GE2010: What's So Good About Proportional Representation?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

The recent General Election appears to have reignited calls for electoral reform here in ye olde Blighty. Since their foundation, the Liberal Democrats have been calling for Britain to adopt the single transferable vote system of proportional representation, as opposed to the current first past the post system. They claim that this would combat electoral apathy, and increase voter turnout as well as combat corruption– at least going by this passage from the ‘better govt.’ section of the Lib Dem site:

“We will modernise government so that it serves the interests of all people, not just the vested interests of politicians, corporations or rich donors. Liberal Democrats plan to reform government so there will be no more privileged patronage, no more dodgy dossiers, no more excessive secrecy.”

This intrigued me: I’m all for PR on the basis that it’s, ideologically speaking, a “fairer” system in terms of representation, but I don’t recall anyone explaining how it would make politicians more accountable. Indeed, under a list-based system, surely PR would make individual politicians less accountable in terms of local issues? Does PR really combat corruption?

Given that there seems, for the first time in Britain, to be a chance that electoral reform could take place, I thought it was worth exploring these issues.

Utilising  readily available Internet sources (wikipedia and transparency internationals 2008 CPI survey) I thought I’d do a bit of data mangling to try and get a rough idea of any correlations between voting systems and corruption; essentially grouping elections with a First Past The Post or Single Transferable Vote electoral system, and comparing their average CPI scores. This produces, before you think about things like unequal sample sizes and the like, the initial result that STV appears to produce a far less corrupt system with an average CPI score of 7.52, compared to FPTP which scores a measly 3.87. The lower the score, the higher the perceived corruption: Britain scored 7.7 in 2008 and other countries around this score are Ireland and Belgium (around 16 in the table), countries like Romania, Columbia and Ghana score around the 3.8 mark (around 72 in the index).

At first glance, it would appear that STV might indeed correlate with lower perceived corruption (which in turn might also correlate with actual lower corruption); however, I wouldn’t be much of a stats geek if I didn’t worry about the irksome issue of unequal sample sizes. My sample included 63 elections with a FPTP system and only 5 using STV. This could indicate that you see more corruption in countries with FPTP voting systems simply because there are more of them.

The suggestion that PR leads to more engagement in politics is also an intriguing one. If this was true, you might reasonably expect marginal constituencies in Britain to produce higher voter turnouts, as the reasoning behind PR increasing engagement is the idea that more people will feel their vote counts or makes a difference. If this principle holds true, then it might be reasonable to assume that marginal constituencies should have higher turnouts than party safe seats.

There is the rather obvious confounding variable of parties focusing their energies on marginal seats in order to retain or take them from their opposition, as demonstrated by this passage from the ESRC Society Today site.

“In 2001, there were just 37 campaign workers in the average local constituency party compared with 54 in 1992 . The number of polling day workers fell from 138 in 1992 to 73 in 1997. But while the Conservatives averaged 122 polling day workers to each seat, Labour had just 70. However, though the Conservatives had 211 polling day workers in their safe seats, they had just 149 in their target seats. By contrast, Labour had 74 polling day workers in its safe seats, but 126 workers in its targets. The Liberal Democrats had 151 polling day workers in their own targets and 93 in their safe seats.”

The above demonstrates that two out of three of the major UK parties do invest far more effort in gaining marginal seats than in keeping safe seats. Perhaps the contention that comparing marginal seats with safe seats tells us something about voter apathy and engagement is already on shaky ground.

Luckily, the Electoral Reform society has come to the rescue.  In their 2008 quick guide ‘PR myths‘, they provide a sample of countries listed by voting method, and give each country’s turnout. The top of the table (with turnouts in the 80’s and 90’s) consists of list PR, STV and AV although three of these involved compulsory voting. If you are interested, the AV (or runoff, if you prefer) CPI average score was 3.53 with a sample size of 69. It’s hard to tell whether or not to trust the data presented in the table, as it’s clearly a selected sample of countries.  However, the report does make reference to a government report that stated:

A comparative international study, and the research for the Government’s review of electoral systems in 2008, concluded that proportional systems tend to produce higher turnout than FPTP. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, because with PR every vote can count towards the result.”

Sceptics of the system of proportional representation tend to hold at least three major objections: that PR leads to weak coalition governments where the smaller parties hold sway,that it lets in extremist parties, or that FPTP is better at representing local constituencies.

The electoral reform society address each of these concerns as follows.

1. “PR leads to weak coalition governments where the smaller parties hold sway.”

“Studies of what happens under coalition governments show that the idea that the tail wags the dog is not borne out by the facts. The smaller party achieves some of its objectives, but the programme for government is by and large more closely based on the manifesto of the larger party. The larger party has most of the executive appointments and therefore more of an opportunity to use the power of government in line with its philosophy.”

They also make the argument that under the current FPTP system, it is a small subset of voters which hold the power in marginal or swing seats.

“…election manifestos and campaigns are crafted to appeal to this group who were estimated in 2005 to consist of only 800,000 electors out of 45 million. This small group of voters has an effective veto over a wide range of policies on taxation, public services and climate change. They are, in effect, a ruling minority but without the stated policy positions that a small party would have. “

2. “PR lets in extremist parties.”

“PR represents parties that achieve a reasonable share of the vote (ranging from 0.7 per cent support in the Netherlands to 10 per cent in Turkey). If people vote in sufficient
numbers for a party under PR, their voice will be heard. This applies to small parties with democratic values and something to contribute, such as the Greens, but also to extremist parties.”

It’s hard to deny, particularly in the light of recent European election results, that PR can assist extremist parties in gaining seats. Nonetheless, representation is not control, and perhaps it is worth allowing the extremists to do so (hopefully in small numbers), in exchange for a fairer system.

3. “FPTP is better at representing local constituencies.”

“Under FPTP the election winner often does not have majority support from his or her constituents. In 2005, two-thirds of MPs returned to Westminster did not have majority support from local voters. Because of low turnout, no MPs had the support of a majority of their constituents and only three could claim more than a 40 per cent local mandate. A constituency link established on such a feeble mandate does not look that strong from the voters’ point of view.”

This is the area where I remain to be convinced. Perhaps a system akin to the one in place in the Scottish parliament might be an attractive middle ground to adopt?

“A system where several members represent a ward has a number of advantages for the voter. The chances of a voter having a candidate for whom they have voted, and with whom therefore feel a sense of ownership and connection, are high under STV. In the 2007 Scottish local elections under STV, 74 per cent of voters elected their first choice candidate. This was an advance on 52 per cent in the last FPTP elections. This strengthens the link between voter and representative. STV also creates competition at a local level, encouraging a high standard of service to constituents in every seat, not only in the marginals. “