Out of Proportion

The fashionable view is: the British political system is broken/corrupt/out-of-touch (delete according to taste); we are now in an era of three-party politics; first past the post is outmoded; it is “unfair”; and some form of proportional representation is needed.

To say that first past the post is “unfair”, because Party A, receiving x per cent of the national vote, does not receive x per cent of MPs already presupposes that “fairness” is the same as PR. It begs the question.

Rival electoral systems represent rival and alternative definitions of fairness. That is why there are so many permutations of PR and every country that follows it has a slightly different version. First-past-the-post defines an MP as the representative in parliament of a specific community. What is the fairest selection method? The person with the most votes wins because he/she is the most representative (or if you prefer, the least unrepresentative) of the views of the people in the constituency he is being elected to represent. It is irrelevant how people voted in the neighbouring constituency or at the other end of the country: the MP isn’t being elected to represent people who live there.

In 2001 and 2005, Dr Richard Taylor was elected as the MP for Wyre Forest on a platform of “Save Kidderminster Hospital”. The proportion of the UK population who wanted to save Kidderminster Hospital would have been so small as to render Dr Taylor unelectable under PR — which, if you think about it, would have been savagely unfair to the people of Wyre Forest.

PR would drive out independents forever and confine politics even more to parties who can afford to run national election campaigns. That’s an odd way to become more in touch with the voters. Under first past the post, parliament represents constituencies. PR on the other hand represents parties. Which do you think is more important?

It also raises the question of what we mean by “nation”. Do we need separate ways of counting the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish? What about the Cornish? You can quibble about the current rules, but at least we can more or less agree who lives in Wyre Forest.

First past the post is not an outmoded system: it is used in more than 60 countries, containing over half of the world’s democratic electorate.

The British political system is not broken or corrupt or out of touch. British politicians may be out of touch, and a few forcibly-retired examples displayed lax standards. The system itself worked well: at a time when the country is divided and uncertain, the voters returned a hung parliament and told the politicians to sort out the mess among themselves.

Once the results were in it was clear that Gordon Brown had to be replaced by a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are, by all accounts, sensible people who get on well together and share many of the same views. If, during an economic crisis, it took them five days of unseemly antics to reach the obvious result, it does not bode well for institutionalising hung parliaments through proportional representation. Mr Clegg’s most statesmanlike service to his country may turn out to be unintentionally demonstrating why we really don’t want to adopt PR.

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