Proportional Representation – What’s It All About?

Tracey Bleakley's Conservative take on it all

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As this article is written (the morning of Tuesday 11th May) the issue of proportional representation stands as the potential deciding factor upon which parties will govern our country during the current parliament.  So what is it and why are people so split over the issue?

Proportional representation (PR) is a voting system aimed at matching the percentage of votes that groups of candidates obtain in elections with the percentage of seats they receive.  This is in contrast to the current voting system where seats are won or lost in each constituency via the "first-past-the-post" method.  In this case, the votes for the non-winning parties in each area are disregarded, and therefore the percentage of votes does not directly relate to the final number of seats.

Many people favour proportional representation as the concept of matching actual votes cast to the number of seats gained per party feels like a fairer system to many.  It would also give higher numbers of seats to the Liberal Democrats with smaller parties such as the Green Party (and the BNP and UKIP), who would be expected to gain seats.

However, critics argue that proportional representation would lead to a hung parliament after every election, meaning that the closed door negotiations of the last few days would become the norm after every election, with the government being decided by politicians rather than voters.  The risk is that compromises may be negotiated which may bear no relationship to what electors want, which were never discussed in front of them, and which they may have no opportunity to pass judgement on at the next election as the parties will then stand again as independent parties.

Critics of PR also argue that the smaller parties in a hung parliament have disproportional power.  In this election, the Liberal Democrats will decide soon who the next government will be, even though they came third in the election in terms of votes and seats, and only 1 in 5 people voted for them.
Another issue is that a hung parliament means the end of party manifesto’s – as parties can only state in advance of an election what they intend to do if they will then rule under a parliamentary majority.  Under the current system, the winning party sets forward a programme of public policy before the election for which it can be held to account at the next election.  This would be lost, as public policy would be decided in a post-election compromise between the ruling parties.

Of course, as we have seen, our electoral system facilitates but does not guarantee the return of a single-party government.  It can on occasion result in a hung Parliament, as we are presently experiencing. However, this is an exception. Under alternative systems, it is likely to be the rule.
No electoral system is perfect, but the first-past-the-post system has a number of real benefits. Much attention at the moment is focused on proportional representation, but please do take a moment to consider if you feel that our current system is also worth fighting for. 

Tracey Bleakley

May 12, 2010

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