Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why I'd Vote No To Proportional Representation

In the 2005 UK general election the governing Labour party won 35.3% to the Conservative party's 32.3% and the Liberal Democrats' 22.1%, yet Labour secured 356 parliamentary seats to the Conservatives' 198 and the Lib Dems' 62. Many people assume the result is unfair, but is it and would a system of proportional representation be any better?

I would argue that our system of 'first past the post' is fair, and in fact much more so than replacing it with one using PR.

In the United Kingdom we district our national election into (currently) 646 individual constituencies, making each national battle one comprised of hundreds of much smaller ones. A big advantage of this system is that - in theory at least - every voter in each of the constituencies has the chance of casting the winning vote for a party's representative. For example, in the 1997 election for the seat of Winchester the winning MP's margin of victory was just 2 votes. Another example from a country that districts its national election, the US, is Florida in the 2000 election where George W Bush beat Al Gore by just 537 votes.

Democracy isn't only about giving people equal power in an election (after all, in a dictatorship each voter has equal power of 0) but about giving each person as large an equal share of power in deciding the outcome of an election as possible. The people of Winchester or Florida would have had virtually no chance of having the sort of impact on their respective elections they had if their votes had been diluted into a sea of many millions of other votes, as would happen under a system of PR.

Elections are always lopsided, and the power an individual voter has to make a difference to the election's result goes down the more uneven an election is. Breaking a nationwide election down into lots of smaller localised elections balances out some of this lopsidedness, maximising the individual voter's power.

There are other reasons to support a system of 'first past the post' over PR. Labour may only have won 3% more of the national share than the Conservatives at the last election, but they won seats all over the country, whereas the Conservatives relied on the South of England for much of their support doing particularly badly in the North, Wales and Scotland. First-past-the-post prevents politicians from simply wooing a majority bloc at the expense of minorities.

What's more, PR almost never results in a majority government meaning that the parties have to go behind closed doors and haggle with each other over forming a coalition. The public have no say in these backroom negotiations. With no constituency link between members of parliament and the voters, the real power lies with those parties who can successfully jockey for position in a coalition government.


MAWG said...

Given our difference of opinion on the tax issue I am happy that we agree on this one :-)

I believe that your statement:

"First-past-the-post prevents politicians from simply wooing a majority bloc at the expense of minorities"

is true based on geograpghy (if I understand the U.K. System correctly).

But in the U.S. our politicians race to give away whatever they can at the expense of those that carry the brunt of the tax burden. Even our so-called conservative President seems to have no control of the budget (as an example Pres. Bush has increased spending in education despite the fact that increased federal spending is negatively correlated with acedemic acheivement).

I don't see an end to this in our current system. As long as a minority pays a majority of the tax, politicans will always have incentive to "buy" elections by pandering to voters that don't feel the full weight of the tax burden.

Anonymous said...

Sylvia From NC said:
I think that this system works well for Presidential elections in America because our state lines are set, and each state is like a "district" when we vote for the President, but it does not work as well in other cases. My state votes Republican (conservative) for the Presidential elections. There are a lot of conservative people in North Carolina. Why then are the congressmen voted in by North Carolina Democrats (liberals)? Why then is our state’s legislature controlled by Democrats? It is because of gerrymandering of districts within the state.
Several years ago, my Dad showed me something that opened my eyes. We were driving to complete an errand and were thirty minutes from home. Suddenly my Dad pulled off the main road.
“There is something that I want to show you,” he said.
We drove for another ten minutes.
“Get a good look while you are here,” Dad said, “because I am not bringing you back. It is not all that dangerous now, but it is a deadly place to be after dark. This area is not a place where you want to be for long.”
When we rounded a corner, I saw a service station with a small store. There were bars in the windows. Once we got past there, we entered the neighborhood. The houses were all run down. Some of the porches were sagged in and rotted. There was filth and garbage on the lawns.
When we left my Dad said, “It’s very different from our middle class neighborhood back home; isn’t it? I bet you didn’t know that there were places like that in North Carolina did you?”
“It’s very different,” I said.
“I’ve seen stuff like that on television but never in real life. I don’t ever want to see it again. I am glad that it is so far away from our home so that I don’t have to see it.”
My dad said, “Yes. It certainly is far from our town. Think of how long it took for us to get out here.”
He continued, “I want you to think about something. What do the middle class families in our neighborhood vote?”
“We vote conservative, “I said.
“Well,” he said, “the people here depend on the welfare payments from the government for survival, so they all vote Democrat because welfare payments are a part of the liberals’ policy.”
“I guessed that,” I said.
“What if I told you that because of very ‘interestingly’ drawn district lines we vote with them? Their democratic votes cancel out our republican votes. When you get to be able to vote for congressmen your vote will mean absolutely nothing, nada, zip,” he said.
“That’s terrible, “I said.
“Someone should do something.”
My dad laughed.
“If anyone sued them, “ my father said, “they would need a lot more money then we could ever hope to have, and they would be fighting a battle that they were destined to lose from the beginning. The government protects its own.”

Do you know what I wish? I wish that someday an influential political leader would rise who was a statesman and not a cheap politician. I’m going to be waiting a very long time.

gian said...

"Democracy [is] about giving each person as large an equal share of power ... as possible"

Agreed. However, the largest equal share must necessarily require that each single vote be worth an equal percentage of the total vote. Otherwise, you have a situation where everyone is equal in theory, but some people are just more equal than others.

"Breaking a nationwide election down into lots of smaller localised elections balances out some of this lopsidedness, maximising the individual voter's power."

If you further break this down into the smallest localized election, the individual, all lopsidedness evaporates, fully maximizing the individual voter's power.

That a few meaningful battles occur occasionally should not excuse the lopsidedness found in the majority of constituencies--where the votes of the (local) minorities go effectively uncounted and therefore unheard.

PR ensures that each individual voter's voice is heard in all cases, not just the close calls. This, many agree, would increase voter turnout and ultimately improve our systems of civil democracy.

"First-past-the-post prevents politicians from simply wooing a majority bloc at the expense of minorities."

It also prevents minorities from ever expressing themselves. For instance, in the 2006 Canadian election the Green Party got 4.5% of the total votes, but 0 seats.

Meanwhile, in the Province of Quebec, 100% of seats (51) went to the Bloc Quebecois, after getting only 42% of the provincial vote (10.5% of the total vote). A Federal party that exists solely within a single province? Thank you, first-past-the-post.

to jpucci:

"increased spending in education despite the fact that increased federal spending is negatively correlated with acedemic acheivement"

That doesn't mean that decreased federal spending is positively correlated with academic achievement, either. The problem is much more complex and can hardly be encompassed by a single correlation outside of any context (where and how was this money spent, for instance).

As for the whole "those that carry the brunt of the tax burden," I don't quite know what to say. I've never encountered someone with such old fashioned ideas. But this is hardly the place to talk about that.

Daniel Tammet said...

To Gian,

No electoral system will be perfect, but I am arguing that the one of first-past-the-post is less imperfect than PR.

Seats like Winchester aren't so exceptional here in the UK: in the 2005 election one seat was held with a majority of just 37 votes, another by just 75 votes and a third by just 79 votes. All 3 seats could have gone to another party had just 97 voters voted differently on the day. And, in theory at least, those 97 voters could have been anyone - including you or me. That's real people power.

The alternative is PR where we would indeed have an absolutely equal statistical share of power in deciding an election - a figure very close to 0 in fact.

The counter argument that many districts are so lop-sided (so called 'safe seats') that many voters feel their votes don't count. I think that's more the fault of the parties not putting more money and effort into seats they think are unwinnable, than a fundamental flaw in first-past-the-post. Many supposedly safe Conservative seats went to the incoming Labout party in 1997 for example.

As for smaller parties, yes it would be nice if the Greens could win a seat in parliament - though they already have many seats here in the UK at local government level. The fact is that these smaller parties lack sufficiently national appeal to sit in the national parliament. In a system of PR it wouldn't only be the Greens who'd be given a helping hand into parliament: so would other fringe parties like the BNP (British National Party).

As I say, imperfect as it is first-past-the-post gets my vote.

MAWG said...

In response to gian: You can email me @ puccij@gmail.com. I will be happy to discuss my old fashioned ideas with you.

In the meantime I would like to respond to your criticism.

You are right that the idea of only tax payers voting is old. In fact, land owners were both the only tax payers and voters in the young United States. I believe that it's just common sense that socialism will result from extended voter rights and the United States progression toward socialism is evidence of that fact.

My point about federal spending on education in the U.S. is that it has no positive effect so why do it? Federally forced busing caused "white flight" which essentially broke several major cities. There is now consensus that it was a bad idea. Education should be handled at the local level and the federal department of education should be abolished. Their history bungling should not be rewarded with a larger budget.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, the BNP secured the most votes in Barking in the national election 2 years ago and I know why but I'm digressing.

Regarding the English reluctance to marry politics with politics "Why shouldn't poetry address what happened yesterday, and be published in the newspaper?" Says Harrison - Politics recycled into poetry. Now, that's an idea!

Peter Leeson said...

Belgium has proportional representation (and compulary voting). The way it is implemented is simple: after the vote, all the parties get together and argue a coalition to form the government. This allows several minority parties to run the country, while the one with the most votes ends up in opposition. Mostly, the same people get elected, whichever way the electorate decides to vote. No one can claim this to be fair. Also, I like to have an MP, who represents my area rather than someone chosen by the party based on overal representation and who is in no way accountable to me.
What would be fairer than the current British system is a first past the vote where each constituency is based on the number of the people in it - every MP would have roughly the same number of voters, whether they represent a large chunk of countryside or a neighbourhood in a large city.
Where lies the limit between democracy and mob-rule?

Anonymous said...

The U.S. election in 2000 was an example of the flaws in our electoral college. George W. Bush supposedly beat Al Gore by 537 votes. But he actually only won by 537 votes in Florida. Al Gore actually received the majority of votes nationwide. Also, many voters in Florida were refused the right to vote that year because of new initiative to keep ex-convicts from voting. The problem was that about 95% of the people identified as ineligible to vote, were not supposed to have been ineligible. This is "past-the-post" at its worst because corruption on a small scale ended up disenfranchising the majority of the people in the country who had voted for Al Gore.

Anonymous said...

FPP stops new parties getting established. I have a set of political beliefs which I share with my fairly large group of friends which is not represented at all by the three main parties, this is very frustrating.

Minority party support tend to be spread across the country rather than in a single constituency therefore will never win a set and never get the success to build upon (an exception to this is prob the far right which prey on demographics to return seats). Surely the fact we have 3 parties offereing the same shows what is wrong.

If want a piece of legislation to be passed in your favour and have money, just donate to both parties, many corporations do this, now you know why! This is a good example of why we need more parties and to do that FPP needs to go.

Anonymous said...

I think Daniel presents a good case for the 'direct representation' argument but this is in many ways not settled by either PR or FPP. If the real goal (as is presupposed in Daniels argument) is to make representation as direct as it can be (even if not perfect) then we can immediately improve the directness by having smaller constituences and perhaps most importantly more regular votes. As long ago as the 1840's the Chartsis in England called for annual parliaments, amongst a number of other democratic claims they made in their huge petitions. Only the annual parliament claim is not yet achieved. The point is, that the the PR / FPP argument depends on a further criteria of successful representational dmeoncracy and cannot be decided on its own.