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William Norton: Distortional Misrepresentation

ConservativeHome regular William Norton responds to Tim Bale's pro-PR piece.

If politicians claim to be doing something more than haggling over our cash, what are they for?  We live in a time of accelerating disrespect for our political institutions.  What is to be done?

In liberal circles there has always been something of a ferment in favour of Proportional Representation.  Now they have begun to be joined by a new breed of Tory.  Both agree that the voting system must be changed.

Appraising proportional representation is rather like attacking some vast quivering blancmange with a knife and fork; the amorphous, ridiculous mass merely wobbles, yields and assumes a new form.  There are as many forms of PR as there are countries using it, and as many more “perfected” theories on the drawing board, so it would be best to discuss it in purely general terms. 

We can dismiss quickly some of the weaker arguments for PR:

  • it is more European (so what?);
  • it is more modern (so is bird flu’);
  • it will create long-term stability (no, it will create un-removable coalitions);
  • it offers a safeguard against “elective dictatorship” (actually, the cause of that is the political desire to meddle and control);
  • it will create greater social unity by providing an example of cross-party co-operation (oh, grow up).

There is, in fact, only one serious argument in favour of PR: it is fairer.  In the Liberal version this takes the argument that since the government legislates over the entire country it ought to be composed of representatives elected by a majority of the votes.  The Tory interpretation is more trenchant: it takes only 26,908 votes to elect a Labour MP, but 44,373 votes to elect a Conservative; the system is rigged.  Which are perfectly respectable arguments for political parties to make.  Until you analyse them a little further.

Let’s suppose under a purely hypothetical PR election in 2010, Labour under Gordon Brown get 40%; the Conservatives under Cameron get 40%; and the Lib Dems under Sir Ming (we’re being very hypothetical here) get 20%.  After much heart-searching, and some swaying about, Sir Ming forms a coalition with Mr Brown.  In 2011 the coalition breaks up because Sir Ming demands a crushing wealth tax.  Being a man of sincere integrity he insists on an election.  The results are exactly the same, but this time Ming forms a coalition with David Cameron.  In 2012 this new coalition breaks up because the Liberals demand free teeth and roughage for students.  Being a man of bottomless principle, Sir Ming insists on an election, and again the results are identical.  However he is now thoroughly disenchanted with party government and after much frantic telephoning and many quiet conversations in the corners of pubs, he announces that there is to be a Government of National Unity.  Ken Clarke is to be recalled as Foreign Secretary, Mark Oaten will be Lord Chancellor, George Galloway gets the Treasury and, reluctantly of course, Sir Ming will be, for want of a better term, Prime Minister.  This cobbled coalition limps through, surviving every parliamentary debate with 51% of the MPs, although they are not always the same individuals supporting them every time.

This example illustrates the three great fallacies of PR theory.  Nobody votes “for” a hung parliament.  Some people vote for one party, others another and a few for a third, but nobody ever cast 40% of a vote for the Conservatives, 40% of a vote for Labour and 20% of a vote for the Liberals.  Equally, unless there is a prior deal on seats, nobody votes “for” a Coalition.  And it still leaves Ming Campbell with an absolute veto over the auction of integrity at the heart of coalition government.

So the first, and most obvious flaw, is that PR is actually distortional.  If the coalition cabinets are split proportionately to the number of MPs, the Lib Dem 20% vote distorts into a 33% share of power – but clearly, the man with the ultimate power in our example is Sir Ming.  Like a landowner holding a ransom strip over access to a proposed development, his value rockets sky-ward.  Votes for smaller parties become worth more than votes for larger, but not majority, parties.  You might object that, with wasted votes, this already happens at the moment.  True, but I thought PR was meant to be an improvement on what happens now?

Secondly, PR is collectivist and so misunderstands the nation state.  I do not mean by this Land Of Hope And Glory, Trooping the Colour, etc. etc., this argument applies to any country.  PR works on national totals of votes creating national numbers of MPs.  It is the same as if the sentiments of all the people had been swept up into piles like chips in a casino and placed at the disposal of the party leaders to whom they now belong. 

Aggregation is the central point of PR, more important indeed than what is being aggregated.  It is merely a way of playing about with votes and offers us no image of the nation.  We could add the votes of two million Spaniards chosen at random and it would be only two million more votes to add up, or, for that matter, ten million penguins at the South Pole.  For PR the nation state is simply the area in which people vote so that PR can take place.

Once votes are only represented when they are collected into large piles then it means that people only matter when they are members of some large group.  No workers, only trade unionists; no individuals, only crowds.  Like some great stomach the juices of PR will dissolve each of us into our component parts ready for digestion.

This leads us to the third great flaw of PR.  It misrepresents the public.
  A parliament is not a committee called to discuss an agenda; it is the unity and community of the nation.  In the sovereignty and supremacy of parliament (while they still last) is symbolised our freedom and independence under the law (while they still last).

This is what representation is really about: the representation of communities within the nation by their each sending someone to the parliament.  The heart of the Westminster System is the constituency, the parliamentary embodiment of the local community.  It operates on a very simple level.  Each community has one representative clearly identifiable and the representative has one community which he or she must look after.  MPs exist to ventilate grievances, accelerate complaints and facilitate solutions on behalf of their constituents. 
Party is where the national element intrudes. It is more or less impossible to explain why people vote the way they do; however, it is most likely to be that they identify themselves with a particular set of values and would prefer their community to be represented by someone who most closely shares those values.  Ironically, PR ignores representation.  It assumes that people identify themselves wholly and entirely as belonging to one or other political party.  That is patently untrue. 

PR theory breaks down on two key categories of people.  The first is the tactical voter trying to preserve his local community by keeping out one particular party.  The other, often overlooked, but now very topical, is the non-voter.  It seems ridiculous to talk about national representation when on average in UK elections 30% or more of the eligible electorate do not vote.  Liberals will say this makes first-past-the-post even more illegitimate, but why should it?  How on earth do proportional systems represent the proportion of people who choose not to vote?  Will there be cabinet ministers who just don't turn up?

Non-voting constitutes the ultimate vote against the government.  It is not a theoretical problem under first-past-the-post.  Non-voters have a community representative, their MP, whom they can consult as required. Elections are simply a process of allocating to each community a representative, and abstainers are indifferent as to whom the particular individual will be.

First-past-the-post is not perfect.  The lower Labour vote tariff for an MP is a combination of the fact that some constituencies are smaller than others, and they tend to be safer seats with lower turnouts.  I would prefer some smaller constituencies, representing genuine cohesive communities, to purely arbitrary but equal divisions on a map.  And remember, in a democracy, there is often a very simple explanation as to why certain constituencies have rock solid votes for a particular party.

For all its faults, first-past-the-post remains the best method whereby the integrity of the local community can be defended against the encroachments of a barbarian age of bureaucracy.  In the local community, in the environment where the vast majority of sane, non-political people live their lives, one person was the most wanted candidate, or if you prefer the least unwanted candidate, and that is that. 

The advocates of PR mutter about wasted votes and stifled voices.  They are right to do so.  But PR is just a new way of taking people for granted, with the added insult of assuming that they are also political anoraks.  The problem with alienation lies not in the system, but in the quality of the people running it.  An auction of integrity is unlikely to boost our respect for our leaders.

It is “unfair” to the person coming fourth that they only ever award three medals at the Olympics.  (No it isn’t; that’s just the rules.) It is “unfair” that in lawn tennis the winner of the match can have scored less overall points than the loser, or that evenly balanced sets can turn on tie-breakers.  (No it isn’t; that’s just the rules.)  The moral surely is that if one really wants to take part in a competition then someone is going to lose.  Ming, you can't keep running to mummy.

If advocating a “fairer” voting system boils down to nothing more than wanting a set of rules you can win by, then perhaps we would do better to spend our time asking why anyone deserves to win at all?


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