John Gustavsson: Take it from a Swede – proportional representation would be a mistake.
John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden
At the recent Labour Party conference, a majority of delegates endorsed proportional representation (PR). Proponents of this scheme cite what they view as the inherent fairness of PR, which they claim will put an end to governments not supported by a majority of voters. As a citizen of Sweden, a country that uses PR, I remain unconvinced it would be an improvement over first-past-the-post (FPTP). In fact, it might break British politics even further.
First, let’s start with the claim that PR would produce a government more closely aligned with voters. This is highly unlikely. No British party has won an outright majority of the vote since the 1930’s, so PR would, in practice, mean permanent coalitions.
While coalition governments are often criticized for being unstable, the real issue is that they tend to be unrepresentative. In the 2002 election, the Swedish Green Party won a mere 4.65 per cent of the vote, compared to the Social Democrats 39.9 per cent.
Yet, when the time came for coalition talks, the Greens (which at the time was more centrist than today) credibly threatened to side with the right-wing parties, and the Social Democrats were forced to accept a deal which resulted in around one third of much-smaller party’s election manifesto becoming government policy. This was despite the Greens holding less than 1/10th of the coalition’s seats.
Did the Swedish voters really get what they voted for in 2002? I would argue they didn’t. Especially since many of the policy concessions granted to the smaller party (which included government-subsidized year-long sabbaticals) had virtually no popular support. While FPTP may give the big parties more seats and thus more power than they perhaps should have, one has to keep in mind that PR does the opposite by allowing small fringe parties to play kingmaker.
And there would be many potential kingmakers. With 650 seats in the House of Commons, under PR a party would need to win just over 0.15 per cent of the vote to win a seat – a seat that, in a close election, could give them a seriously outsized influence. You may think that this could be solved by introducing a minimum threshold for representation. In Sweden, a party must gain 4 per cent of the vote nationally to win seats in parliament. In Denmark, the threshold is 2 per cent, and in Germany 5 per cent.
The problem with this solution is two-fold: First, just like under FPTP, there is no longer any guarantee that the side with the most votes will actually win. If the left-wing parties were to receive a combined 51 per cent of the vote, but one or more left-winged parties received fewer votes than required by the threshold, the left-wing parties may not receive a majority of the seats.
The second problem that follows from the first is that a threshold encourages tactical voting – another problem that PR supporters claim the system would prevent. Imagine that your preferred party is in a four-party coalition, and opinion polls show that one of the four parties is dangerously close to the threshold.
You now have an incentive to vote for the endangered party, instead of the party you actually support, since if one of the four parties were to fail to reach the threshold, your coalition’s chances of winning would be drastically reduced. This creates “zombie parties” that have little actual support among voters, but are kept alive artificially, election after election, by tactical votes from the bigger parties in their coalition.
In Sweden, both the left- and right-wing coalitions have one such party: For the left, it’s the aforementioned Green Party, and for the right, the Liberal Party. Both these parties polled between 2-3 per cent less than six months before the September elections, but they both cleared the hurdle after they both ran election campaigns that focused not on what they wanted to do in government, but rather on reminding voters that “If we don’t clear the threshold, the other side will win by default, so you better vote for us even if you don’t much like us”.
In fact, just days before this year’s election, the Social Democrat party leader Magdalena Andersson made a personal, televised appeal for voters to please consider voting for the Green Party. Does Britain really want this zombie clown show?
Finally, proportional representation makes it a lot more difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable. The first and most widely discussed reason for this is that each constituency would no longer elect its own MP that would represent and care for the issues important to that particular constituency.
The other, and in my opinion more important reason, is again that PR absolutely requires coalition-building, which involves compromises. Where’s the danger in that? Since all parties know that they will not win an outright majority, they will be inclined to tell voters whatever they want to hear and promise them the moon in exchange for their votes.
Then, when the next election rolls around and voters ask why they didn’t receive the moon, the party responds “Sorry, we totally wanted and were definitely planning on delivering you the moon, but our coalition partners just wouldn’t agree to let us do it”. Followed by a promise that, if the voter just lends them their support again, they will be so much tougher in the moon-related coalition negotiations this time around.
Since you as a voter have no insight into the negotiations that take place between party leaders behind closed doors, you have no way of knowing whether your party is actually driving a hard bargain and trying to deliver on the big promises it made during the election campaign, or whether these are forgotten as soon as polls close.
So the Labour Party can easily blame the Liberal Democrats for their unfulfilled promises, the Liberal Democrats can blame the Green Party for theirs, and the Green Party can blame that dastardly moderate Starmer for vetoing their most radical ideas. And on and on it goes. In a coalition government, there is always plenty of blame to go around – but preciously little accountability.
As the U.K. stares down a harsh winter followed by what are likely to be years of tumultuous reform and rebuilding, a less accountable government is the last thing the country needs. The UK must reject the siren call of proportional representation.