Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Case for Proportional Representation

In the wake of last week's parliamentary election in the United Kingdom, a friend sent me an article by Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail defending the traditional British (and American) "First-Past-the-Post" system (traditionally abbreviated FPTP) against the continental alternative of "Proportional Representation" (PR), most recently advocated by Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). 

The article can be accessed at:

There is a lot to be said for FPTP. When I was a political scientist, I was taught - and then went on to teach others - that our British and American FPTP system was a major factor in producing a stable 2-party system, then widely admired as one of the virtues of our system as opposed to the messier multi-party systems found on the continent. I agreed with that view then and can still appreciate it. 

But things have changed - for the worse - on both sides of the pond. In Britain, the kind of national consensus that accompanied the dominance of its 2 parties in much of the 20th century has evaporated. for better or for worse, British voters are much less attracted to the two 20th-century parties and much more attracted to splinter parties of a sectarian ideological type (e.g., the Green Party) or of a nationalistic sort (e.g., The Scottish National Party and UKIP). FPTP always distorts the popular will. In the past, for example, the fact that Scotland is overrepresented in the House of Common compared to its proportion of the population not only gave Scotland a bigger voice in the Commons that its population deserved but also unduly advantaged the Labour party (not enough to guarantee victory but enough to keep it competitive).  In this changed environment, however, in which the consensus that the two 20th-century parties ought to govern has begun to break down, FPTP's radical distortion of the popular will is much more problematic. 

Likewise in the United States, where we no longer have two broadly based, nationally competitive parties but instead two, narrowly ideological, sectional parties the distorting effect of FPTP is much more pernicious than it used to be. Just consider the fact that, if the US had some sort of proportional representation instead of FPTP, the Republicans would not control the House of Representatives, since in fact more votes were cast in the congressional elections in favor of Democrats than in favor of Republicans, who can only win because of the vagaries of FPTP.

When it comes to electoral arrangements I tend to be quite conservative. I adhere to the Chestertonian adage that if it is not necessary to change then it is necessary not to change. Electoral arrangements are part of a nation's political culture and should not be altered except for serious reasons. And we all know from experience of the danger of unintended consequences that come about when electoral arrangements are altered. Still, there have been times when such alterations have been beneficial - the most obvious being the extension of the suffrage to previously excluded groups and the direct election of US Senators. Perhaps it is time to consider rethinking FPTP and moving to some more proportional system that better represents a more divided and polarized society.

Of course, that division and polarization that have been enhanced by FPTP and have rendered Washington so dysfunctional, also practically guarantee that no serious democratization of our electoral arrangements is likely any time soon.

But that only highlights the fact that in today's changed political culture (on both sides of the pond) a system such as FPTP in which every vote does not really count - and many votes may end up not really counting - may diminish rather than enhance the perception of political legitimacy.

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