Leading Article: Keeping a sense of proportion

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AS REACTIONS to Labour's working party on electoral reform have shown, the debate on the merits of proportional representation is befogged by a number of false assumptions. One is that all forms of change lead to coalition government. Another is that coalition government is by definition bad. In fact, there is a broad spectrum of alternative electoral systems, running from Britain's first-past-the-post method to Israel's extreme of proportionality.

The version just recommended by Labour's Plant Commission involves the most modest possible modification of this country's existing system. Called the supplementary vote, it retains the present single-member constituencies but asks voters to state their second as well as first choices. Candidates gaining more than half the first preferences win the seat. If no candidate succeeds in so doing, all but the first two are knocked out, and the second preferences of those eliminated are distributed to produce a winner.

Had it been used at the last election, the Liberal Democrats would probably have won 30 to 48 seats rather than 20, producing a hung parliament. The Plant recommendation will be put to Labour's National Executive Committee later this month. The views of the party leader, John Smith, remain a mystery.

The case for Britain's existing system is often supported by comparing it with forms of PR that have obviously hampered effective and even democratic government in other countries. In Israel, for example, a party need secure only 1.5 per cent of the vote to achieve representation in the Knesset. As the two main parties tend to be relatively closely matched, small parties of religious extremists have been able to dictate policy to a disproportionate and dangerous extent. In Italy, pure PR has enabled the dominant Christian Democrats to play off small non-Communist opposition parties against each other by manipulating coalition alliances. Pressure for it to be abandoned is mounting.

In Germany, a less pure version with a 5 per cent threshold for representation has resulted in the (liberal) Free Democrats holding the balance between the two main parties and monopolising the foreign ministry. Far from having a negative effect, this has arguably been overwhelmingly beneficial, tugging the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats successively towards the centre and ensuring a high level of continuity.

The single transferable vote system used in Ireland (and for all non-Westminster elections in Northern Ireland) demonstrates that PR need not produce coalitions: it has given Fianna Fail an overall majority in more than a third of post-independence elections. It has the considerable added benefit of obliging each party to give voters a choice of candidates as well as of parties. It thus weakens the 'selectorate' that chooses candidates either more ideological or more conformist than voters would like.

What is not in doubt is that a more proportional form of representation would have given this country a different political culture, and thus a significantly different post-Second World War history. Voting patterns would have been different. So, probably, would the type of candidate entering politics. The great ideological divide over public and private ownership would have been rapidly bridged, enabling government to concentrate on the more important question of the competitiveness of Britain's manufacturing industry. That is why the Plant recommendation is so important, modest though it is. If accepted by Labour it would subtly change the premises on which political life is based.