In truth, no imagination is needed – it is what happened in Germany between 1969 and 1998. Throughout this period, the Free Democrats averaged less than 9 per cent of the vote. For the first 13 years, they backed the Social Democrats. Then, in 1982, they switched sides and installed a CDU/CSU government of the right.
This example, one of many I could quote, illustrates a key characteristic about democratic voting systems. Each has merits and disadvantages, and it is for each country to make its own choices. But the label "proportional representation" emphatically does not provide any extra level of fairness over first-past-the-post. PR systems can, and often do, give disproportionate power to small minority parties. This is inherently less fair than first-past-the-post, which tends to favour the party with the largest share of the vote, even if it is in a minority (a problem which can be overcome by the alternative vote).
Those who favour PR must face this truth: you can have proportional voting, but you cannot have proportional decision-taking. At some stage, the round peg of the casting and counting of the electors' votes has to be fitted into the square hole of the choices which face governments. There is no logical sequence, no algorithm to achieve this. This is the disjunction which has to occur at some point in all systems between polling booth and power.
The issue, then, is at what stage a coalition of votes and representatives coalesces into a bloc capable of making yes/no decisions. Under first-past-the-post, this transition takes place at the time of the election. In proportional systems, where no party can typically gain a clear majority of seats, the transition takes place after the election.
Parties may have set out their positions in their manifestos, but the document which matters is the coalition programme agreed behind closed doors after the election. So what voters see is not necessarily what they are going to get. This may also mean that parties' programmes are not subject to the relentless examination by opponents and media which ours are.
Advocates of PR regard this as a plus, not a minus. Ken Ritchie, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, called recently for reform to end the deeply adversarial nature of British politics. But in my judgement, the disadvantages of an apparently more "consensual" approach greatly outweigh the advantages.
The consensus may often reflect not some genuinely shared approach, but the lowest common denomination of agreement. This in turn can give the system an inbuilt bias in favour of the status quo. That's fine if that's what people really want. But elections are rarely about the status quo. Even relatively prosperous Western countries are not yet in a state of grace, and the world is rapidly changing around us. Yes, of course, publics want stability; but they also need leaders and governments with the mandate and ability to make difficult but necessary decisions.
I'm all for a consensus where one truly exists, but I'm not in favour of a political system which fails to reflect profound differences in society at large. One of the strengths of first-past-the-post systems is that they are adversarial, so that arguments which in any event are raging outside the system are articulated by those within it. The alienation of political élites is a problem in many democracies, our own included. But there is no evidence that it is less so in countries with PR.
Moreover, no PR system has the inherent democratic strength of single-member territorial constituencies. In the last fortnight, I may have been in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Luxembourg and Brussels, but this week I am back in Blackburn. I cannot shuffle off my responsibility to someone else with whom I share the constituency, or – worse – with others on a regional or national list. I'm answerable and accountable: it's direct, in-your-face democracy, it's simple and it works.
While the Free Democrats were in power in Germany for the 29 years to 1998, Labour was out of power for all but seven in the UK. In those dark days of opposition, most of us did not call for a new voting system to ensure that the electorate gave us a better answer the next time, but argued for a refreshed ideology and new policies to reconnect us with the electorate. It's been better for my party, and infinitely better for the country than the quick fix of PR would ever have been.
The writer is Foreign SecretaryReuse content