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Debate: Proportional Representation

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Should a more proportionate system of voting be used to elect political representatives?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

In many countries proportional representation (PR) is used in elections, meaning that the percentage a political party gets of the popular vote becomes the percentage of the seats that party receives in parliament. Who is actually elected to sit in that parliament is usually decided by means of party lists, where the party lists its candidates in order; if it wins 34 seats in parliament, the first 34 candidates on its list are elected as members of that parliament. Other countries, such as the UK, USA and Australia, do not operate PR in elections but use a constituency system instead. Under this system each constituency (a defined geographical area) elects its own representative(s) from among a group of rival candidates competing only for that constituency. It is possible under this system for the relative strengths of the parties in parliament to differ very widely from their share of the overall popular vote; for example, a party with 30% support in every constituency may well end up with fewer seats than parties with lesser shares of the overall vote, if their supporters are concentrated in particular constituencies. In the UK and USA constituency elections are organised on a first past the post basis, where each elector votes only once and the candidate with the highest number of votes is elected to represent that constituency; in an area where more than two parties attract significant support this usually means the winner has little more than 40% of the popular vote (a Scottish MP was once elected with only 28% of the votes in a tight four-party contest). In Australia the alternative vote system is used, where voters list candidates in order of preference; candidates with the fewest votes are progressively eliminated from the count and their ballots are individually transferred to the voter’s next preference until one candidate receives over 50% support and is duly elected. Neither first past the post nor the alternative vote system are proportional at a n[1]

Wikipedia: Proportional representation

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Good government - Does proportional representation lead to better governance?

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Yes

Coalition government breeds strong and sound governance: All social interaction is characterised by cooperation and compromise, and politics should be no exception. Governments which are forced to acknowledge a wide range of public opinion are less likely to introduce policies which victimise minorities or ride roughshod over public opinion for ideological reasons (e.g. the poll tax in Britain 1988-92). Countries with PR systems, such as Germany, show that great prosperity can result from the policies of such governments.[2]

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No

Proportional representation and coalition governments are weaker. Typically no one party gains a majority of the popular vote, so coalition governments have to be formed often between four or more parties. This tends to produce unstable governments, changing as parties leave or join the governing coalition, and frequent elections. Governments are unable to put a clear, positive legislative agenda in place over several years or act decisively in time of crisis. Compare this to the strong governing majorities produced by first past the post, e.g. Labour 1945-50 or Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s.[3]

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Fairness - Is a proportional representation system more fair than the alternatives?

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Yes

Proportional Representation is fairer: First past the post often results in a party without majority support being able to dominate parliament, as happened in the UK in the 1980s. Minority parties, e.g. Greens, which win 10% or so of the vote all over the country can fail to win a single seat.[4]

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No

Coalition government is actually unfair, as small parties with only a few percent of support nationally can hold the balance of power, forcing through unpopular or sectarian policies with no national mandate as a price for their support in parliament (e.g. Israeli coalition building in the 1990s).[5]

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Public participation - Does a proportional representation system result in greater public engagement in politics?

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Yes

PR results in more engagement in politics as every vote counts: In a constituency system many seats are dominated by one party and many people see no point in voting as their ballot will make no significant difference to the local or national result.[6]

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No

PR results in less engagement in politics as voters do not get what they voted for – instead post-election deals between the parties create coalitions which do not feel bound by manifesto promises. As elections seldom result in all the parties in a governing coalition leaving power, in practice accountability is blurred and voters feel alienated from the political process. In addition, many PR systems are very complex and off-putting for voters.[7]

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Respect for government - Would a PR system generate a higher respect for governance?

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Yes

PR would result in more respect for parliament, with every citizen feeling that their vote had counted and that their national assembly truly reflected the nation.[8]

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No

PR would result in less respect for parliament as it means the loss of the constituency link, whereby every citizen feels that they have a personal representative in parliament. Much of the work of an MP is constituency business, resolving problems encountered by constituents and raising the particular concerns of their geographical area with the government. A PR system would either abolish or weaken this link.[9]

Motions

  • This House would adopt Proportional Representation
  • This House would scrap first past the post
  • This House demands an equal voice

External links and resources

Books

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