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William Norton: Only losers like PR

Libconpact_4 William Norton was the Referendum Agent for NESNO, the designated No Campaign for the North East Referendum.  William is writing the first in a series of Platform pieces from Conservative authors about the dangers and opportunities of LibCon co-operation.  Tomorrow Robert Colville will look at the possible for co-operation on the localisation agenda.  Click here to read ConservativeHome's poll-based assessment of growing LibCon alignment.

There are two things you can guarantee that a supporter of PR will say: (1) “First-past-the-post is unfair”; and (2) “No, you’re criticising a form of PR I don’t support”.

Of course, we already have some form of PR: in the London and Welsh Assembly elections, in Scotland (Holyrood and, from May, local authorities) and also the “European Parliament”.  Had the regionalisation project not hit a nasty cropper, the English Assemblies would have had a form of PR, too.  We can already hear the Minister as he makes his speech in 2010, explaining that PR is an established and unthreatening part of “our” constitution and its “rich, diverse heritage” etc, etc [add your own clichés here].

PR spreads. It has an indestructible ratchet effect.  Once it arrives in a body, there can never be a majority in that body to remove PR.  Coalition politics suffer from their own form of galloping inflation, and there will come a time when the price of the Lib Dems’ support rises another notch, and so PR has to be extended to another body.  Whatever is promised, once it starts PR will eventually be extended to the House of Commons.

The arguments for PR essentially collapse to this: that it is “fairer” if the proportion of MPs in the national parliament for party X equals the proportion of the national votes for party X.  Which sounds reasonable.  Except that this is a circular argument which begs its own question.  Once you have defined “fairness” as being “a share of the MPs as close as possible to your share of the national vote” then, by definition, PR is the only “fair” voting system.

But I could just as equally say that, in a country of 650 constituencies, the fair outcome is to elect as MPs the 650 candidates who get the most votes in each individual constituency (because they would be the 650 least unpopular candidates) – at which point (my God Holmes!) it turns out that first-past-the-post is the only “fair” voting system.

So “fairness” as an argument doesn’t get us any where.

There are, famously, as many forms of PR as it has advocates.  The logical conclusion of the proportionist argument would be to have a national list system.  That is the only way to ensure the “fairest outcome” of a perfect match between vote share and power share.  Interestingly, a national list system is about the only form of PR which nobody supports anymore.  Why is that, I wonder?  Is it because some other value does, in fact, trump “fairness”?

In a national list system, you no longer have a designated MP for a designated constituency.  John Voter is represented by 1/650th of each of the 650 List Members.  And John Voter, on the whole, doesn’t like that idea.  Neither, incidentally, do most MPs.  Across all the parties, the constituency link is genuinely cherished for its sound democratic merit of keeping our governors in touch with their masters.

The myth has it that party rosettes get left outside the MP’s surgery room: our MPs serve their constituents irrespective of how they voted.  I’m prepared to take the myth on trust.  During the Regional Assemblies referendum campaign we uncovered polling research that, whilst the public did not trust politicians as a whole, they tended to think more highly of their local MP (whoever that was).  So something must be working right.  Even if the myth isn’t true, an MP elected to serve a particular constituency (whether elected on a party platform or not) owes an impartial duty to all the residents of that constituency and has at least theoretical scope for independent thought and conscience.  An MP elected because his party put him in one of the higher slots on a list is a slave to his HQ and his direct contact with individual electors is so nebulous as to be nonexistent.  You might as well elect a jukebox.

That is why Lib Dems tactically propose bastardised systems such as D’Hondt where some MPs are elected for constituencies, and then other MPs are elected by a top-up list for an area covering several constituencies (such as an artificial “region”) where election is slanted in favour of parties who don’t win constituencies.  The result is something which isn’t quite proportional (and therefore isn’t really “fair”); has about half of the MPs elected on lists (party yes-men with no constituency link); and to keep parliamentary numbers down the constituencies are larger (so those MPs are even remoter from the electorate).

Political representation made even more remote.  Greater power concentrated in the hands of national party headquarters.  Is this really the direction we want our country to be taking?  A PR advocate would respond that by “wasting fewer votes” a new voting law would “empower” more voters.  No, it wouldn’t.  Coalitions run on an auction of principles.  They transfer even more power to Westminster deals and make it less likely that parliamentary compromises represent anything someone voted for.  If you really wanted to “empower” voters you would decentralise power from Whitehall.

What fabulous slogans for PR.

  • We’ve taken the only part of the current system that seems to be working and we’ve ruined it!
  • Don’t panic: PR will convert only 50% of your MPs into mindless robots (the other 50% will be mindless robots by accident).

If you’re going to tell me that I’m criticising a form of PR you don’t support, you probably back a version of the Single Transferable Vote where when a candidate is knocked out, the second preferences of his supporters are reassigned to other candidates.  It also means that you think the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, European Parliament etc are illegitimate entities, because they don’t use STV.  So go and argue it out with them first, and come back to us when you’ve got your act together.

Whether it’s the D’Hondt system with its rigged list, or Single Transferable Vote giving some voters another shot at picking the winner – PR basically boils down to letting losers vote twice.  That might be why losers like PR.

This is the latest in a series of articles about LibCon co-operation.  The editorial on LibCon co-operation can be read here.  The editorial summarises a survey of Tory members' views on working with the Liberal Democrats.


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