Letter: Votes for PR

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Defenders of the present electoral system, currently launching pre-emptive strikes against the upcoming Jenkins Report, have been making some strange claims about proportional representation.

First, PR is often taken to be an electoral system in itself, rather than a characteristic of a wide range of electoral systems. As a result, the various electoral systems grouped under the term rarely share the undesirable features of which they are accused. We are told, for example, that PR generates "unstable government". After Sunday's election under a highly proportional system, Germany is getting its seventh Chancellor since 1949. In the same period, counting Harold Wilson twice, Britain has had 11 prime ministers. It is deeply misleading to suggest that stability and proportionality cannot coexist.

Second, we are told that first-past-the-post, in contrast to PR, has the great virtue of being easily understandable. The truth is that many forms of PR are really not that difficult to understand, while our present system is riddled with unjust oddities. In 1997 the average seat won by Labour had nearly 6,500 fewer voters than those won by the Conservatives. With a uniform swing from 1992 the Tories would have needed a 6.7 per cent lead in vote shares to match Labour's seat tally. Are the idiosyncratic factors that produce patently unfair outcomes such as these really that comprehensible to the British public?

Third, many critics of PR fail to distinguish between the different sorts of electoral rules that make up each national case. For example, increasing the proportionality of electoral outcomes does not automatically mean opening the parliamentary door to extremists. Electoral thresholds serve a filtering role in a range of countries: Germany requires parties to get 5 per cent of the vote to gain representation, while Turkey used to require 10 per cent, and Greece 15 per cent. Nor is it true that a more proportional electoral system would necessarily spell the end of the treasured link between MPs and constituencies.

It would be a shame if the crucial debate on electoral reform were to be prejudiced by misleading characterisations of the choices we face.


Magdalen College, Oxford