11 June 2009

Three Myths About PR

With the European election result, and Labour's reaction to it, having re-opened the debate about PR, it's time to take a look at three particular myths which are going around.

Myth One: PR lets the BNP in.

This is being peddled by David Cameron, among others. And we do have to concede that PR voting systems saw the election of two BNP MEPs last week and one BNP London Assembly Member last year. However, there are more than fifty BNP Councillors in England, all of whom were elected by first past the post. Fifty under FPP, versus three under PR.

Further, there have been thirteen elections carried out in mainland GB under PR systems since 1999. The 1999 elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament saw no successful BNP candidates. Three elections, no BNP members let in. The 2000 London elections saw no BNP candidate elected. That's four.

The 2003 elections in Scotland and Wales saw no BNP candidates winning a seat. That's six, while elections to the London Assembly and European Parliament saw no BNP candidates elected. That's eight.

Further, there were Scottish Parliamentary, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Local elections taking place under PR in 2007, after which there were no BNP MSPs, AMs or Scottish Councillors. That's eleven separate elections taking place without BNP success.

But because the last two have seen BNP candidates elected, the history of those eleven votes has been forgotten and PR is now seen as an instant meal ticket for the BNP. It shouldn't be.

Myth Two: PR drives down turnout.

This is a favourite of Tom Harris, and of course, the fact that the advent of PR elections co-incides with a huge slump in turnout anyway is ignored. Consider this: turnout for a Westminster election between 1945 and 1979 hovered in the 70-80% bracket. In more recent years, from 1997 onwards, it's been in the 50-60% section.

And even in 1979, the turnout at the European Election that June - held under a First Past the Post system - was less than half what it had been at the General Election a month earlier. it was also the worst turnout in the EEC, most of which was using PR. This was true again in 1984 and 1989.

Indeed, turnout in 2004 was the highest ever for a European election - under PR, though helped with the all-postal ballots in several regions. But even the 2009 contest, at a time when people were hacked off with politicians anyway, turnout was still higher than in 1979 and 1984. And even barring the abysmal 1999 turnout, participation levels are at around the same level as you'd expect for a local election. This suggests that it's not PR that's turning voters off, but something else.

Sorry, Tom, you're still patronising people, and you're talking shite.

Myth Three: PR allows losers to win seats through the back door.

This is a favourite Labour chestnut, and refers to the AMS system at Holyrood, which permits candidates who come second or lower to stand, and win, on their party's Regional List.

Of course, it ignores the "exceptional circumstances" which saw a number of their List candidates standing in constituencies as well in 2003, but, hey, that's beside the point.

In any case, while it may seem exasperating that someone who barely scraped a deposit can get in on a List (and I admit to being uncomfortable at MSPs defending a Constituency and being on the list as well), the fact is they secured the support of their party for the region, and that party earned a seat there, just as Constituency candidates (with the exceptions of Dennis Canavan and Jean Turner) gained the backing of a party and won their respective seat.

Besides, there's an aspect of FPTP that's also flawed: First Past the Post is exactly that, and it's all about where you come, not how much support you get. A candidate can win fair and square under FPTP despite not having the full and total backing of voters, and it's common for more people to vote against the winning candidate than for them. But because they are the least unpopular person standing, or because opposition to them is split two or more ways, in they get. Indeed, at the last election, the voters of Edinburgh South cast their ballots by a ratio of two to one against Nigel Griffiths, but still he was re-elected, not because he was well-liked, but because Marilyne MacLaren got 405 fewer votes than he did. And their are MPs and Constituency MSPs and AMs of all parties across the UK who owe their position not to their popularity, but to the fragmented nature of the opposition they faced. People have been sneaking in under FPTP for years, and that's with a Parliament that doesn't represent the actual balance of public opinion in the UK. PR may have its disadvantages in that regard, but so does FPTP, and PR delivers fairer overall results.

So PR has delievered BNP representatives on only two occasions out of a possible thirteen, while the BNP has First Past the Post Councillors dotted around England; turnout for European Elections is crap whatever the system, and our highest Euro turnout has been under PR; and whatever system is used, some Parliamentarians will always find a way to sneak in to office without getting a ringing electoral endorsement.

So all the supposed flaws about PR aren't quite as serious as some suggest, and they're present in the status quo, which has one flaw which PR doesn't: hugely distorted national results.

It's time to make the change.

1 comment:

Colin Campbell said...

Interesting. A few points. Most of the candidates are creatures of machine politics in the first place, which affects the outcome. After that comes the preference deals which in Australia saw a Senator get elected with less than 2 percent of the primary vote with major party preferences. Here in Australia there is mandatory voting. Now that would fix participation and likely the election of fringe candidates. Your first point is very valid. It is the disillusionment with politics in general that drives protest votes.