What is wrong with proportional representation


Proportional Representation (PR) is the favourite alternative to remedy the glaring defects of the First-Past-The-Post system of electing representatives (deputies, MPs).

Discussion of second rounds (as in France) and voting by listing preferences (like the Alternative Vote, rejected in a UK referendum in 2011) has abated. Otherwise there is much popular (populist?) advocacy of so-called direct democracy, with frequent referenda, with the Swiss constitution as the template.

In actual fact, the Swiss model is a blend of representative (or parliamentary) democracy with advisory referenda. Switzerland has a sophisticated electorate which has matured over many decades, and its system would not be rapidly transferable to electorates which exhibit an ingrained and widespread habit of not voting on the issue on the ballot paper but, instead, of abusing the vote to express opinions on quite disconnected issues.

There are several – partially related – objections to PR. The first is that it depends on political parties, rather than individuals, as the sole vehicle of political opinion. Political parties aggregate thinking on disparate issues and present the electorate with a package or bundle (in Latin: Fasces).

This aggregation facilitates group-think. A citizen who is dissatisfied with the composition of the package has the option, theoretically, of joining a party and influencing its policy choices. In actual fact, social dynamics are such that this involves engaging in what is diplomatically called compromise and, less diplomatically, horse-trading.

It is time-consuming in the extreme, and the prospects of even minor success are remote. It is, in diverse and perverse ways, power that plays, not the force of reason or reflection. Pressure groups and lobbying come to the fore to distort policy. Hence citizens are normally deprived of precision in the voting booth. Often they must vote for the least bad party.

A second objection relates to the thresholds regularly applied for representation under PR. This can be seen starkly in Germany, where no party winning less than five percent can obtain representation. It can be argued that it is this that has resulted in the dead-end (or consensual) politics characteristic of Germany since before unification. More gravely, similar considerations apply to the European Parliament.

Under PR, each party is incentivised to maximise its share of the vote and is therefore bound to make itself nearly all things to nearly all men. This is a recipe for populism, understood as the gross simplification of issues and reduction of policy to just a very few issues (the economy, taxation, environment, immigration, crime, welfare). It is, incidentally, obvious that representation for these issues needs to be voted on separately, as advocated by Fuzzy Democracy.

If there is to be PR, then the threshold rule needs to be exactly reversed – by not counting any votes over five percent. This way established parties have no incentive to pander to the electorate. They can advocate unpopular policies without fear of losing extra votes.

This is not, of course, an adequate solution. The adequate solution is Fuzzy Democracy, as elucidated at www.fuzzydemocracy.eu. It will be objected that having a dozen or score of parties would lead to it being impossible to form an executive or “strong and stable” government.

There is mostly no need for government to be unitary. Policy in one grand area of political concern seldom has much connection to that in others, and it is only the fixation on party “loyalty” that imagines otherwise. The demand for such unity leads to preposterous horse-trading.

Of course, disallowing votes over the five percent as advocated above means disenfranchising some voters. But this is what happens already. Under FPTP, there is no voice for the losers. The “winner” wins only be accumulating more votes than the single runner-up, whether by many or only slightly more votes. And all those who voted for other candidates, however numerous – and they might well constitute a real majority – go empty-handed.

It is not the case that their vote counts for rather less. It counts for zero. This is de facto disenfranchisement.

Society is made up of minorities, not majorities. Hence democracy must not be the de facto suppression of minority voices in favour of an artificial majority. Such majorities are provisional and informal coalitions. Tiny minorities may be seen as trace elements, essential for the proper functioning of the body politic and, indeed, society. They are correctives and cures, like therapy and medicine, which does not mean that they should rule the roost.

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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. Frances Alexander says

    In 1974 after the first election that year, our local Liberal party campaigned for proportional representation, My son, aged 7, gave his teacher a leaflet.
    What is proportional representation, she asked.
    She told me he put his hands in his pockets and thought for a bit, and then said:
    In Buckinghamshire we have 5 Conservative Members of Parliament, If we had proportional representation we would have 3 Conservative, I Labour and one Liberal. Then everyone would be represented.

    Still the simplest explanation of Proportional Representation I have seen. It runs in the family …

    First Past The Post is clearly indefensible
    Overall majorities a part ought to earn.
    If you get more votes then more MPs is sensible –
    A lesson in democracy that people ought to learn!
    Little Enid Lakeman got up to show us how
    “With STV you use the votes that would be wasted now.
    You mark the paper 1,2,3, and sure as you are born
    You’ve already found the gateway to Electoral Reform.”
    For we know PR is a most important principle.
    When you count the papers the elector’s choice is clear.
    It will make The People quite invincible –
    Perhaps it is the outcome that the larger parties fear!

    Extracts from a song written for the 70th anniversary of the Liberal Party, by my late husband, Eric Alexander.

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