Proportionality of power

I have variously made the point that the term ‘proportional representation’ is misleading in two respects. 

First, it is not an alternative system to our current first-past-the-post electoral system.  It is a generic term, encompassing a large number of systems, each of which has its defects.  It is not a case of FPTP v. PR.  Any debate on replacing the existing system has to be in terms of FPTP v. STV, or FPTP v. AMS, or FPTP v AV+ and so on. 

Secondly, the term is a narrow one.  The proportionality relates only to the relationship of votes to seats: if you get 10% of the votes you get (more or less) 10% of the seats.  It excludes the impact on negotiating power in the House of Commons.  10% of votes = 10% of seats does not then equal 10% of the negotiating power in the House of Commons.  It can result in a party with 10% of the votes/seats exercising disproportionate negotiating power.  That is what we are witnessing at the moment.  Roughly one in five electors case their vote for the Liberal Democrats, yet the Liberal Democrats are now pivotal to determining not only who will be in Government but what policies will be pursued. 

Under our FPTP system, the present situation is exceptional.  If the electoral system was replaced with one of the PR systems, it would likely be the norm, with post-election bargaining, the generation of policies not placed before the electors, and with no collective accountability of government at the next general election.  It is not an edifying prospect.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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17 Responses to Proportionality of power

  1. Jonathan says:

    Those who oppose changing the FPTP system should really make a big deal about the current negotiations. After all, by next week we could have a Labour prime minister, or we could have David Cameron as PM, and it’ll be Nick Clegg and other politicians who decide that, and not the voters at all. I don’t imagine many people will want this to happen after every election.

  2. Croft says:

    Just think about the MPs they’ve just campaigned and been elected standing behind Cons (FPTP) Lab (AV) and LD (STV) and now they are all going to be whipped to vote against their manifesto. Even by the standards of political cynicism this is a new low.

  3. ejoftheweb says:

    The problem needs broadening: how to make sure that government broadly reflects the will of the people. FPTP fails on this on many counts, and so does PR (of any sort) if the minor parties, as now (rather than the people) get to choose the next government. Nick Clegg is walking a narrow and treacherous path between principle and self-interest (quite well, I think), but next time, particularly if we have PR, it could be Nick Griffin in that role. It should be the people who choose the government, not politicians, and this calls for more, not less, reform. First, as well as PR for the legislature – preferably STV, because it gives voters a choice of candidate within party – we need direct elections for the executive, by AV. One transferable vote for an MP, plus one alternative vote for the PM. More refinements to make it work are needed, such as fixed-term parliaments, higher majorities needed to pass a no-confidence vote, but always without losing sight of the democratic ideal, that government should reflect the will of the people.

    • Lord Norton says:

      ejoftheweb: Your proposed system does not produce something that necessarily reflects the will of the people but rather an invitation to struggle between the executive and the legislature.

  4. I’m am continually astounded by the arguments of those in favour of FPTP that claim this hung parliament resulting in negotiation between the parties is a bad thing.

    73.9% of voters did not vote for the Conservatives. If that number was only slightly smaller, or the vote was differently spread across constituancies, and the Conservative’s had managed a majority then all the votes for the losing manifestos would be immediately ignored.

    The “back-room” deals are being continually derided as un-democratic, but I fail to see what’s un-democratic about parties with around a quarter of the vote being able to influence whatever government is formed into delivering the manifesto promises voted for by the electorate.

    To dismiss the result as un-democratic before the coallition promises are announced seems premature. LibDem voters and party members are making their opinions known to party leaders. The noise I have heard makes it quite clear to them what priorities they should have if they want to keep the support they have garnered at the polling booth.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Chris Nicholson: You say that 73.9% of the voters did not vote Conservative. You then later refer to a party (the Lib Dems) with ‘around a quarter of the vote’. I’m sorry, you cannot get away with this sleight of hand. On the basis of the total number of electors, what percentage did not vote for the Liberal Democrats? And it is not a case of the Lib Dems delivering manifesto promises voted for by the electorate; rather, as your closing comments indicate, it is a case of delivering what their own supporters prefer, which is not the same thing.

      • Croft says:

        Or even that. What LD voters believe in and what their party is campaigning most for are not always the same thing. Even among the committed the LDs from Scotland and the LDs from Somerset or Brighton are ways apart.

        As we have all seen in detailed polling voters often back parties who hold views they disagree with only because they disagree with more or in stronger ways with the alternative parties. When we eventually get more detailed numbers the 1% rise in LD support may be explained by anti-Lab or anti-tory tactical voting and not in response to any LD policy real or imagined.)

        I dislike this whole sordid process. Listening to LD politicians talking about negotiating in the national interest (code for: which party will give us most of our policies or abandon theirs we don’t like) and this epically hypocritical citing of opinion polls that support fairer votes (whatever that is). In this new found spirit from the LDs that opinion polls are the basis to negotiate a government should I expect they will be asking for the return of the death penalty, abandoning the ECHR and leaving the EU. All have had polls suggesting public support. Nope I’ve just checked hell hasn’t frozen over….

        Polls are only ever cited when people like them!

      • Lord Norton, my point is made slightly clearer by Stephen: majority parliaments are only a majority in terms of seats not vote, so to claim that the ‘winning’ party manifesto is the will of the electorate is ignoring the majority of voter opinion. My comment also explicitly stated that LibDem *voters* as well as members were making their views known to the party during negotiations so, as it should be, those in the electorate who gave their vote to support the pledges of the LibDems are having a say in their influence on Government.

        Croft makes a point that LibDems pick up votes from tactical voters but so do all parties. Here in Scotland the Tories are, through ignorance, seen as caricature so ghastly that any monkey in a red rosette will be voted in just to keep them out; they stole our free school milk dontcha know! The Tories themselves must have picked up many a tactical vote from those fed up with Brown. There are MPs who don’t agree with all of their party’s policies so I don’t see how voters not agreeing with every policy should affect the right to form a coalition agreement. Again, it’s about engaging with the politicians that have now been given negotiating power and letting them know our thoughts.

        I suspect it’s only because the rise of Twitter/Facebook/etc has made it more visible, but I’ve seen a lot more engagement in politics from my friends and acquaintances than ever before during this election period and hung parliament and I can only class this as a good thing for democracy rather than politics.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Chris Nicolson: Consulting party members is not the same as the electorate! There has been no real engagement with electors over the past few days – there has not been the time or mechanism. Nor do your points address the point about collective accountability.

      • Daniel says:

        Yes, 75% of the population didn’t vote for the Lib Dems. That’s why the Lib Dems don’t deserve full control of parliament either, just like the Tories don’t deserve full control when 65% didn’t vote for them.
        You see where Chris is arguing here. NONE of the parties represented the whole country so none of them had the right to rule without compromise.

        The only reason why the Lib Dems had so much power is because Labour and the Conservatives were not willing to compromise with each other. That’s not a flaw with hung parliament, that’s a flaw with Labour and the Conservatives. The electorate put the parties in a position where they’d need to compromise. If a party loses out due to their lack of compromise then that’s their problem.

        Incidently, I don’t think that the Lib Dems had disproportionate power. If you combined the total votes of the Conservatives and Lib Dems, the Lib Dems got 2/5 of them but they don’t have 2/5 of the votes or 2/5 of the influence on policy. The Lib Dems do not have the proportion of power as voted for by the electorate.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Daniel: As veto players, it is more a case of 50:50. The situation in which the parties find themselves is a consequence of how people have voted and not necessarily why they have voted as they have. Compromise produces policies for which no one has necessarily voted and for which no one can be held to account. Compromise does not necessarily produce some general will or public benefit, but rather a hastily knocked together set of sometimes indigestible policies.

  5. Are the Lib-Dems exercising disproportionate power? Yes. But have not the Labour and Conservative parties exercised disproportionate power by forming the only parties of Government without, in any instance, the support of more than 50% of the electorate, for generations?

    It seems highly likely that May 6 will have been our last FPtP election.

    I’m 58, and it seems likely a hung parliament is to deliver to me the second chance to vote in a referendum in my lifetime, whichever way the Lib Dems go. So that’s good news.

    What I’d like to see is members of both houses of the governing party or parties able to elect ministers following hustings, like the Commons electing a Speaker (though perhaps without such a lengthy process).

    • ladytizzy says:

      Don’t bet on the result of a referendum becoming law unless so stated at the outset.

      Three years ago, Co Durham district councils arranged a local ‘referundum’ asking residents if they wanted to combine into a unitary authority. And, so, with 76% voting no thanks all the same, Durham duly…became a unitary authority.

      I have no idea how long this Lib/Con coalition will last but expect to see FPTP in action in the not too distant future.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Stephen Paterson: Taking proportionality in terms of the ratio of votes to time spent in power, our system has been quite proportional. Our system does confer disproportionate power in the (changing) largest single party: the alternatives confer disproportionate power on one of the smaller parties.

  6. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Britain has the resources to handle this period and others like it very elegantly restoring the office of Lord Chancellor and involving the Monarch in a set of rituals and houseclening which every system needs could make this time wonderfully useful. A period of party negotiation that was planned for could become a good thing a time of national procedural hygiene. I think that bemoaning this result in such a large way is a far more serious sign of things being out of order than seems easily obvious. The whole system ought to be scrapped if a hung parliameny is an option and nobody sees any good in it. I do not think the whole system ought to be scrapped.

  7. Chris K says:

    I’d be furious if a change to the voting system took place without a referendum. Surely one instance where a referendum is of fundamental importance is on electoral reform?

    Neither the LibDems nor Labour have a mandate to change to PR without a referendum. Surely HMQ wouldn’t let them force it through? Before the Parliament Act of 1911 the Edward insisted on a special general election, after all.

    Anyone else up to going to Parliament Square bearing the banner “keep FPTP!”?

  8. Alex Bennee says:

    I have to say I quite like the concept of the AV system. It deals with the tactical voting dilemma and will hopefully give a clearer idea of what the public actually want. At the moment we hear a lot about votes for the Lib Dems being to keep Tories out when I know plenty of people who are more to the right but also want their votes to be more meaningful.

    Question: If we did implement an AV system would the 2nd (and beyond) preferences be part of the results? Would this only be for actual run-off rounds or for all potential preference transfers?

    There are a number of situations I can see the AV system having a positive effect. If there is a particularly strong local candidate campaigning on a local issue or independent platform then a supportive voter can vote for them without worrying about splitting the vote against a candidate they don’t want. The other situation would be where popular local party candidates get de-selected for one that is parachuted in. Overall I hope it would result in a few more independently minded MPs in the house.

    I have personally toyed with the idea of a RON (Re-open nominations) entry that could theoretically beat candidates if it gained majority, forcing a new election. However several friends have suggested it might be too tempting to give politicians the metaphorical kicking for the cynical Brits. It also goes against the main thing I like about AV which is making votes a positive thing: “I’m voting for you because I support your platform” vs “I’m voting for you so the other guy doesn’t get in”.

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