06 February 2006

Why I don't like Proportional Representation

I don’t like Proportional Representation because it widens the gap between ordinary people and the people who are supposed to represent them. It does this in several ways. First, it hands more power to the party hacks who compile the lists. They can make it impossible for people to vote out someone they don't like. Second, on all the evidence, PR gives more power to smaller parties, who use it irresponsibly. Third, many ordinary people simply can’t understand complicated PR systems, such as New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional system.

But most of all, I dislike PR because it institutionalises the corrosive assumption that a Member of Parliament can represent people only in their capacity as voters for a particular political party, rather than as citizens with interests beyond party politics. It's an assumption that entrenches widespread cynicism, because under PR Members of Parliament they can hardly be expected to question the party line: their party is after all their only imporant qualification for being an MP at all. Under PR MPs see it as their duty to represent only the people who voted for the party that employs them, and I think that's worse than what went on under first-past-the-post, where there was a hope, even an expectation, that Members would act responsibly on behalf of all their constituents. The theory and practice of PR entrenches the worst aspects of party politics.


Harald Korneliussen said...

I like PR myself. It has disadvantages, but it's not as bad as dispropotional representation systems. Let me comment on some of your objections.

You say that it gives more power to small parties, and that they often use it irresponsibly. This seems correct in practice, but I think it's a poor solution to just say that minority opinions don't count. The minority may be right, after all.

You talk about "citizens with interests beyond party politics", but what "party politics" means depends on whether those parties grew up in a FPTP system or a propotional system. Here, just about all issues are party politics. As voters, we have plenty of parties to choose from (as well as a quite realistic alternative of starting a party on our own, if that is necessary - one of the largest parties in Norway, FrP, is quite young), and _we know what we get_. We don't have to psychoanalyse each and every candidate to divine when they might vote for something other than what we want them to vote. And they do act responsibly on behalf of all the people - if that's what we want them to do! Sometimes that is the wrong thing to do.

As for widespread cynicism in PR systems, it seems to me there's a lot more cynicism in the UK and US, where they have dispropotional systems, than where I live (Norway). But that's just my impression. Someone should do a multivariate analysis of factors affecting voter turnout.

PR systems don't have to be complicated, but we shouldn't underestimate the voters. They can get a simple choice, going with a party list, but they should also get the option of delivering a personalised list. We have that here, and it happens from time to time that a party favourite is rejected by the electors - but of course, the possibility of this happening is something the parties take into account when deciding the lists.

Ronnie Horesh said...

Thanks Harald,and much food for thought in your comment. I'm not saying minority opinions shouldn't count; rather that expressing them as votes for a specific political party can be unnecessarily divisive and strengthen political parties vis-a-vis ordinary people. But I take your point about whether parties grew up in a FPTP or PR system: perhaps my disillusionment with the New Zealand system is because it's new. To me it seems a shame that under the New Zealand system, once the votes have been counted, the decision about who shall govern is ultimately made by the leaders of parties doing deals in secret. Of course FPTP has its faults; perhaps it's because these faults are so obvious that they can act to restrain the excesses of 'elective dictatorships', rather like the inherited right to sit in upper houses ends up limiting their formal and informal powers.

Harald Korneliussen said...

"To me it seems a shame that under the New Zealand system, once the votes have been counted, the decision about who shall govern is ultimately made by the leaders of parties doing deals in secret."

Yes, that is to some degree a problem here, too. Usually, parties tell the voters which parties they are willing to govern with, and publicize a binding document of political cooperation ("Soria Moria" for the current coalition). Problems do arise when governments are felled mid-term, but they are to some degree limited, since most of the real power here is in the legislative branch anyway.

PR makes "weak" governments more likely, and I suspect this is the most important reason why some nations don't like it. But I feel that when the public is divided, government shouldn't be to strong; I think a weak mandate should give less power - that is not the case in the big FPTP countries.