And on the other hand, what is right with PR

Last week, our friend Paul Gregory wrote about the failings of proportional representation systems. Here, in the spirit of opening up discussion, I would like to take issue with that overall sentiment.

First, the reality. There is no perfect form of democracy. The idea behind the concept of ‘democracy’ is liberty. Democracy emerged to liberate people from imposed rule – whether imposed by virtue of their wealth, ‘divine choice’, aristocratic titles and bestowed (or seized) land ownership, or raw military power and oppression.

Ever since Athenian times, how best to organize a ‘democracy’ has been the subject of endless debate and constant evolution. Democracy will never be perfect, and the debate will never end.

Given that, we should be aiming for the least imperfect model rather than kidding ourselves that we have, or ever will have, the perfect answer.

Except for the incumbent parties that are protecting their self-interest, many would agree on the faults of the FPTP (first past the post) system. The Brexit debacle illustrates the problems of more direct democracy in countries that do not have the decades or centuries of experience with it as is the case in Switzerland, which Paul points out.

And, I hasten to add, seemingly only in Switzerland – which suggests that this is not a readily exportable or scalable model.

Over time, I have become more of a believer in the model of representative democracy and, for me, the question is how best to organise such a system to minimise its faults.

To my mind, fully proportional representation (PR), probably with no threshold (essentially the current Dutch system) has many advantages. Most votes count. Parliament will become fragmented to reflect the multiplicity of views held by a general population which, as Paul points out, is essentially a collection of minorities.

Over time, this creates a culture of discussion, compromise and respect for all views rather than the adversarial, cultish system of the current UK parliament – or even a PR system with thresholds as in Germany.

Yes, this is time consuming. But it is time well spent if it forces people to take the time to understand others’ points of view and take them into account. If they are forced to understand that democracy is not the same as elected authoritarianism (seemingly Theresa May’s current perspective).

I would argue that, contrary to Paul’s assertion, PR is, in fact, the best way to allow individuals a chance of having a political voice. Any individual who is capable of making a case to be elected has a much better chance of achieving it than under any other system. Geert Wilders, the antimuslim, anti-EU Dutch politician is a case in point.

He is the only member of his political party – though, of course, having won a not insignificant share of votes, he has others representing his party in parliament.

The objection that, under PR, parties will try to make themselves all things to all men doesn’t actually seem to be the case in practice. It is not that easy to pull the wool over people’s eyes – event though many try. Even though most voters will never take the time to become even vaguely familiar with the intricacies of individual policy platforms, they intuitively sense what each politician and political party stands for, and vote accordingly.

In fact, a PR system makes trying to make oneself all things to all people unnecessary because it makes it unnecessary to have so-called ‘big tent’ parties that consist of coalitions of widely varying interests all having to run under the same party banner if they are to be elected. One can imagine that under a true PR system, both Labour and Conservative parties in the UK would instantly fragment. And a good thing that would be too.

Paul argues that “policy in one grand area of political concern seldom has much connection to that in others”. I would argue exactly the opposite – it is all interconnected, as Roland Kupers explains in our recent video. We need to avoid the ‘fallacy of composition’ that is now well recognized and has led to so many of our intractable current day problems.

It is also argued that parliamentary systems that have to address all areas of policy fail because MPs cannot possibly be ‘expert’ in all such areas. The British and other systems try to minimise this issue through the use of select committees where MPs have the opportunity to specialize in specific areas.

But this particular debate raises the issue of what politics is about. In my view, politics is not managerial technocracy to be driven by experts in their field. Politics is about making broad moral choices that balance the multiple assorted interests across an infinitely varied population. Such choices and balancing can only be done by generalists who can take a systems view of the issues.

The role of technocracy and subject matter expertise is there to provide technical expert input to such systems level decisions, not to drive them or take them over. Pure expert technocracy kills rather than enhances politics and democracy.

There is, however, one main issue with the PR approach I outline above. Its practical implementation often involves national candidate lists. This breaks one of the perceived strengths of the current UK system – the tight, localised bond between elected representatives and their own particular constituents. Perhaps, in an electronic age, there may be ways in which this could be partially overcome through transferable votes as suggested in Paul’s Fuzzy Democracy concept.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Mick Taylor says

    There is one system of PR, the single transferable vote (STV) that puts the voter totally in charge. It has already broken up decades long one party states in many of Scotland’s local councils. Since the voter has absolute freedom to put candidates in his/her preferred order parties have much less control over who gets elected.
    With computers, counting is relatively easy.
    It would give us a parliament and local councils which would be much more representative of local or national opinion.

  2. Laurence Cox says

    Your PR system with no threshold means that the whole country is a single constituency, like in Israel. Originally their theshold was 1%, which was effectively zero, because the Knesset has 120 members. That led to massive fragmentation of parties and has been raised progressively to 3.25%, indicating that the zero threshold approach does not work in practice.

    We already have the answer, STV in multi-member constituencies, to give reasonable proportionality while maintaning the MP-constituency link.

  3. Joe Zammit-Lucia says

    Yes. The SVT with mulirepresentative constituencies is used in Malta and maybe Ireland (not dure about that one). People I’ve spoken to about it say that it favors a two party system and much harder for smaller parties to break through. Not quite sure how that works but that’s why I didn’t include it. Need to look into it further.

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