Italy is usually held to constitute the prime argument against PR. On Sunday, it held a referendum on its electoral system and voted for an end to the party lists that have ensured that MPs' loyalty has been to the party rather than to the electorate. It seems likely that, if there is a change, Italy will adopt a combination of first-past-the-post and a proportional system.
But Italy's move should not be seen as a blanket condemnation of PR in Europe. PR systems are as numerous as the countries of Western Europe, and the success or failure of the governments they produce depends on many more factors than the way that marks appear on a ballot slip.
Apart from Britain and France, all the EC countries have PR systems. In most of those countries, the party list system - whereby voters choose the party they want rather than a specific candidate - is used in tandem with a system which gives voters a voice in the selection of the representative.
In Germany, the system has both elements; in Belgium, the voter can choose between voting for a candidate or a party.
Ireland's Single Transferable Vote (STV) takes it even further, since there is no party list system. This is the exception in Europe. Some observers argue that it means the Dail spends too much time on local affairs and that it encourages the pushing of money towards the constituencies to ensure re-election.
PR contributes to a style of government and a party system that is very different from our own. Maurice Duverger, the grand old man of European political science, noted long ago that a majority system was associated with a two-party system.
The reverse holds true, in that the average number of parties in European assemblies is six, though many of these are very small. Gordon Smith, Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, calculates that four is a more realistic estimate of the number of effective parties.
Nonetheless, it has often been argued that PR gives a leg up to new parties, no matter how small. This has sometimes been associated with the criticism that PR allows extremist parties a foot in the door. To counter this, some systems maintain a threshold which must be crossed -5 per cent of the vote in Germany, 2 per cent in Denmark.
By militating against majorities, it is also argued, PR creates governmental chaos and an atmosphere of 'deal-making' rather than decisive government.
In fact, the 'instability' produced by these party systems is often deceptive. Denmark, for instance, has a horde of small political parties, despite a population of only 5 million. Yet it has just finished a decade of rule by a conservative-led coalition.
Germany, too, has had smooth rule since the Second World War by coalitions led by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, with the Free Democrats - a small liberal party - often holding the whip hand, but by no means dominating the system.
In most countries, the nature of the party systems owes as much to historical divisions - regional, religious and ideological as much as socio-economic - as it does to PR. A two-party system simply would not reflect political reality.
In Italy, the referendum on reform has been prompted by the proliferation of small parties, and the problems this causes for coalition building, as well as the power of party lists.
But there is a case to be made for saying that Italy's problem is not instability, but too much continuity: rule by a small group of politicians from the Socialist and Christian Democrats, their names cropping up over and over again in alternance.
And as the revelations of Mafia involvement and corruption have shown, it has not just been the need for coalition-broking which has damaged the political system. The fact that while Britain is flirting with the idea of PR, Italy is moving in the opposite direction seems to confirm that electoral change is really a response to broader fears about the political system.
Italian parliament looks to the future, page 10
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content