PR protestors outside Parliament
"Proportional Representation Protest" by Jorgen Nijman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With the news that Unite the Union have voted to endorse proportional representation (PR) for parliamentary elections the British left have, once again, started to get excited about the prospects for electoral change. The appeal to the British ‘left’ is mainly that it would prevent the Tories being the government. But, there is little substantive evidence that it would help the left.

In Issue 5 Howard Thorp argued that we need to rethink democracy and that this must involve proportional representation. Far be it from me to tell another Critical Mass writer that they are wrong. But, I don’t agree. PR is, as I have said elsewhere, simply another way of maintaining a parliamentary system whose main function is to legitimise the capitalist state.

The U.K. has already adopted PR in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I live in Wales and have experienced PR in parliamentary elections close up. The main result of which was to provide UKIP with elected office that they could not achieve through voter preference. Obviously, neither Scotland nor Wales have Tory governments, but that has nothing to do with PR. Both would have permanent Labour governments if the Blairite Labour Party had not thrown away their advantage in Scotland. However, that the Scottish system gives us the SNP who are clearly better than Tories (unless you are George Galloway who was prepared to work with the Tories in the recent general election) could be seen as an advantage of the system. That would be true only if it was not true that the Tories have historically struggled to maintain an electoral presence in Scotland regardless of voting system.

To see what difference PR makes let’s have a closer look at Wales. In the General Election of 2019, Wales stood out as the one bright spot on the Labour horizon. Apparently bucking the trend of the rest of the UK. That said Welsh Labour managed to lose 6 seats to the Tories but in one case did increase their majority. Nothing to do with the voting system more to do with the cynical ploy of convincing Liberals and Greens that the candidate for Cardiff North would somehow, singlehandedly, keep the UK in Europe. A promise Anna McMorrin has quickly forgotten as she concentrates on her own rise up the Shadow Labour ladder.

There are 40 constituencies in Wales. In the General Election Welsh Labour got 40.9% of the vote and 22 seats. Plaid Cymru managed 9.9% of the vote and held on to their 4 Westminster seats. The Conservatives, meanwhile, had 36.1% of the vote resulting in 14 seats. In the most recent Senedd election held in May Labour achieved 39.9% of the ‘popular’ vote and achieved a total of 27 seats. They then received 36.2% of the PR vote and got 3 further seats. The Senedd mirrors the 40 constituencies and then allocates, according to party lists, 20 additional seats. It is these additional seats which use a version of PR that is so complicated it would make the algorithms used by Facebook and Twitter simplicity in comparison.

My point, however, is not to point the finger at the convoluted system used by the Scottish and Welsh governments, but rather to note how little changes dependent on which system is used. The main beneficiaries of PR are not, as is frequently asserted, the voters. Indeed, that claim is based on the spurious and democratically illiterate supposition that every single vote should count equally. The fact is that the main beneficiaries of PR are the party bureaucracies who determine where any particular candidate lies on the party list. The popularity of these candidates with voters is neither here nor there because when you vote in a PR based system you are not voting for a named candidate but a named party.

As to the claim that all votes should count equally. Of course, my one vote should hold no more weight than your one vote. In that sense, of course, they should count equally. But, this is not what advocates of PR claim. Rather, it is that every voter should feel that they have won. That under PR every vote is tallied toward a party total and that, as a result, every voter can claim to have contributed to whatever their party’s seat tally is at the end of the process.

The question is though not whether individual voters feel that their particular vote is important but why do we have elections in the first place? There are plenty of ways of making people feel important. Paying them a decent wage, ensuring they have decent housing, protecting the planet for them, providing education and health, taking notice of their opinions, are all ways in which we might improve the self-esteem of citizens. Trying to con them that because no vote discernibly loses, that the careerists who populate Westminster (or Holyrood or Cardiff Bay) are acting in their best interest as they vote to take away their meagre state income, is not likely to have the same effect.

Generally speaking, elections are held to choose between competing options. Whether that be representatives or specific decisions (Brexit being a recent example) the implication is that elections should be about things on which people are not united. If we all agree, for example, that we should be in the European Union, then there would be no reason for a vote. If there is only one candidate for office then the purpose of the vote is pointless. The fact is that, in a pluralist society, there are competing views and competing ideologies and elections are one way in which those are put to the test.

The Open Election Data Initiative gives the usual justifications for elections in terms of legitimising democracy. They note: “Elections give citizens a means to hold their leaders accountable.” This hardly seems the case when serial liars like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson are elected on ‘promises’ they simply forget once in office. In the U.K. the majority of our elected representatives are from a narrow social strata. A strata, incidentally, that has become even more narrow over time. These people are not ‘representative’ of the communities they are supposed to represent in any but the most tangential respects. What elections in a capitalist state do is legitimise a system of gross inequality presided over by a narrow, self-serving elite.

It is disappointing and not a little irritating to be always on the losing side of elections and it is this which often motivates people who think a change in system can prevent that. But being on the losing side is the nature of elections. Rather like watching sport. Draws do occur but generally games are decided with a winner and a loser. It is always fans of the losing side who want the rules changed. Funny that?

In my lifetime I have taken part in 11 General Elections. In 10 of those I have voted for a party that did not win. In only 2 of them have I voted for a candidate who won. Is that unfair? Does it mean my vote was worthless? No. I knew when I cast my vote for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate recently that the chances were that I would be voting with a couple of hundred other people. I long for the day when the choice is between the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the Really Socialist Party. But, I have no real expectation that such a day will occur without a significant social upheaval which, for want of a better word, I’ll call a revolution.

But back to PR. Advocates of PR rather vaguely refer to it being fairer without ever adequately defining how it is fair. When questioned they then tend to fall back on the rather presumptive argument that ‘most countries use it’. To be fair, they are right. According to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network around 94 countries use some system of proportional representation. Given that there are 194 countries in the World, it is hard to see how 94 qualifies as ‘most’. But, even if it were true that most other countries, let’s say in Europe, used PR, would that be a compelling reason for the UK to follow suit. By the same logic, if most countries adopt fascism, we should follow suit.

I have said previously that those advocating PR do so with an emotional appeal to something called ‘fairness’. A system such as the one we have in Wales or Scotland, which incidentally is used in many of the PR practising countries, is almost impossible to describe in simple terms that an ordinary person can understand. It relies on something called the d’Hondt formula. This is the most simplistic explanation of the d’Hondt formula I could find:

The D’Hondt method consists of an iterative process, where each party is given a number


where V is its total number of votes, and s is the number of seats it has already been allocated. At each stage, the party with the highest value of N is given a seat, and its value of s goes up by one.

The D’Hondt Method Explained
Helen J. Wilson, Mathematics Department, UCL

In a first past the post system, whichever candidate receives the most votes wins. You tell me which is fairer? A system that requires an intimidating mathematical formula or one which requires the ability to know which number is bigger? Which method is fairer? Is fairness to be defined by creating a system that only mathematicians can understand or one accessible to most people who can read and write?

There is a reason why we should think about democracy and take it seriously. Across the globe people are disaffected and feel that the democratic systems that they live under are beyond their control. The Pew Research Centre carried out research in 2020 on how satisfied with democracy were citizens in a range of countries. They found that:

More than half of those surveyed in the UK (69%), the U.S. (59%), France (58%) and Japan (53%) express dissatisfaction with how democracy is working in their country. In Greece, 74% are dissatisfied.

There was no particular difference between the views of people dependent upon which system they were using. It is the emergence of a ruling political class who are further and further removed from the people they represent that is at the heart of this problem. It cannot be solved by a change of voting system. According to QZ.Com there are around 20 countries currently being ruled by right-wing populist governments. This means governments which are anti-immigration, anti-trade union, anti-equality. They include: the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs of Austria, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Shinzō Abe in Japan, Siv Jensen of the Framstegspartiet in Norway and Nenad Popović of the Serbian People’s Party. What all these populist governments have in common is that they were elected using one or other version of proportional representation. Indeed, of the 20 governments on QZ’s list 17 of them were elected using PR. Only Modi in India and Imran Khan in Pakistan were elected using first past the post.

This doesn’t prove, nor is it intended to, that PR results in right-wing extreme governments, but rather makes the point that it doesn’t guard against it either. For those rushing to embrace PR because they think it will keep out the Tories in the UK, it might be worth thinking that it might let in even worse. According to the Electoral Reform Society‘s analysis of the 2019 General Election, an election which incidentally saw 70% of candidates returned with 50% or more of the vote, voters “were ignored because they went to non-elected candidates or were surplus to what the elected candidate needed..” In other words, if you voted for anything other than the winning candidate your vote was ignored. This is democratically illiterate. Not every vote can win, any more than every football match can be won by both sides.

According to the Electoral Reform Society logic, if, in a 2 candidate election, one candidate received all the votes bar one, almost every vote would be wasted. In their view, only votes which are needed to win are unwanted votes. But, nobody knows which specific vote tips the balance. It is democratically, and possibly numerally, illiterate to talk of ‘wasted votes’ in any electoral system. The only truly wasted vote is the one used for a candidate you have no belief in because that is the only way you can see to keep out a candidate you really despise. In his review of the literature on tactical voting, Pedro Riera found no compelling evidence that it was effective, but interestingly found no compelling evidence that it was confined to FPTP systems either.

In the ERS’s analysis of different PR systems, the winner in every case was the minor party who got enough votes to give them, under PR, a number of seats, but not enough under any system to form the government. Step forward the Lib Dems who, under each of the three systems examined, ended up holding the balance of power. Whilst people hold out the hope that a left-wing party could gain a foothold in Parliament, this is naive. In most PR systems you need a minimum of 5% of the vote to get seats. Indeed, 5% strictly apportioned would give you about 30 seats. But 5% is roughly 1.5 million votes, which is 23,000 votes per constituency. The only political party of the left that has come close to that figure is hardly a party at all. It is George Galloway. As a media personality he can attract a lot of attention in what are sometimes called ‘second order elections’, but in a General Election he barely figures at all.

The enthusiasm for proportional representation is largely tied to the belief that it is possible to effect social change through parliament. As I said previously, this is a belief which is increasingly difficult to maintain if we take a historical view both of elections or social change. Parliament can, at best, deliver social reform. But, and here’s the rub, parliament can withdraw reforms at the whim of the ruling elite who comprise parliament. Moves toward greater social equality have faltered not because of the voting system but because of the social system. Putting your efforts into the way in which votes are calculated in the search for the elusive concept of ‘fairness’ is a distraction from the real struggles affecting ordinary people across the globe.

2 thought on “Can PR save democracy”
  1. Interesting analysis Dave. It could also be mentioned that PR often results in government by an alliance of parties which then means no one party gets to put in place the manifesto it was elected on. So the voters are then left with a government of fudge & compromise (this can of course happen in FPTP as we saw with the Con/Lib coalition) which it could be said no one voted for. Then of course PR can result in some alliances as we have seen in Israel where diametrically opposed parties come together to form a government merely to oust an opposition that they have a common dislike of. All of these options under PR can lead to a fragile or weak government not governing in the interest of their voters. As you point out the main problem seems to be those who we are given the option of voting for not the actual system we have.

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