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John Simkin

Proportional Representation

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In the absence of the forum this week my students came up with the following questions they would like members to consider:

"Is proportional representation an important ingredient of democracy?"

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In the absence of the forum this week my students came up with the following questions they would like members to consider:

"Is proportional representation an important ingredient of democracy?"

Probably not. What is important is that the maximum amount of people are allowed to vote and what ever government is elected can also be removed at least by the end of it's term. No matter how imperfect the democracy it's usually a better place to be than a state without it.

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I've experienced both the 'first-past-the-post' system of the UK and the proportional system of Sweden. On balance, I'd prefer the latter, since it tends to produce governments which are supported by greater numbers of people. It makes politics a bit more boring in a way, since governments need to talk to the opposition a lot more and try to find a consensus, but political decisions tend to be made on a more rational basis, and tend to be longer-lasting.

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At present the Italian government is trying to change the electoral system: the present 'first-past-the-post' system was introduced only a few years ago to solve the problems caused by the proportional system which led to the presence of too many parties in the parliament and unstable coalitions. Political crises were so frequent that no government managed to last the normal term.

After the reformation the government has become so stable that all the bills have been passed very easily.

Now the proportional system is going to be introduced again, which will make it difficult for the party/parties that will win the next general elections to govern the country.

A proportional system is more representative, since it promotes real debate and real consensus, which are the ingredients of real democracy.

Unfortunately, recent Italian history shows how difficult it may be to realize this type of democracy.

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"Is proportional representation an important ingredient of democracy?"

"Representation" and "Democracy" are not actually found together. Democracy means that the people vote directly, without "Representation". In the US and other countries our government is is not a Democracy, but a hybrid, i.e., a "Representative Republic". Representation actually is contrary to Democracy in some ways.

Having said that, if you do have a Representative form of Democracy, then the people should be represented in an equitable fashion. Proportionalty serves that purpose. If you don't have proportionality, how do you determine an equitable method of representation?

The bigger question is, "Is Democracy a good form of government?" I refer to Democracy as "mob rule". Our hybrid version of government helps to prevent the mob from ruling completely by protecting the rights of the minority to some degree.

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse form the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship." - Alexander Tyler

The idea of "vox populi vox Dei" is to make the "populi" out to be God. This is, of course, false. If the people do not govern themselves according to God's Word and enact government supportive of this end, they are in trouble.

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These failed capitalist shams of 'democracy' are nothing of the sort. To argue about proportional representation or first-past-the-post is like arguing whether to paint the door of a condemned house yellow or green.

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Which version of PR do you mean? I think STV is quite fun, especially when filling two or more vacancies from one constituency.

When talking of voting and democracy, you should always remember what Ken Livingstone said in his 1987 book: If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It.

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In the absence of the forum this week my students came up with the following questions they would like members to consider:

"Is proportional representation an important ingredient of democracy?"

I would be hard pressed to imagine a democratic system without proportional representation. I suppose its possible, but I would most likely answer your question, yes, it is an important ingredient.

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An electoral system which allows the "winner" to have less than 50% support within the electorate is clearly undemocratic.

There are inconvenient elements within most types of PR and they have been well-rehearsed, but to re-cap for any of Andy's students who haven't studied it yet:

1. PR leads to unstable coalition governments because parties are less likely to gain absolute majorities without the support of partners. The political compromises necessary for coalition government leads to instability. Eg: Weimar Germany, Italy

2. Coalition governments based on negotiation and compromise often abandon many if not most of the manifesto commitments they made in order to get elected.

2. First-Past-The-Post elections usually based on relatively small electoral districts ensure a more intimate relationship between the representative and the electors than do PR systems which often operate on national lists.

3. Most PR systems put power over who actually gets elected in the hands of party leaders who construct party lists.

4. PR systems are often very complicated.

I don't think these drawbacks are necessarily inherent within PR systems, and, even if they were, I'm not convinced there wouldn't still be a good case for PR.

1. Many of the most stable systems in the world are based of coalition government (eg: Germany, Scandinavia) so these are not necessarily unstable.

2. It is possible to tinker with PR to make sure there isn't a proliferation a smaller parties. The system used in Spain (sistema D'Hont) has ensured that government majorities have been stable ever since the return of democracy post-Franco.

3. PR systems like STV (Single Transferable Vote), AV (Alternative Vote) ot the sistema D'Hont maintain the concept of local representation.

4. Coalition government does lead to compromise and negotiation and this is a strength rather than a weakness. Under first-past-the-post, there's a take-it-or-leave-it element. If you don't like the existing government, all you can do is elect the other leading party which may be even less to your liking. Voting for a third party more to your liking may result in the governing party losing their overall majority and being forced to moderate their policies in order to form a coalition.

This all assumes, of course, that you recognize the validity of a system based on representative democracy in the first place. Some don't.

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Let me just add some details about the Swedish system of proportional representation.

Firstly, any party which gains more than 4% of the votes cast is entitled to seats in parliament. And any party which has gained seats in parliament qualifies for state aid until the next election (when the aid is withdrawn if they don't get in again).

Any party (or individual) which gains more than 12% of the vote in any single constituency gains seats in parliament.

Each party standing for parliament produces a list of candidates in a ranking order. When the total votes have been counted for each constituency, each party is allocated a number of seats according to the number of votes it has gained, and the seats are allocated according to the ranking order. I.e. if the Conservatives gain 4 seats in a particular constituency (and the constituencies in Sweden are regional, rather than local, in size), then the first four names on the Conservative list are elected.

The exception to this is that voters can tick the box next to the candidate on the list they want to be elected. If that person gains more than a certain figure, then she or he knocks out the lowest candidate on the normal list. In the last election to the European Parliament, the Social Democrats made sure that no anti-EU candidate was placed in an electable position. The highest-placed anti-EU candidate was actually in position 32, which happened to be on the back to the voting paper … but she got in, because anti-EU Social Democrats from all over the country put a cross by her name.

At an election, each person entitled to vote receives the parties' lists in the post. There are also extra lists at each polling station, and representatives of the parties often stand outside, handing out copies of their list. You then go into the polling station and are handed out an envelope for each of the elections being run that day (the County and local elections are normally held on the same day as the General Election). You then put one list into each envelope and deposit it in the ballot box. It's quite common for people to vote for quite different parties at national, regional and local levels.

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One of the problems of the “first-past-the-post” system is that you give tremendous power to politicians who only represent the interests of a small minority. For example, in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher was able to bring in legislation that only had the support of around 40% of those people who voted. A good example of this is the “Poll Tax”. What made matters worse was she imposed it first on Scotland, a country that had overwhelmingly rejected her policies at the polls. Despite high levels of protest Thatcher went on to impose the Poll Tax on people living in England and Wales. The British people eventually had to take to the streets in order to get this unfair tax removed.

Thatcherism would not have been possible if the UK had a system of proportional representation.

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"Thatcherism would not have been possible if the UK had a system of proportional representation."

There are bitter political fights in Sweden … but it's worth remembering that the Social Democrats have been in power for 61 out of the 73 years since 1932. During that period they had a majority of their own only once (in the mid-1960s), but rarely formed a formal coalition with other parties. In other words, they ran a minority government, and relied on the votes of allied parties to win crucial votes. For most of the period, Sweden had three-year terms of government (they changed to four-year terms in 1994), and the electoral system used proportional representation all the time.

The bottom line was that they were forced to discuss policies with the other parties and convince them that the policy the Social Democrats proposed was good for the country. I can't imagine Thatcherism working in those conditions either …

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An electoral system which allows the "winner" to have less than 50% support within the electorate is clearly undemocratic.

This would, of course, make PR (which as noted tends to lead to compromise and negotiation) FAR worse in terms of democracy tha FPTP. At least SOME people vote for the winning party in FPTP. Nobody (as far as I can work out) votes for a coalition, or even CAN vote for a coalition.

How many people in Germany in 2005 would say "Oh yes, Angela for Kanzler, SPD for the Cabinet!"?

One of the problems of the “first-past-the-post” system is that you give tremendous power to politicians who only represent the interests of a small minority. For example, in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher was able to bring in legislation that only had the support of around 40% of those people who voted. A good example of this is the “Poll Tax”. What made matters worse was she imposed it first on Scotland, a country that had overwhelmingly rejected her policies at the polls. Despite high levels of protest Thatcher went on to impose the Poll Tax on people living in England and Wales. The British people eventually had to take to the streets in order to get this unfair tax removed.

There's a clear lesson here for single-issue politics, John. The same lesson is to be learned should people realise that the problems they face are largely system, and therefore demand systemic 'cure'.

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There's a clear lesson here for single-issue politics, John. The same lesson is to be learned should people realise that the problems they face are largely system, and therefore demand systemic 'cure'.

I am aware that coalition governments will never deliver socialism. However, I am a democrat and believe that socialism should not be introduced until it has the support of the British people.

The great strength of proportional representation is that it prevents political figures like Thatcher from imposing policies that are clearly unpopular with the British people. I think Blair’s attempt to privatise the national health service is another example of a policy that has little support from the general public.

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When talking of voting and democracy, you should always remember what Ken Livingstone said in his 1987 book: If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish It.

I think it was Michael Bakunin who first said that. Ken has gone down in my estimation for that. :)

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