Under PR, whoever wins, voters lose out

A Finnish journalist warns Brits against demanding an electoral system that has performed so miserably in Finland.

Eero Iloniemi

Topics Politics UK

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Now Britain has had a taste of coalition government, next on the agenda is reform of the voting system.

While spiked has come out in opposition to the proposed alternative vote system, it gives tentative support for proportional representation. ‘It would more accurately reflect the will of the electorate overall, certainly more than [first past the post] does’, declares editor Brendan O’Neill. But before people in the UK rush to ditch FPTP, have a look at PR in practice.

Finland closes its polls at 8pm on 17 April. With typical Nordic efficiency, results should be available before midnight. Then we will know who rules the country, right? Well, no, not really.

Welcome to multiparty proportional representation. Responsibility for forming the government will be given to the biggest party, which will in all likelihood be the centre-right Coalition Party with roughly 45-50 seats in the 200-seat parliament. Tradition requires that the election result be reflected in the new government. In a country with eight parties in parliament, it is entirely possible that the biggest party is not the winning party.

For example, the Coalition party currently has 51 seats. So while the Coalition Party has the right to attempt to form a government, other parties may block it. The likely real winner will be the True Finns Party, which currently has five seats. While even an eightfold increase in votes would not make it the largest party, if it combines forces with the Social Democrats and the quasi-agrarian Centre Party, together they can form a coalition government that bypasses the Coalition Party. Forming a government in a multiparty system too easily becomes a game of musical chairs, where voters are mere bystanders.

O’Neill also thinks proportional representation ‘would most likely allow for the greatest variety of political outlooks and differences to be expressed and create an opportunity for minority opinions to gain a hearing’. If only this were so.

In multiparty proportional democracies, all parties campaign on their platforms, but none get to implement them. As the government is forged by compromise, parties constantly trade campaign issues for cabinet posts. The Finnish Greens ran on an anti-nuclear ticket in 2007, only to sell out in negotiations. They are members of the government responsible for the greatest nuclear energy investment binge in the history of the country.

In a multiparty system, a voter has no way of knowing which issues will be traded for power, that is, high office for party leaders. Multiparty proportional representation also makes a mockery of the opposition. The Finnish Social Democrats voted against the Euro bailout fund. Should they want to be in the next government they will have to form an alliance with either the Centre or Coalition parties, both bailout supporters.

These musical-chair governments soon become indistinguishable from each other. No wonder one senior Finnish politician has already proposed that the next government be an all-inclusive rainbow coalition. Thus multiparty proportional representation can evolve into a single-party government – which sounds very similar to a single-party state.

One should also remember that the multiparty system encourages factions to become fractions as even small parties may become pivotal in government formation. In these cases, the views of the few become grossly over-represented.

Moreover, when voters have no guarantee of what policies parties will pursue, they gravitate towards personalities. Enter the celebrity candidate. Former athletes and Big Brother-show personalities carry national name-recognition and are therefore ideal window dressing for careerists who want to project the common touch. Celebrities may get parties votes, but as outsiders to the wheeling and dealing of multiparty politics, they cannot hope to get to positions of power within the system. All leading Finnish politicians are political lifers with no more than token experience outside government.

FPTP is indeed unfair to political parties, but it was designed to serve voters, not parties. You may have voted Labour and received a Tory MP, but he is your MP. It is always in his interest to be the most popular politician in his district.

This is not the case in proportional representation. When national or regional votes are tallied, it is often sufficient for an MP to be the most popular candidate within his party, which is entirely different. It encourages representatives to curry favour with capital bigwigs instead of local electors. The larger the district in which votes are counted, the bigger the distance between voter and office-holder.

In Finland, a country with one tenth the population of the UK, dozens of candidates resort to TV advertising. As for door-to-door canvassing, it doesn’t exist. The problem with electoral reform is that it is always the pet project of politicos and seldom that of voters. When issues no longer matter, process becomes all.

Eero Iloniemi is managing editor of the Finnish weekly newspaper, Nykypäivä

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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