While Britain lectures the world on democracy, others put it into practice

The anomalies of Britain's first-past-the-post system are obvious. In two general elections the party that won the most votes lost the election: Labour in 1951 and the Tories in February 1974 respectively. Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and 1987 won landslide majorities in the Commons on about 40 per cent of the vote, just as Tony Blair did in 1997 and 2001. In 1992 John Major beat Neil Kinnock's Labour Party by a clear seven points and was rewarded with a barely adequate majority of 27; now Mr Blair beats Michael Howard by a mere three points yet has a much more confident position in Parliament.

Sometimes the British electoral system pretty much by accident finds itself skewed against the Conservatives: the Tories now have to lead Labour by between 8 and 10 per cent to get an overall majority. At other times, it has been biased against Labour.

It is a factor of how "efficiently" a party's vote is spread. That is partly a matter of geography, partly tactical voting and partly a function of how much effort party workers expend on their best prospects, the marginals.

Politicians from both the major parties have toyed with PR, but only when it seemed they no longer had confidence their party could win under FPTP. By the early 1990s it was Labour's turn to punt the idea, until it became clear that New Labour was going to win on its own. All that remained was the commitment in the 1997 Labour manifesto to "a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons", which we are still waiting for.

Elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies have been held under PR, and if elections are held for the Lords that too will most likely be under PR. But for the Commons, it seems, Catch-22 will apply: any party able to win a majority that would allow it to pass the legislation for PR suddenly finds itself with no need for it after all.

Democratic alternatives

Germany: MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL

Germany's Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system can be tricky. A recent regional election in the north became a power struggle because the system - supposed to ensure the outcome reflects the electorate - failed to produce one party with a clear majority. A new government was eventually formed after weeks of wrangling. It works fairly well, allowing smaller parties to get a foot-hold in parliament. (Eva Kuehnen)

Italy: MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL

Italy gave PR a bad name; after the war, the smaller parties produced a succession of weak, splintered coalition governments. Following the system's meltdown in 1992, a largely majoritarian system replaced it. But 12 years on, the goal of the constitutional reforms - to give Italy a firmer and more decisive government - remains arguably unfulfilled, and there is a hankering in the air for a return to the not-so-bad old days. (Peter Popham)

Netherlands: LIST PR

Had Britons been voting under the Dutch system, the result would be easy to predict: a coalition government. With a proportional electoral system in place since 1917, all administrations in the Netherlands are made up of alliances of the main parties. The parliament has two chambers but the first is indirectly elected and only has the power to veto legislation. The second is elected on a proportional system. (Stephen Castle)

New Zealand: MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL

Under a system of limited PR adopted in 1996, it is virtually impossible for one party to secure a majority. Elections are followed by intensive negotiations as the party with the most seats woos potential partners. Under MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) voters tick two boxes: one for a party and one for a person. The first vote determines how many seats each party gets. The second is a first-past-the-post constituency vote.

Ireland: PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION

In both parts of Ireland the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of PR has become a familiar part of the political landscape.It's seen as a generally accurate correlation between votes cast and seats won and provides an enjoyable spectacle for onlookers during the lengthy counts, as nervous politicians' fate is decided. In the Irish Republic, in recent decades, the system has delivered a series of coalitions, as the largest party, Fianna Fail, has fallen short of an absolute majority.

Comments