On various blog posts I talk about Fair Votes. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this.
Fair Votes are nearly proportional representation (PR) – but not quite. The only completely proportional system is the Party List system and it has a number of drawbacks.
Pure PR: the Party List system.
Under a pure PR system, everyone votes nationally just for a party. The number of seats is allocated in proportion to the number of votes for each party cast. The problem with this system is that it gives undue influence to the party machines. You vote Labour, but Labour decides who gets to sit in Parliament. You can’t vote against a particularly corrupt or toxic candidate. It’s therefore a lot less democratic than a system which lets you choose between candidates.
Hybrid PR: Scotland, Wales and London.
In the devolved assemblies, some seats are allocated on the traditional first-past-the-post system, and others are allocated proportionally on the party list system. This is a most inglorious fudge and has the worst of both systems.
Under Fair Voting, there are bigger constituencies each returning a number of members – usually three to eight of them; on average, five. Instead of putting a cross in a box against one candidate’s name, you number them in your order of preference. Parties will often put up several candidates and you can choose between candidates within the party. The votes are counted, and at the end of the count for each candidate the number of first, second (and so on) preference votes is listed on a grid, which is published. A formula is used to work out a list which puts the candidates in the collective order of preference of all the voters who voted, and the top five – if that is the number of seats available to the constituency – are returned.
Kingmakers and the Balance of Power
There is a potentially-fatal flaw with any proportional system: it will often produce a hung parliament. First-past-the-post usually doesn’t. Hung parliaments can be anti-democratic because they can make the smallest parties into kingmakers by giving them the balance of power. Under first-past-the-post, the winning party is usually the party with the largest number of votes in the country as a whole. Under a system of PR, parties with a relatively small number of votes can get to decide the government, so it is necessary to correct for this fault. The way to do this is to have a directly-elected Prime Minister.
Minority Governments and Gridlock
It is quite possible that a directly-elected Prime Minister would not command the support of a majority of a proportionally-elected House of Commons. This could result in gridlock, paralysing the process of government. This has been a problem in the USA with a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, when Congress has blocked the budget and shut down government on several occasions in highly partisan standoffs in which it is ordinary citizens who suffer. There is a three-pronged solution to this problem. First, give the Prime Minister enough power to do stuff – for example, the right to set tax rates, but not the tax base; second, make it a convention that the Prime Minister should assemble a majority coalition as a matter of course – compromising with minority parties but not being held to ransom by them; and third, it’s down to us not to elect total dicks.