Monday, December 13, 2010

Distinctive policies and proportional representation

One of the arguments often used against proportional representation is that it will lead to a dull form of politics where all the parties are clustered on the same narrow strip of ground.

Nonsense, the advocates of PR have taken to replying. Under proportional systems parties have to make more effort of make themselves distinctive.

Is that true? And if it is true, what do voters in other countries make of this state of affairs?

The Liberal Democrat policy of having no rise in tuition fees - and ultimately abolishing them - was clear enough. But we were only ever going to enter government as the junior party in a coalition, and both Labour and the Conservatives were committed to raising fees. So though this policy was certainly distinctive, it was not one we were ever going to be able to put into practice.

Do voters abroad accept this sort of behaviour on the part of junior coalition parties because they are more used to coalitions? And if British voters will not accept it, how should we frame our proposals in future elections?


Andrew Chamberlain said...

If we've got a genuine red line policy then we should advertise that this is the case. Otherwise we should just say that we want to get a maximum of our policies through, strike whatever deal achieves this and make clear that everything without a red line under it is up for negotiation.

Jim Jepps said...

I think people understand the need for compromise - but also expect personal integrity, which is why people are so annoyed that LD candidates made personal pledges to do one thing and then did another. If the position was negotiable then it was a real mistake to advertise it as a dividing line between yourselves and other parties.

In general countries with PR have more parties. Usually it's basically far right, right, left, far left and greens. Most countries with PR have no centre party - even germany that does have a liberal party that party is very clearly a party of the neo-liberal right.

My impression is that PR drives up political debate because the parties themselves are no longer brad churches.

martijn said...

I once took a night ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. There was a choice between two ferries of competing companies, one leaving five minutes after the other. I once asked a friend, who is an economist, why that was and he explained that it made sense: there is an ideal (i.e. max. profit) departure time and it makes sense for both ferries to leave at that very time, even if together they could cater for more passangers would their ships leave at different times. Had there been a third company, it would probably do best to leave a lot earlier or later.

It's not exactly the same in politices but kind of: with two parties, both try to win votes in the middle so they end up becoming very similar to one other. With more parties, it suddenly pays off to be make oneselves distinctive. So yes, in general I would say that PR will lead to a bigger variety of parties.

"Do voters abroad accept this sort of behaviour on the part of junior coalition parties because they are more used to coalitions"

In the Netherlands parties announce certain view points as dealbreakers, other things as just very important. If a party announced a certain policy is a dealbreaker and than signs a coalition agreement that went against that policy, that can give reactions as hostile as the LibDems got over tuition fees. (Though it depends on the kind of issue. Tuition fees is probably more sensitive than other issues and students tend to be louder protesters too.) I think the main problem with the LibDems' pledge on tuition fees is that it wasn't clear, not even to people within the party, whether this was a dealbreaker.

Herbert Eppel said...

In May 2009 I sent William Hague an open letter, complaining about some silly remarks on PR he made on question time. He never bothered to reply. See

Skinny Dipper said...

I thought that one of the arguments against PR was that PR would lead to more commies and nazis. The middle would become empty.

Support PR; oppose AV.