Caroline Lucas: Busting the myths about Proportional Representation

12 December 2016

Myth 1: “The British people voted strongly against changing the current First Past the Post system in 2011 – this question is settled for a generation.”

Tweet: The British public have never had a say on Proportional Representation. The Alternative Vote is often less proportional than FPTP #AVisnotPR


The British people have never had a say on Proportional Representation. The 2011 Alternative Vote Referendum was on a system which – by David Cameron's own admission - is often less proportional than First Past the Post. In fact, when I and cross-party MPs proposed an amendment to include proportional options on the Referendum ballot paper, we were voted down. Many of the MPs who now say the people have settled the question are the very MPs who denied the people that choice. It's hard not to see this as disingenuous!

The Referendum was a Hobson's Choice between two unfair voting systems. Although AV was rejected, only 42% of the electorate were inspired enough by either system to come out and vote - meaning just 28% of the electorate were moved to defend the current voting system. On the other hand, polls consistently show overwhelming public support for PR. Far from settled, this is an issue that won’t go away.


Myth 2: “Proportional representation would be expensive and bureaucratic.”

Tweet: If most democracies can cope with Proportional Representation so can we. We can't afford NOT to have fair votes! #NotExpensiveNotComplicated


It’s true that elections of any kind come with bureaucracy - but there’s no evidence that this is more problematic or expensive when PR is used. Most of the world’s general elections take place under proportional systems. It's a curious suggestion that the UK wouldn't be able to cope with the bureaucracy - especially when Scotland, Ireland, Wales and London all use PR without difficulty!

Besides, democracy is a fundamental value. We don't compromise on justice or rule of law just because it's expensive or complicated. A fair, democratic election once every few years is a tiny cost compared to all the fair trials and due processes we all pay for every year – and surely both are essential in a democratic society. If we take democracy seriously, surely the right question is “how do we do this well” - not “how much will it cost?”


Myth 3: “Proportional representation removes the link between MPs and constituents in their local area”

Tweet: Systems of Proportional Representation the UK might adopt all keep a strong link between local MPs and their constituencies #PRkeepsthelink


This simply isn't true. All of the systems being advocated for use in the UK retain or even strengthen the constituency link.

The Additional Member System is already successfully used in Scotland, Wales and London (and a variant of this system called Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP) is used in Germany and New Zealand).

The Single Transferable Vote – used in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scottish local elections – uses multi-member constituencies. Instead of having one MP - who in many cases is someone the majority of local people didn’t vote for - each constituency has several. As a constituent, you can appeal to whichever MP you feel best represents your views - making it far more likely you’ll be able to talk to a representative who shares your beliefs and is willing to stand up for your values.


Myth 4: “Under a PR voting system, MPs would represent vast constituencies (at least four times larger, probably larger still, than the current sizes) and consequently they would become even more remote than many of them are today.”

Tweet: The forms of PR used in @ScotParl & @AssemblyWales elections use single-member constituencies, just like First Past the Post #PRkeepsthelink


Some systems of PR use large constituencies. Others - such as the Additional Member System already used for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly - have single-member constituencies, just like First Past the Post. These could be a little larger, depending on the details, but would be no more than double their present size.

The Government is already set on increasing the size of constituencies as the number of MPs drops from 650 to 600 - so they clearly don’t oppose modest increases in constituency sizes in principle.

There are arguments in favour of both big, multi-member constituencies and small, single member-constituencies.  If you place a lot of value on the latter, that isn’t a reason to oppose PR - if you believe in real democracy, it’s a reason to support a form of PR that keeps small constituencies!


Myth 5: “PR hands tremendous power to party bosses – whilst failing to empower people to hold their MPs to account, or help MPs hold Government to account.”

Tweet: No system limits voter choice and power more than FPTP. If you like a party but dislike their candidate, what do you do? #PRgivesyouchoice


This claim is based on the entirely false premise that PR always means parties putting forwards “closed lists” of candidates, with voters forced to vote for the list rather than for individual candidates.

This is a straw man argument. Systems like STV, for example, give voters unparalleled choice - including the ability to back individuals rather than parties. The top-up lists used in the Additional Member System can be “open” rather than “closed”, meaning voters rather than parties choose the order in which candidates are allocated seats.

And it’s interesting to note that First Past the Post hands every bit as much power to party bosses as even the most primitive form of PR. When selecting a candidate to stand in a First Past the Post election, a party can choose to hold an open democratic contest - as the Green Party does. Or, it can make local members choose from a shortlist of names they have no control over, have no prior sight of, and know nothing about, all in the space of a few hours - as some other parties are more accustomed to.

In proportional systems, parties decide whether and how to incorporate democracy into their internal selection in just the same way. But what’s more, with a decent system of PR, voter choice - and therefore voter power - is built into the election itself.


Myth 6: “It’s important to retain First Past the Post because it has a history of delivering stable, single-party governments.”

Tweet: With govts elected on shrinking vote shares, you must decide: do you want single-party government or do you want democracy? #FPTPorDemocracy


There are a few problems with this. Firstly, it’s patently undemocratic to hand power to a party most people don’t support. Electing a majority government on little more than a third of the vote has nothing to do with majority rule - much less to do with consensus - so it’s hard to see how this can be justified in democratic terms.

Secondly, First Past the Post has frequently failed to deliver the stable governments its advocates claim it has. It’s hard to describe the present British Government, recent Canadian administrations, or the last pre-PR regimes in New Zealand as stable. In fact, between 1945 and 1998, OECD countries with FPTP averaged 16.7 elections, while those with PR averaged only 16.

Proportional Representation does deliver single-party majority government if - and only if - that’s what most people vote for. It also brings a deeper and more important kind of stability - in which policies of government broadly reflect the opinions of the majority rather than whichever minority happens to be in power.


Myth 7: “Proportional representation would mean more behind-the-scenes deals between parties – reducing democracy not increasing it”

Tweet: FPTP=party with minority of votes can get 100% power. PR= #RealDemocracy with majority of voters determining policy. No need for shady deals

Response: The decisions we face as a country are complex and multifaceted and people can have a diverse range of opinions about how we should respond to them. When there’s no majority in favour of a particular manifesto, we can do one of two things. We can force the ideas of a minority on everyone, or we can work out a compromise most people are happy with. Under PR, such a compromise is naturally weighted in favour of the parties with most support.

The evidence is that the results of such compromises are not only more popular with voters - they’re better. Countries with PR have been shown to make policies that endure long-term, rather than just to the next election: responding to climate change faster, protecting their environments better, investing more to improve the wellbeing of their people and avoiding military conflict more effectively - all the predictable result of governments that reflect the interests of the majority rather than a minority.

There’s no reason why this compromise should happen “behind closed doors” or in “smoke-filled rooms”, as it’s often claimed. In Denmark, for example, parties declare their acceptable coalition allegiances in advance of an election.

It should be clear enough that FPTP offers no protection from governments that either abandon their manifesto pledges or dictate policies that weren’t in their manifestos. Worse still, governments that lose votes are frequently returned under FPTP - sometimes with increased majorities. This prevents voters from kicking out unpopular governments.


Myth 8: “Such a change would give great prominence to extremist organisations and parties – a version of PR was responsible for the allocation of seats to the BNP in the European Parliament”

Tweet: Only FPTP allows extremists to seize total power with the support of 1/4 of the electorate. With PR, power equals public support #PRprotects

Response: The idea that FPTP keeps extremists out of power is completely false. In fact, FPTP punishes any party whose voters are evenly spread across the country rather than concentrated in a small geographical area. This is true whether a party is “extreme” or “moderate”. The biggest victims of FPTP since World War II have been the Liberals – not exactly dangerous radicals.

On the other hand, any party gaining about a quarter of the eligible vote under FPTP can seize total power over the country – this contributed to Apartheid being established in South Africa, and has now happened in the US with the election of Donald Trump, despite the runner-up receiving more votes than the winner in both cases.

No party in the UK is likely to be a clear and present danger to others if its representation in Parliament is proportional to its public support – but history shows that any party that is given disproportionate power can be dangerous.


Myth 9: “PR would be confusing – people won't know what their vote means”

Tweet: The voters of 83% of OECD countries are intelligent enough to vote using PR. Surely the British are too! #NotExpensiveNotComplicated


PR is easily understood by the voters of the majority of the world’s democracies. It’s incredibly patronising to suggest that British voters are less competent.

The Government has recently been citing the proportion of spoilt ballots in Police and Crime Commissioner elections as evidence that PR is too complicated for British voters. This strange, because PCC elections do not use a form of PR, and they alsosuffer from a large number of deliberate, ballot-spoiling voter protests.

The Government’s line of argument looks increasingly dubious when you consider that comparable national elections under PR - like those for the Scottish Parliament - have a lower percentage of spoilt ballots than our FPTP General Elections do (0.29% for the former to 0.33% for the latter).


Myth 10: “There is very little demand for another vote on how we elect MPs”

Tweet: Every opinion poll since the 2015 General Election has identified overwhelming support for a proportional voting system #MakeSeatsMatchVotes


Every time someone votes for a party other than Labour and the Conservatives, they are also voting for that party to have fair representation in Parliament. Since 1955, the proportion of people voting for the two biggest parties has fallen from more than 96% to as little as 65% - yet First Past the Post has ensured that one of the two biggest parties is always in power (just once during that period in coalition with a third party).

Polls have long identified strong support for the principle of a proportional electoral system, but every poll since the May 2015 General Election has found support for PR to be overwhelming.

Not only that, but thousands of people - from all parties and none - are taking whatever action they can to help democratise our political system. Signing petitions, organising and attending demonstrations and rallies, and forming local groups to take action for fair votes across the country.

Rather than “little demand”, it is clear there is an incredible popular demand for Proportional Representation and real democracy in the UK. The time for PR is now!

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