The delusions of the electoral reform lobby

spiked likes the idea of proportional representation, but we want nothing to do with today’s elitist campaign for it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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spiked likes the idea of proportional representation. PR, properly instituted, would probably be better than the ‘first past the post’ system (FPTP) we currently have. A PR system in which the percentage of seats a party received closely mirrored the percentage of votes it won could help to clarify political debate and might ensure that a better democratic snapshot of the nation was taken at election time.

However, that doesn’t mean spiked supports the current, rather feverish campaign for PR. However much these campaigners try to present themselves as a lively grassroots movement, complete with rowdy but stage-managed public protests, there’s no escaping the fact that they are a minority, even elite section of society, driven by a powerful conviction that the voting habits of the masses are problematic. Even worse, they are making the profound error of imagining that Britain’s current political exhaustion is a product merely of technical problems in the electoral system, leading them to the wrongheaded conclusion that pushing through electoral reform will revive and enliven politics itself.

Since Thursday’s General Election resulted in a hung parliament, electoral reform has become the biggest issue in political and media circles. The election result, where no one party passed the majority threshold required to set up a government, is seen as both a product of the lack of PR and also an opportunity for finally introducing PR. Currently Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are cosying up to David Cameron’s Conservatives, and Clegg’s supporters are loudly demanding that he makes sure he ‘wins the prize of PR’ in any deal he does.

The PR juggernaut – which has pushed aside every major and pressing political issue, from recession to war to liberty – presents itself as a genuinely democratic movement. One PR supporter says the issue of electoral reform has ‘seized the voters’ who want this election to be a ‘democratic contest over the shape of our democracy itself’. Others point to the very loud ‘Take Back Parliament’ protest in Whitehall at the weekend, which gathered outside the building in which Clegg was meeting with Conservatives, as evidence of a mass movement for electoral reform.

These are extraordinary acts of self-delusion. In truth there is no bottom-up, popular demand for PR. It remains the concern of very small numbers of liberal activists and commentators. The few hundred protesters who provided some election-related rowdiness for the media at the weekend consisted largely of Lib Dem party activists, newspaper columnists, and the organisers and members of special-interest electoral-reform campaign groups. Both sides, both the protesters and the politicians, benefited from this carefully planned performance of anger: Clegg could present himself as the representative of agitated public sentiment in his deal-making with the Conservatives, while the protesters could make it seem as if their narrow agenda for electoral reform is in fact part of a mass movement. What the protest really represented was a fairly cynical attempt to dress up the elite, backroom push for PR as a public-led phenomenon.

Some supporters of PR instinctively recognise that the campaign for electoral reform is a minority pursuit. Impassioned PR man Timothy Garton Ash admits that it is really a ‘popular front of the liberal centre-left’. He even accuses the public of having a ‘mental disconnect’ on this important issue, pointing out that if you ‘start talking to them about constitutional reform, their eyes glaze over’.

Garton Ash’s conviction that he and his friends, unlike the general public, can appreciate the supreme importance of this issue captures what motivates the modern minority movement for PR: disappointment with the masses’ political choices and their ignorance about the importance of altering the constitution. When the ‘Take Back Parliament’ protesters and pro-PR commentators complain about the ‘old tribalism’ of the two-party system and about voters ‘reverting to tribal type’, what they are really saying is that they have successfully risen above tribalism, above the blockheaded outlook of the old Labour-Conservative divide, and now they want to institutionalise a system that will encourage other, less enlightened members of society to do likewise. PR campaigners’ constant use of the word ‘tribal’ to describe the public’s voting habits is striking: it implies that ordinary members of the electorate are possessed of instinctive, thoughtless political allegiances, in contrast to the ‘popular front of the liberal centre-left’, which has successfully risen above such grubby divisions and can therefore see things more clearly.

What many PR campaigners fail to recognise is that while PR (instituted for the right reasons) might be preferable to FPTP, it is far from a perfectly democratic system. In fact, it throws up some new challenges of its own to the democratic will and the power of the public to shape the political agenda. For example, PR is more likely to give rise to coalition governments – and coalition governments are not only less stable than majority-party governments, they can also generate a very anti-democratic ethos and political culture.

As evidenced in the current toing and froing between the Lib Dems and the Tories, the creation of coalition governments frequently involves behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, deal-making and compromises on manifesto promises (on which the public voted in good faith just a week ago). The cobbling together of a coalition often involves the fashioning of a new political rhetoric which reflects, not the thinking and the outlook of the voters who supported the parties involved, far less of the general public, but rather the privately worked-out needs of party leaders and officials. The process of coalition-building necessitates the exclusion of the public from important decisions: it is assumed that the public’s attachment to particular parties makes them ill-suited to the complicated process of forging a coalition, which is better left in the hands of more informed party officials who can act in the ‘national interest’ (in Clegg’s words).

Furthermore, PR frequently involves the use of the ‘party list’ system, where political parties themselves wield enormous power in deciding who our representatives will be. In many of the PR-style systems held up as models by the vocal Cleggite reform lobby – from Germany to Israel to New Zealand – some variation of the ‘party list’ system is employed, where either the party entirely creates its own list of parliamentary representatives based on the strength of the vote it received in the election, or else allows voters to vote for some geographical candidates but then ‘tops up’ these candidates with its own privately drawn-up list of representatives.

In both cases, people’s ability to directly vote for the person whom they want to represent them – someone whose views, passion and flair they genuinely support – is diminished. And the parties’ ability to decide the make-up of parliament, behind closed doors, is enhanced. FPTP is far from perfect, but we should think long and hard before abandoning our ability to pick an actual person to represent our interests, a real, recognisable man or woman who knows our area, knows our concerns, and has convinced us somehow, through face-to-face engagement or postal propaganda, to support them.

But probably the worst mistake the PR lobby makes is to imagine that the reason British politics is in disarray, the reason it is so lacklustre, is because the electoral system is creaky and outdated. So, they claim, political debate and engagement will be improved if we overhaul the system. This makes their campaigning a displacement activity of epic proportions. They have mistaken a serious political crisis – involving collapsing ideologies, a dearth of big and inspiring ideas, and a gaping chasm between the public and the political parties – as simply a technical problem of how we vote. Their campaign is the equivalent of fiddling while politics burns. spiked likes the ideal of PR – but we don’t like elite disdain for voters, and we recognise that there are far more profound issues to address before electoral reform.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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