PR not the answer

The outrage over MPs’ expenses has been a catalyst for a wider debate on constitutional reform. The current political zeitgeist has fostered calls for significant change in how politics operates in the UK. Suggestions abound on how to achieve this, and one topic that has reared its head is that of electoral reform; more specifically, the call for the introduction of proportional representation (PR).  Advocates claim that it would empower the electorate again by reflecting the votes of the nation, unlike the current system, which allows those with big majorities to have excessively dominant mandates.


But PR is not the solution, however complicated the actual electoral system chosen. An alternative suggested remedy - reducing the power of the whips and returning power back to MPs – would arguably be more effective at dispersing the power of the executive. We can take the likes of Douglas Carswell and Frank Field as examples of MPs that are much more than ‘rebels’, rather representatives who do not measure a successful career in terms of ‘position’ – constantly siding with their party regardless of their own or their constituents’ views in the hope of gaining promotion – but by being effective parliamentarians.


Pointing to European examples will not aid the case for PR either. In Germany, the ruling coalition of the CSU and the SPD was not chosen by the public. Such uneasy partnerships are negotiated by the political class, meaning that the people have absolutely no say in the actual formation of ‘Government’. Coalition formations regularly leave minority parties in positions of hugely disproportionate power – surely a counter-intuitive result. They can have immense bargaining leverage when legislation is being passed, to the point where larger parties amend their own policies to get them onside. In Italy, the relatively small Northern Alliance’s stance on immigration has been echoed by Berlusconi’s PdL party in order to retain their services when passing other legislation. 


Things fair no better at the local level either. Over the weekend, Alan Johnson offered the ‘Alternative Vote Plus’ system as a model on which to base reform. It proposes a preference list for an MP and a party list with which to top the vote up. However, this system will actually further strengthen the party machines. Those members chosen from the top-up party list results would not be accountable to constituents, but to their parties. This would draw significance away from constituents’ choices for MP.  


The current ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system is effective, concise and simple. Reform of this method, rather than ousting it for PR, can return power to the electorate. The first thing to do is introduce American-style ‘primaries’. At present, a small group of local party activists select the candidate for the rest of the constituency to vote for. This offers people no alternatives and no say. With primary races we will see competitive local campaigning in all constituencies, and constituents will have a genuine choice over party candidates.


Safe seats for parliamentarians would be a thing of the past and no MP could expect to simply walk back in to office at the next election. If an MP performed poorly, then the people of the constituency can choose to oust them from their seat. Perform well, and this in turn would be rewarded with reselection. Note too that there is a marked correlation between expenses abuse and the safety of the seat the MP holds – primaries would mean that politicians cannot rest on their laurels.


Returning to an earlier point, primary races would also ensure that career progression is not based on adopting the party stance. This mechanism would help to reduce the control of the whips over MPs’ votes in the House, as MPs may find that consistently towing the line on all issues does not sit well with people back home. To bolster this, constituents should be given the power of ‘recall’. Again, power is handed back to the public as MPs that are found to be incompetent or in breach of conduct can be held accountable by their local voters.


All systems have conceptual flaws. The UK’s parliamentary democracy is underpinned by a FPTP system that facilitates strong governance. Despite its problems this system is no more broken than the various examples of PR seen in polities across Europe and elsewhere, and indeed with some changes it can be a force for returning power back to the electorate. Which after all, is change that is longed for.

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