The liberal problem with proportional representation


June 23, 2022

The last few weeks have seen yet another wave of headlines touting the potential adoption of proportional representation (PR) for our elections. These headlines have come from areas as disparate as Eastleigh and Warrington and from outlets as different as LabourList and ConservativeHome.

The biggest news came last Friday when Britain’s second largest union, Unison, voted to support PR. However, while it may seem that support for reform is growing, the hard sell on PR has been underway for years. The idea of proportional representation may have been novel when John Cleese delivered his iconic party political broadcasts but it is clearly not novel in 2022.

Liberals have always been among the most vociferous supporters of electoral reform but maybe that near unanimous support is misplaced. Analysing PR from a liberal perspective shows a clear conflict. A core historical value of liberalism is enfranchising the people and opposing undemocratic systems. That is why many well-meaning liberals today support electoral reform, however it has become clear that proportional representation is a form of citizen disempowerment.

To see how this is possible, look at Germany. Under Germany’s PR system voters have many more options than in Britain. In reality, though, as soon as a German election concludes, the parties are forced to form a coalition. This outcome is nearly unavoidable in a proportional representation system. The necessity of coalition strips the voter of their choice and prevents them from deciding the next government.

The disappointment, betrayal and disillusionment felt by many Liberal Democrats when Clegg chose Cameron over Brown is a regular experience overseas in countries that have adopted PR. After the last German election, there were at least two potential German Chancellors and five potential coalition partners. Voters merely influenced the final decision. It is not just Germany either. In Italy, the two biggest parties formed a coalition in 2018, only for it to be replaced by a coalition of the second and third biggest parties in 2019, then a coalition of all four major parties in 2021. In Israel, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett led only the 5th most popular party in the country.

Similarly, reform is traditionally considered a key goal of liberals but change is frustrated by the inevitability of coalitions. The status quo is well insulated against voter attempts to reform it, since German voters may have a wider range of options to choose from but those options are very similar. There is relatively little difference between a conservative/liberal/green coalition and a socialist/liberal/green coalition, especially when the conservatives and socialists are regularly in government together. Even if voters want an alternative, a status quo coalition is often the only realistic option on the ballot.

It may feel logical to blame the parties or the voters for their predicament but neither have any real choice. The problem is entirely mechanical. Unless the parties in PR systems work together, those countries will be left with no political leadership. That meant even though the German socialists promised their voters in 2017 that they would not partner with the German conservatives, they were forced to do just that after the election.

The same happened to Israel’s Blue and White. The party that campaigned in 2020 on the promise to stop Benjamin Netanyahu ended up joining with him to govern during the pandemic. Closer to home, the Scottish Greens and Plaid Cymru both opposed vaccine passports, an issue of principle for many, but both supported them after they joined coalition governments. The PR system forced these parties to pursue policies they opposed.

Voters in proportional representation systems find themselves in a similar predicament. Those voters are stuck in electoral quicksand – the more they attempt to vote for change the more stagnant the status quo becomes. The more support and representation a reformist third party gets, the higher the chance they have to join a coalition. A party’s increase in support only accelerates that party being co-opted into the status quo.

Often, the only parties that voters know will remain distinct from a coalition are the divisive, fringe or extremist parties. That presents a dangerous boost for the far-right and far-left and it also makes the quicksand effect worse. Voters trying to vote for an alternative, however problematic, tie the mainstream parties even closer together. Mainstream parties cannot work with fringe parties so they have to work more with each other. This is what happened in Sweden when the rise of the Sweden Democrats forced parties from the right-of-centre bloc to support the left-of-centre bloc.

Proportional representation may appear to be the most liberal electoral system but all of these flaws show that liberals should be sceptical. There are few more liberal countries than Britain, there is a liberal case for the system we have inherited.

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