Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Brits and Electoral Systems

I haven't been blogging on the British election because, well, I haven't had much to add to what's already out there.  Although it certainly has been an entertaining contest, and promises to deliver a suspense-filled and fun election night (I'll probably go ahead and live-tweet that).

I should say a little something about electoral reform, and the question of proportional representation vs. first-past-the-post elections.  And not just so that I can link to John Cleese, since odds are you saw that already (via at least Chait and Sullivan).  The first thing to note is that, in my view at least, there is no consensus among political scientists on the issue, although there certainly are plenty of people with strong opinions, especially -- at least in my experience -- among the advocates of p.r.  What they get wrong, I think, is that the ultimate goal of a political system cannot be to accurately reflect the strength of each party in parliament, much less accurately reflect the strength of all the views of the citizens in parliament, which is essentially impossible anyway.  No, what matters more is whether the government is responsive to citizens.  The composition of parliament is a means to that end.  So in a basically majoritarian system, a method of translating votes into seats that magnifies majorities isn't inherently problematic.

Of course, the British system doesn't just magnify majorities; it creates them (at least it usually does, by turning plurality parties into majority governments).  But that's inherent in any parliamentary, majoritarian system.  One way or another, a majority is going to be created, whether it's created by rules and customs that build a two-party system, or rules that turn plurality votes into majorities in the legislature, or by forming coalition governments from minority parties.  It doesn't strike me, again, that any one of these is inherently best or worst.

What I would try to avoid is a system that yields random and unpredictable results.  The idea that, in this election, strategic voters may not know what to do because they cannot predict what the parties will do after the election does not seem like a good thing to me.   But whether that would be helped or not by switching to a proportional system is not anything close to a sure thing.  And on electoral reform, my instincts are to be cautious unless there's a clear violation of democracy that needs to be remedied, such as the massive rural bias that the US remedied with one person, one vote in the 1960s.  I don't see anything close to that in using first-past-the-post instead of p.r.  That's not to say that I'd be against reform, but I'd recommend proceeding cautiously.  You don't want to be (if I can slip in a baseball comparison here) a Bud Selig, constantly changing the rules to react to the latest complaints. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way. You can choose a side, or you can stay in the middle. But you can't just favor "caution" unless that actually means something. The clear violation of democracy is staring us in the face: FPTP has under 50% of citizens with a representative they voted for, while PR would have over 80%. That's a huge difference.


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