairmen must be elected by the House of Commons rather than appointed by the whips. It is probably also time to look at the Royal Prerogative, perhaps allowing the House of Commons to determine the date of elections itself; forcing the normally secretive decision out into the open.

calgacus said...

hi Gary - Those are great ideas and would help reduce the dominance of the party leaders.

The Royal Prerogative is a bit of an anachronism too, though in practice i think the Prime Minister makes that decision - if the Queen made it even once we'd have an elected President within a few years (though i think the Governor General in Australia has called elections against the will of elected PM's before).

The government has so much power partly because a third of the vote from a quarter of the electorate can get one party a big majority in parliament though.

So it seems to me that if you want to reduce the power of the whips you also need to reduce the dominance of all the big parties and their leaders - and a popular campaign for electoral reform would be the best way to do that, though there's no reason you couldn't demand reform of parliamentary procedure as part of the same campaign.

It'd need something like the support for a crackdown on MP's expenses (quite a small waste of money compared to PFIs and with no lives lost as in e.g Iraq). Otherwise the big parties have no motive to grant electoral reform that weakens them.

Making parties internally democratic would require new laws or a codified written constitution.