PR could get us out of this pickle

Geraint Talfan Davies argues that first-past-the-post has exacerbated our post-election dilemmas

Those who are frustrated that the election has not delivered a clear majority by the traditional method of first past the post – not least the financial markets – are now trying to warn of us that the current negotiations, usually disparaged as ‘horse-trading’, are but a foretaste of what proportional representation would bring.

In one sense they are right. There would be negotiations following PR elections, usually with the fine democratic aim of securing a government that reflects the opinion of a majority of citizens – something unknown in recent British electoral history. But the arithmetic of PR would actually make those negotiations easier. It would give a more accurate measure of the legitimacy of each party, as well as creating more realistic expectations of what future elections might bring. 

In this election the Conservatives won 47 per cent of seats but only 36 per cent of votes; Labour won 40 per cent of the seats but only 29 per cent of votes and the Liberal Democrats won only 9 per cent of the seats despite winning 23 per cent of votes. It is this distorted arithmetic that is actually frustrating the creation of a decent workable majority.

Had a PR system been in place, the Conservatives would have won 234 seats, Labour 188 and the Liberal Democrats, 149.  Thus a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would have had a majority of 195 over Labour, while a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition would have had a majority of 103 over the Conservatives.

Even if you adjust those figures for the probable increase in representation of smaller parties, the ‘strong and stable governments’ that the markets and newspaper leader writers crave would be far more likely. Under PR the big parties would not be in their present pickle of knowing that whatever deal is signed up, there will be either the barest majority or none at all. And for those who dislike the potential of over-much Welsh and Scottish leverage in such finely balanced situations, PR might even reduce it.

One of the other problems about much post-election analysis lies in the anthropomorphic view of the electorate as a single person who has refused to make himself/herself clear, or is confused. The reality is that as individuals we have disagreed about what needs to be done, and if there is any element of confusion in individual minds, it will have been exacerbated by a mode of debate that concentrates on the centre ground. In turn this forces people to second guess the voting intentions of fellow constituents, or to vote against what they dislike instead of for the views that they positively espouse. 

In the face of such divisions there is nothing wrong in political parties, as representatives of our differing views, getting together to see whether they can reach an accommodation. That is the proper duty of representative democracy. It is what reasonable people do, especially in a crisis. That duty is all the greater given the knowledge that the individualistic society that we have created is not going to recreate the political monoliths of the past.


Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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