Proportional Representation (PR) as a title covers a wide variety of electoral systems where seats in parliament are more or less in proportion to votes cast. British Politics has used forms of proportional representation in elections for devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. A form of proportional representation was used in the London mayoral election as well. But it has never replaced First-Past-The-Post in British national elections.
PR, in one form or another, is used throughout Europe, has long been advocated by the Liberal Democrats and support for it has grown in Britain since the 1970s. This is partly because the first-past-the-post system(FPTP) failed in the 1970’s to produce strong majority governments, and partly because the increasing third-party vote since the mid-1970s has highlighted the distortions of the present voting system.
The 1997 Labour government promised a referendum on the issue, but the referendum itself was delayed and the amount of choice which might be offered to the electorate could be very limited – it has been argued that both the two main political parties, Labour and Tories, have the most to lose from any changes to the FPTP system, hence their desire to see it continued.
If pure PR had been used at the 1997 election, the huge Labour majority would have been suitably shrunk with the Liberal Democrats gaining – possibly from the 46 seats they achieved to as many as 106 MP’s. They gained 16.8% of the total votes but much less than 10% of the total seats available at Westminster. PR would have changed their standing – and reduced the final Labour tally. A similar result would have been obtained in the 2001 election result with the implication that FPTP is unfair and potentially undemocratic in that the number of votes cast for the government is disproportionate to its popularity with the British public.
All forms of PR share the same basic advantages – so it is claimed by supporters of the system:
The system more clearly represents the wishes of the voters’ as expressed at the ballot box.
Fewer votes are ‘wasted’, therefore greater participation may be encouraged. FPTP may lead people into not voting for what they might see as a wasted cause.
Minority parties might end up with a much fairer representation.
There are more opportunities for independent candidates – only one (Martin Bell) won a constituency vote in the 1997 election and he lost his attempt to win another independent seat in 2001 using FPTP.
PR is likely to remove ‘safe’ seats with their characteristics of low turn-outs. If each vote counts, people will feel more inclined to involve themselves in elections.
Voters may have more of a choice of candidates using PR and it is possible that those candidates may be of better quality and represent their constituents in a more professional manner.
The two-party system (which may have both pros and cons) is usually eliminated using PR and the end result is more ‘pluralist’. The possibility of single-party ‘elective dictatorship’ is greatly diminished.
An argument against PR is that it generally demands more knowledge of party beliefs/manifestos etc and greater activity of the voters (for example, to rank candidates in order of preference such as in the single transferable vote system), and hence may discourage participation. The procedure may simply prove to be too complex for many voters. Conversely, however, voters may welcome the opportunity to be better informed and to exercise greater choice, and turnout may actually increase.
If there are more than two main parties competing in an election, a proportional allocation of seats to votes will tend to produce a ‘hung Parliament’ where no party has 50 per cent of the seats. In the British system of parliamentary government, the choice between first-past-the-post and PR is therefore often presented as a choice between single-party, ‘majority’ government or a ‘fair’ reflection of the votes. However, such a summary is too simplistic:
PR produced an absolute majority government in Spain in October 1982 and the first-past-the-post system produced a hung Parliament in Britain in February 1974.
The pros or cons of a hung Parliament are not clear-cut. A hung Parliament in post-war Britain is relatively rare. Given the nature of the British constitution when it happens the ‘rules’ are uncertain as to what should happen next; who may become Prime Minister? When should that person be appointed ? Should a fresh election should be called ? etc.
A hung Parliament – where no party has a required majority of public support – need not result in coalitiongovernment (i.e. two or more parties in executive office). More often in Britain the result has been single-party, minority government with under 50 per cent of the seats in the Commons.
For example, in February 1974, Labour under Harold Wilson continued for eight months as a minority government, boosting its own popularity with pension increases and rent freezes before calling a new election in October 1974 and winning a small overall majority. By 1977 Labour had lost this majority through by-election defeats, and therefore entered the 15-month Lib-Lab pact. This was not a coalition government – there were no Liberals in the executive – but an informal agreement of Liberal support for the Labour government in the House of Commons in return for consultation on policy.
This minority Labour government pushed through a lot of contentious legislation: the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act and the Race Relations Act, for example. It was not, in that sense, a ‘weak’ government, any more than majority governments are always ‘strong’. By late 1995, for example, John Major’s government was not strong in the face of persistent opposition from its own backbenchers (on Post Office privatisation, family law, VAT etc.).
The Liberal Democrats argue that single-party majority government is normally ‘weak’ in that it rests on a minority vote (see the 2001 and 1997 election results) and therefore lacks consent; it may also lack power in relation to interest/pressure groups, such as business or the trade unions.
The Liberal Democrats prefer to call a hung Parliament a ‘balanced Parliament’; they favour a centrist coalition, arguing that it would curb ‘elective dictatorship’, encourage moderate policies and promote greater stability of national direction and policy and therefore be more efficient than the present ‘swing of the pendulum’. The 1970’s through to the late 1980’s saw great swings away from the Labour policies of the 1970’s to the policies of the Thatcher era, which aimed to remove or severely change all manner of Labour policies that had been introduced under Harold Wilson. PR would lead to such vast policy swings being minimised.
A hung Parliament usually ensures better attendance in the Commons as MP’s with aspirations to move up the party hierarchy have to be seen to be doing ‘their bit’. Coalition governments can draw on a wider pool of talent, and may be quite stable. Equally, one-party government may be ‘unstable’ if it adopts sudden policy changes: for example, Major’s forced withdrawal from the ERM in 1992 which made the Tories and only the Tories appear to be loosing control of the financial events it was meant to be handling as the party that governed the nation. Such apparent incompetence only benefited the opposition parties.
The case against PR is that no one votes for a real coalition as there is no mandate for compromise politics. Coalition government may also give disproportionate power to small parties (as Israel has experienced) and therefore be as unrepresentative, in its own way, as the first-past-the-post system. Nor is there any obvious virtue in centrism which, may be seen as stagnation. If the Labour and Liberal Democrat goal of a permanent, centre-coalition and consensus was to be achieved, it could amount to a new ‘elective dictatorship’ and a retreat from pluralism.
Some of the most common forms of PR are :
The alternative vote plus (AV+)