PR encourages extremes and prevents majority control

Proportional Representation did what it always does. It allows extreme and unpopular parties to get people elected, and prevents the most popular party having a majority, giving more power to unelected officials as a result. The London Assembly elections shows this off to perfection. On a night when the Conservatives won a good majority on the Assembly on a first past the post basis, PR intervened to deprive them of a majority. It did so by giving a seat to the BNP through the so-called Top-up system. The idea will remain very popular with the Lib Dems, who clearly like giving extreme parties the oxygen of publicity and the opportunity of office, because it also allowed them to gain 3 seats when they were miles off winning a single seat by being more popular than the other candidates in any given place.

The PR system was probably also designed by Lib/Labs with a view to making it very difficult for there to be a Conservative Mayor. On this occasion the PR result failed to overturn Boris’s clear victory on first preference votes, although the second preference system (I get to vote twice because I am a Lib Dem) did cut Boris’s majority. In their own terms PR failed the Lib/Labbers. Maybe they should think again about this wonky voting.

Did you notice that this new system of voting and deciding who has won was a) much dearer and b) slower than traditional first past the post? Goodness knows how much all that electronic technology cost. It was nice touch when we were told the count was delayed because the machines were overheating – they had not realised how many people would vote! We always used to get the results by about 3am the next morning with the old system. Now completing the task twenty hours or so later by midnight the day after the election is doing well. Apparently they assume very low turnout, and find their machines can’t cope at speed with too many people wanting to have a say! I suppose we should be grateful we don’t have to wait five weeks to know the winner.


  1. Tony Makara
    May 3, 2008

    Having lived in Denmark and Sweden I have had the experience of living under PR and can assure readers that it does not lead to stable government and very often leads to no government at all. The most disturbing aspect for me was the way that factions and blocs would form overnight in an attempt to cobble together patchwork administrations. This took all the honour out of politics as politicians would flit from bloc to bloc and government could be toppled on the egotistic whims of a few individuals. This leads to a situation where most of the population become floating voters and the single-issue takes precedence over the concept of parties having a programme for government. PR leads to tantrum politics, the politics of walking away rather than working to achieve mutual co-operation. The PR system divides nations and decimates the political process.

  2. […] was elected for Bexley and Bromley with a massive majority. Meanwhile Tory bigwig John Redwood criticises the PR system that has also handed assembly seats to the BNP, Greens and Lib Dems despite none of them winning in […]

  3. John
    May 3, 2008

    I am not sure I agree. Yes PR gives a voice to minority parties which some might dislike but you miss one of the biggest contributors to public dissatisfaction with politics today – the dominance of power by major parties through the first past the post system.

    In parliament there are no Green MPs and no BNP MPs. You might call these parties "extreme and unpopular" but the result is a political establishment that is not forced to confront widespread dissatisfaction because these minority parties can never get a foot in the door.

    And many people only draw back from voting for some of these marginal parties because they know in many cases it will be a wasted vote – better the devil you know. A Conservative voter that wants to break away from the EU might well think it is better to vote for the Conservatives even though there is little evidence that they are going to renegotiate with the EU because the alternative is that Labour benefit from a split vote between the Conservatives and UKIP.

    There are many faults with PR but something has to be done to enable the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK (especially at national elections) to voice their concerns and at least get some representation in parliament. Then I would hope that if the major parties see support hemorrhaging away to single issue parties they will address the issue that gave rise to their initial success.

    This is by far and away the single most important reason that major issues like the EU and immigration are not discussed properly by politicians. The public just cannot get representatives into parliament through the current system. Let us not forget that the only reason there is a UKIP MP in parliament is because Bob Spink left the Tory Party when already an MP.

    If the Conservatives took the issues of the EU and immigration seriously then there would be little requirement for UKIP and the BNP. Until that time we will not know whether support for the BNP is because of deep seated racist views or a genuine concern for the impact of immigration on British society.

    Just maybe the Green and BNP representation in the London Assembly will remind the major parties that there are some people out there who consider the issues they focus on of importance.

    By all means we can consider them either extreme or unpopular and I still hold reservations about PR but we cannot skate over the deep rooted problems in contemporary British politics that are largely caused by the way we get representatives into parliament.

  4. Gerv
    May 3, 2008


    Do you feel that first past the post is really the most just system of electing? You seem to be saying that because all of the Liberal Democrats in London haven't moved to the same constituency, they shouldn't have a voice on the London Assembly, but if they all did move, they should. Where's the sense in that?

    You don't like the BNP. But 150,000 people (or however many it is) do. If you think this is a problem, how do you solve it? By denying them representation? Or by convincing them they are wrong?

    Attacking the counting system for being slow also seems incredible. Surely we should pick a system which best represents the view of the people, then count the votes that way, even if it takes an extra day? If you don't think it best represents the view of the people, then argue *that* – but attacking the counting process is playing the man, not the ball.
    If you want a majority in the London Assembly, convince more people to vote for you. Then you can have one.

    Reply:I think it most unfair that in some PR systems Lib Dems get to vote twice and the rest of us only get to vote once. I do like a system which allows the most popular party to form a majority government, and gives electors the power to sack them if they abuse the trust.

  5. mikestallard
    May 4, 2008

    I don't like PR either because, like Tony Makara, I am English and like living in a stable country. (Israel? PR.)
    I quite agree that the London election was badly handled by the computer. Also, I should have thought, it entails a very complicated ballot paper, which must mean a lot of spoiled papers. As to the postal voting system – that makes hanging chads look quite civilized!
    In the EU, it seems to me, the PR system is badly flawed. This is because the MEPs are elected by their party machinery. You cannot vote for the person – just the party. The MEPs are not answerable, therefore, to their "region", just the party. This means that if, like Daniel Hannan, you feel you have to go against your own party (over the referendum issue) you are in serious danger of not being re elected. It gives the head of the party far too much power.
    If an MP is forced to leave their own party, they can at least stand for re election as an individual and be re elected.

  6. Acorn
    May 4, 2008

    For students of engineering, particularly "control technology" and "systems engineering", our political system has a forward loop equation – the voting system – that may be sub-optimal. That equation contains terms such as "first past the post"; "single transferable vote"; "additional member", etc etc.

    The feedback loop – samples the output of the forward loop and sends the result back to be compared to the desired original input requested – is where the system fails. (still with me)

    In parliamentary terms, the feedback can currently take five years and lacks the ability to isolate the effects of perturbations which were not desired in the output. (42 days detention; 10p tax band; being fined for leaving your bin lid open; to name but three)

    Engineers will tell you that the design of the feedback loop is far more important than the forward loop, this is where you spend the money. You may have to introduce terms like; referendum; citizen call-ins (Swiss style); no politician should be more than two years from an election etc etc.

    Which brings me to my point.

    What is the Redwood stance on Mr Carswell MP's Citizens' Initiative Bill

    Is there any evidence that the Sustainable Communities Act is working? These two pieces of legislation, are the only ones I know of that have any chance of improving the feedback loop. You will know better.

    Reply: I have worked with Douglas Carswell on ways that politics can be made more responsive to voter priorities, and support what Douglas in trying to do. His Bill will not, of course, become law as the government and Labour MPs will not vote for it. I set out my thoughts on how to make politics more responsive in "I want to make a difference but I don't like politics". Douglas agrees with a lot of that analysis.

  7. Derek W. Buxton
    May 4, 2008

    The answer is not PR, it does not work. It leads to more corruption and less actually getting done. Our system may not be perfect but it does ensure a clear cut executive. So all that needs to be done is restore Parliament to its proper place and for MPs to really represent the people as they are supposed to do. Then Parliament must hold the executive to account, it is many years since that happened. There has to be a more clear cut division between the parties, they are so much alike that it makes little difference who rules and that is patently wrong. But while silence is the order of the day as to where our real government lies we are stuck. The EU must be the centre of debate because that governs how we are ruled, never forget that, and that way lies tyranny!

  8. Gerv
    May 5, 2008

    John said: "I think it most unfair that in some PR systems Lib Dems get to vote twice and the rest of us only get to vote once."

    By "some PR systems" do you include the one we are using for London?

    How do Lib Dems get to vote twice? Did the totals for Ken or Boris go up by two every time a Lib Dem voted?

    This time round, it was clear that either Ken or Boris was going to win. The 2nd preference system means that every Londoner can both a) vote for the party they most want to win, and b) also choose which of Ken or Boris they would prefer. Allowing a) gives you a good view of the political understandings and concerns of Londoners – which I hope would be useful data to any politician. But in order to get the final result acceptable to the greatest number of Londoners, you want as many people to do b) as possible.

    A single vote system would force people to choose between doing a) and doing b). So the logic of your position, in arguing for a single vote, if you accept that the only way people can influence the outcome is by saying which of Ken or Boris they prefer (i.e. b), is that no-one should ever vote for anyone apart from the Conservatives or Labour. As a Conservative politician, I can see why you would want to argue that, but I'm not sure it's the best thing for a healthy democracy.


    Reply: I think it wrong that a minority get two votes whereas the majority only get the one effective vote in the London mayoral system. As a Conservative I accept that there are places and contests where my party is not in the top two (e.g. Scottish/Welsh elections in Labour/Nationalist areas). I don't see why Conservatives should there have two votes. It is our job to become mroe popular there, or recognise we are not what that part of the public wants.

  9. Andy W
    May 5, 2008

    There is a total mistrust of politics as it stands and politicians are entirely to blame.
    This is sadly yet another example of why many get disillusioned. While no system is perfect surely in any truly democratic system then as many votes as possible should count. Sadly the BNP attracted around 70,000 votes and those people deserve a degree of representation.
    The sad fact is that the BNP are gaining favour as the mainstream politicians fail to engage with their constituent voters. You need to collectively get your act together, having an electoral system that effectively ignores their votes is merely ducking the issue.
    The FPTP system leads to significant parliamentary majorities on 35% of the popular vote. If you want people to vote then make their vote count, don’t have a system that alters a government majority merely by rearranging geographic boundaries!!
    I would like to see a system where the number of seats reflects the total number of votes cast – if that leads to minority governments / coalitions then so be it – after all that is the prerogative of a democracy.
    Incidentally you may also ponder this post:-

    Reply: Every vote does count in a First Past the Post system, and counts fairly if each constituency has the same number of voters. It preserves the link between MP and electors which is broken badly if you have Top up lists or the like, which transfers power from voters to political parties.

  10. Andy W
    May 5, 2008

    Many thanks for your reply.

    If every vote counts in the FPTP system why do politicians make far more effort in 'marginals'?

    Easy, because their vote really does count – unlike many other constituencies where the incumbent is in a 'safe' seat.

    I really don't see why the association between MP and voter is so important to you. I'm sure you would put in as much effort to a constituent who didn't vote for you should your assistance be required.

    The most important thing in a democracy is that it reflects the wishes of the majority. The current system does not, in any shape or form, reflect the majority wish at a national level.

    Far more people voted against a Labour government in 2005 yet we are saddled with, not only a Labour government, but one with a sizeable majority. That is why an FPTP vote invariably doesn't count.

    Anyway, thanks again for your reply.

    Reply: PR means a movement to extremes, and a conspiracy by the political parties against the electors. Politicians make the decisions after the election, ditching their promises and forming unlikely coalitions. Parties control candidates, and electors find it difficult to get a representative to take them seriously.

  11. mikestallard
    May 6, 2008

    With this fantastic new website which allows replies and therefore argument, I want to come back.
    The Golden Victorian Age loved sport. Sport is essentially unfair. It is also essentially pointless. BUT sport (real sport like chasing wildlife, two men having a fight) is fun and people turn out to see it.
    So their election system was based on sport. Simple – you put your ballot papers into the tin and then the winner won.

    We humourless, stodgy, decadent, soft, condescending people are in a total muddle. Parliament is being bypassed every day. Look on the TV – the Commons is always empty. The Ministers rarely turn up. Votes are fiddled by the Whips

  12. mikestallard
    May 6, 2008

    and people just toe the line which they are told to. At the "top" sits a small bunch of people who are almost completely out of touch – hence the stress on getting experts in to tell them what to do. And then, of course, there are the lobbyists.
    Notice how Gordon Brown did his "comeback" not in parliament, but on the andrew Marr show. And, I regret, David Cameron also did his talk outside parliament.

  13. Simon_C
    May 6, 2008

    I think first past the post has problems too. It can deliver a large majority for the government when it has less than 50% of the vote.

    Personally, I'm in favour or totting up all the votes in the general election and using these to assign seats in a 2nd chamber.

    The 1st chamber is then to produce legislation, the 2nd chamber can then approve it. But, it should have to take a majority in the 2nd chamber to send back legslation after (say) 3 reviews. There should be no ability to force stuff through the 2nd chamber.

    I think that would produce a working primary chamber that can produce legislation, but the 2nd chamber would have to form a large block to stop legislation.

    IANACL (I am not a constutional lawyer)

  14. Freeborn John
    May 6, 2008

    I think PR “could” help to alleviate one of the key problems with our democracy; namely that parliament should represent the nation as a whole but in practice has become an expression of the will of one man, the leader of the majority party in the Commons, who now controls the legislature through party discipline and the whips. PR would at least compel the majority leader to seek the consent of other parties, but I feel the PR cure would likely be worse than the problem of an over-mighty executive, for which there are better solutions.

    One only has to look at the EU Parliament or continental parliaments to see how PR can be abused by political insiders to effectively insulate them from the people they are supposed to represent. The list-system is particularly dangerous in effectively protecting the senior politicians who set the political agenda for their party from being replaced through the ballot box.

    Personally I think two steps have been responsible for the degraded state of our democracy in Britain, both of which were ironically introduced to in the name of democracy.

    1. The first mistake was to transfer the executive power of the monarch to the leader of the majority in the House of Commons, a step which destroyed the separation of executive and legislative power in this country. This step increased the powers of the Whip who can deny British MPs “promotion” to executive office in the cabinet, a position which legislators would be barred from in presidential democracies. It would have been better if the British monarchy had been replaced by an elected executive separate from parliament such that parliament could really hold the government to account rather than being its tool.

    2. The second retrograde step was Lloyd George’s decision to downgrade the power of the Lords by replacing its power to amend with the lesser power of delay. This again effectively increased the power of the leader of the majority in the Commons. It would have been better to leave the amending power of the 2nd chamber in place but elect that body instead.

    The reform I would like to see today would be to elect the House of Lords, perhaps two-years after the Commons by a first-past-the-post system. In order for our 2nd-chamber to truly function as the "anchor of democracy" an elected Lords should have reinforced power to ratify international treaties, amend/block (and not merely delay) legislation introduced in the Commons that has not appeared in the manifesto of the party commanding the majority there, and the power to amend/block (and not uselessly scrutinise) draft EU legislation, in partnership with the 2nd chambers of the legislatures of other EU member-states.

  15. mikestallard
    May 6, 2008

    Freeborn John – as soon as you elect the Lords, you have introduced party politics and the Leader of the Party has complete control over its minions.

  16. Freeborn John
    May 7, 2008

    Mikestallard: There would be party politics in an elected Lords. It is a vice which cannot be got rid off; only mitigated. An elected Lords with re-enforced powers would only make a difference when the governing party (that commanding a majority in the Commons) is denied a majority in the 2nd-chamber by the electorate. During those times it should act as a real check on those specific powers of government that have been seen to be most problematic. For example the power to ratify international treaties, or legislate at EU level allows one government to bind its successors, so should be subject to additional democratic checks beyond the whipped majority in the Commons.

  17. mikestallard
    May 7, 2008

    I just do not see how it would work. Surely the election candidates would have to be approved by their party to get the support necessary for the election? No doubt there would be a lot of second raters, too, who were selected and parachuted in from on high.
    The idea of a chamber of experts from every field of expertise (which Blair destroyed) would soon turn into just another lot more professional politicians (with names straight out of the pantomime) being whipped into agreeing with the small, unelected, caucus of people at No 10.

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