Saturday, May 8, 2010

Proportional Stalemate

I doubt that I have many British readers, but the Internet goes everywhere, so here's a thought for Britons contemplating switching to a system of proportional representation.

First, background for American readers: Britain's general election on Thursday produced a "hung Parliament" -- no single party controls a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives have the biggest share of seats at 306, Labour is second at 258, and the third party Liberal Democrats have 57. Minor parties control 28. That means that no party can form a government by itself, and coalition talks are proceeding. 326 seats are needed for a majority, so the Conservatives could form one by allying with the Liberal Democrats, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats together wouldn't have enough -- they'd have to rope in some small-party seats.

The biggest demand of the Liberal Democrats is a change in the system of elections. Britain, like the U.S., uses a "first past the post" system, in which any given seat goes to the candidate with the most votes for that seat, even if that number is not a majority. Such a system is hard on third parties. A party like the Lib Dems, which has a fair amount of support throughout the country but not much concentrated support anywhere, doesn't get nearly its "fair" share of seats, if "fair" is defined as proportional to the overall vote. Last Thursday the Lib Dems got 23% of the nationwide vote but only 9% of the seats in Parliament.

A proportional representation system is fairer in the sense that seats in the legislature are distributed in proportion to the overall national vote, but it has the disadvantage that voters don't really get to vote for candidates -- the vote is more a vote for a party than for a candidate. Your local representative is determined in part by the overall national vote, so the sense of voting for a particular candidate because he or she is good is diminished.

Anyway, all of that is the background to what I'm sure is a very obvious point, but here goes: if Britain is upset that is has a hung Parliament, in which the parties have to go wooing each other to form a majority, don't they realize that a system of proportional representation would produce a hung Parliament forever? This year the Conservatives got 36% of the vote, Labour 29%, and the Liberal Democrats 23%. With percentages like that, with no party even close to 50%, a proportional representation system is guaranteed to produce a hung Parliament. First past the post produces more concentrated results.

That's not to say that first past the post is good and proportional representation is bad. Each system has its virtues and its vices. But it seems clear that if Britain switches to proportional representation, it had better be ready to live with coalition government indefinitely.


Ian said...

Perhaps it's as tough for them as it was for us in Bush/Gore to see those final numbers not lead to proportional victories.

With that said, I'm very interested in how switching to different systems would affect 1) actual policies that candidates/parties propose, 2) how campaigns are run, and 3) who would enter politics.

How would a change in the electoral process (there or over here) to one where total numbers rule influence what are now short, tv commercial campaign tactics that focus more on manipulating the emotions of the pockets of candidates required to win elections? Could it lead a party to support more positions that the country as a whole supported, rather than small concentrated groups (and would this be better or worse)? Or, since the education and knowledge of the public on policies is often so abysmal, would these changes lead to campaigns focused more on actually educating all voters rather than pulling on the heart or hate strings of different groups, as this might be necessary to achieve the new goal of getting a broader range of people to support a candidate and their party?

Lastly, it's tough to live in America and not wonder if adjusting the system to one where total votes determine elections could seriously influence who would enter politics. There are a number of policy positions that Americans as a whole support, yet they do not often feel either of the two main parties what would happen if someone from outside the relatively narrow insiders group of power players ran on a platform of these policies (massive increases in funding to education and social services, significant cutbacks to Defense spending, etc.). Would this not also open the door up to someone who could become a serious challenger simply by advocating for the enormous voting blocks of the disenfranchised who have not for decades felt like anybody is really thinking of them (the "poor" come to mind...look back at all 3 McCain/Obama debates and you won't find that word or "low-income
" mentioned once, since they simply don't matter in our current voting setup).

Dan said...

It's my understanding that in some forms of proportional representation elections you can still choose your candidate preferences.

You "rank" your preferences for who sits in the Congress or Parliament. So, you could say: "I vote for the Lib Dem Party." And then: Representative Kennedy is my FIRST CHOICE, Representative Gordond is my SECOND CHOICE, on and on through like 50 rankings. Then, when your party wins the number of seats it gets, it fills those seats with the highest overall rated representatives until all the party's seats are full.

To me, in a perfect world where everybody gets along, this seems ideal. The idea of needing compromise between various viewpoints and parties to pass laws seems nice. But, obviously, it also seems tedious and would potentially make government even more slow to respond. But, ideally, it would get representatives to compromise rather than try to stall legislation and point fingers at "the big bad majority."