Problems with a Proportional Parliament

“What has the profile of David Cameron got in common with someone who spoils their vote?” I asked my friend John.

“I don’t know” he replied. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that they both spoiled the election.” “Well…” I said, “David Cameron seems to tick all the right boxes … and so does the idiot in the polling station!”

Not to reinforce the stereotype, but that voter could very easily have been Irish. Not because they’re stupid – and I can say that as I grew up in Dublin – but because they’re used to a system of voting known as PR-STV.

A lot has been said about Proportional Representation (PR) in light of the recent election, particularly by the Liberal Democrats: but what exactly is it?

Very simply, PR is a method of electing public representatives which aims to reflect the percentage of votes that groups of candidates obtain in an election and the percentage of seats they hold in parliament.

So this means that, in theory at least, a party obtaining 40 per cent of the vote will be entitled to 40 per cent of the seats. I want to make the case that Proportional Representation – and specifically PR by means of a single transferable vote – which I will explain in a moment, is far closer to the precepts of democracy than the plurality voting system or ‘winner takes all’ system that exists in the UK.

But first, let’s remind ourselves what it means to be living in a democracy. At the risk of raising the ire of those studying political science, and boring the hell out of everyone else, I’m not going to attempt to present a comprehensive definition of democracy. However, I would invite you to ponder the words of that great thinker John Stuart Mill in his text: Considerations on Representative Government (1861). “The Electors [voters] who are on a different side in party politics from the local majority are unrepresented… [This system] is diametrically opposed to the first principle of democracy, representation in proportion to numbers.”

So how does PR work in practice? Well, if you were to vote in a general election in Austria, Belgium, Iraq or even Burundi, you’d find that each party presents a list of candidates in each multi member constituency and you, the voter, would choose one of the lists: in essence, the main decision you’d have to make, is which party you prefer.

The problem with this conventional form of PR is that the vote that you cast, is primarily a vote for a party and it may end up assisting a candidate who you really don’t think deserves the seat: the same problem that exists with the system currently in place in the UK today.

Interestingly, Ireland and Malta have found an innovative way of getting around this problem by use of a method known as the ‘single transferable vote’. In fact, if I am to be correct, it was actually a British government that introduced PR-STV into Ireland in the first place, for use in the local elections of 1920. So, in contrast to the ordinary form of Proportional Representation, the primary focus in PR-STV is on the individual candidate.

From the perspective of the ordinary voter, the system is actually very easy to understand. If you were to go into a polling station in Dublin or Valletta, you’d be presented with a list of candidates in alphabetical order. You would then have to indicate your preference in rank order for the candidates you like. So, if you liked Bertie Ahern, you would have placed the number 1 beside his picture, which also indicates which party he belongs to.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1965 that the party affiliation of the candidates was displayed, which goes to show the emphasis that advocates of the system placed on the connection between the individual representative and his or her constituency. And then, if you really disliked the Sinn Féin candidate or Eddie Fenech Adami running for Partit Nazzjonalista in Malta you could place a lower number like 6, 7… or 15 beside his picture. You can indicate as many or as few preferences as you wish.

If you really wanted one party to win, you could indicate your preference for all the candidates from that party. Or, if you were less concerned with party politics and more concerned with the individuals, you could give your first preference to one party and your second to another. It’s pretty uncomplicated from the voter’s perspective. However, it’s slightly more difficult when trying to work out the result. Because this system necessarily concerns multi-seat constituencies, there are some important calculations that have to be made.

Whatever the number of seats, PR-STV involves calculating a quota, above which the candidate is then declared elected. It’s a bit boring to go into the maths, but suffice to say that the system comes into its own when no candidate reaches the absolute majority or if they greatly exceed the quota. This is quite common when you have many candidates running.

In this situation, the system doesn’t waste voters’ time by asking them to come back to vote a second time, as is the case in France. Instead, if a candidate has either too few votes to be elected or has many more votes than is necessary to reach the quota, the system simply goes to the voter’s second preference and distributes the vote accordingly.

Now, I do realise that I’m over simplifying the whole thing. However, the point I’d like to stress is that despite the myths that are currently circulating, PR-STV is very easy to understand from the voter’s perspective and is much more democratic.

So to finish up, what would the election result have looked like, using this system? Well, according to the Electoral Reform Society, the Conservatives would have had 246 instead of 307 seats; Labour would have had 207 instead of 258; and surprisingly, the Lib Dems would have had 162 seats instead of 57!