electoral reform: time for a sense of proportion

Electoral systems aren’t sexy. But we’re hearing more and more about them. In the UK and in Canada, debates are taking place about alternatives to the First Past the Post (FPTP) majoritarian system. This blog looks at one of those alternatives — Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) — and answers some common questions and concerns, with examples from the German model.

what’s wrong with FPTP anyway?

The 2015 UK General Election handed an absolute majority to the Conservatives, even though the party won only 36.9% of the vote. The Greens and UKIP won 3.8% and 12.6% of votes respectively, but just one MP each. In Scotland, the SNP won 46.5% of the vote, but 95% of Scottish constituencies. In Canada, of seventeen governments since 1930, only four have had a genuine (i.e. 50+%) majority. The rest were artificial or ‘false’ majorities created by the winner-takes-all electoral system. That’s the basic but insurmountable problem with FPTP: it doesn’t reflect voter preferences.

why are we hearing about this now?

Traditionally, the UK Labour Party has fiercely opposed Proportional Representation (PR); as Tony Benn observed, turkeys don’t vote for christmas. But given the Tories’ apparent unassailability and Labour’s wipeout in Scotland (itself a product of FPTP), some Labour figures are warming to PR. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn favours a proportional system so long as a constituency link is maintained; Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis views PR as a key target of a progressive alliance. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that the 2015 General Election would be the last to take place under FPTP. Canadian Greens are campaigning hard to ensure the new system is proportional (the parliamentary committee set up to explore the options is also considering non-PR systems, such as the Alternative Vote, the ‘miserable compromise’ rejected in the 2012 UK referendum). The Greens identify three basic criteria: first, the system must be proportional; second, it has to include an element of local representation; third, it must reflect Canada’s unique geographical and demographic characteristics. However, the same criteria could equally apply to  electoral reform in the UK.

MMP in a nutshell

MMP is a tried and tested system. It’s used to elect Germany’s Bundestag, New Zealand’s House of Representatives, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as well as the Greater London Assembly. 

You have two votes. The first elects your constituency MP, using a FPTP system. The second vote is for a party, based on a list system. This determines the balance of power among parties in the parliament1. So MMP retains constituency representation, is generally proportional and means that even if your candidate doesn’t win the constituency election, your second vote still counts towards the allocation of list seats in parliament. Also, as you can give your first and second votes to different parties, you can support a good local candidate to represent your constituency, but vote for another party you want to see with a strong presence in parliament. Another advantage of MMP is that it is relatively straightforward. This is important: evidence from German regional elections has shown that unfamiliar and complex instructions increase the number of invalid ballot papers, disproportionately affecting low-income areas and therefore disenfranchising poorer voters.

the party list — who decides?

One misgiving about party lists is that they are imposed from above. The most promising places are reserved for candidates who stick to the party line and, once elected, are faithful to their parliamentary group. No room for mavericks, at least at the top of the list. But FPTP is no stranger to this top-down approach either: central office can ‘parachute’ rising stars or prominent former MPs into the next available safe constituency, with no real local ties or interests, and completely bypass local members and activists. MMP allocates list places in local primaries. Still, this isn’t foolproof and is susceptible to entryism and/or mobilisation of previously inactive members. I discovered this in my own research, when a left-wing candidate for the regional parliament list was systematically barred from a good place on the list by a group of members nobody had ever seen before, voting as a bloc. The candidate ended up way down the list, with no realistic prospect of being elected2. So it’s the responsibility of parties (and especially the party on the ground) to make sure list selection is democratic and reflects popular candidate and policy choice.

does PR open parliament’s door to tiny fringe parties?

MMP’s strength is that it is fairer to smaller parties and their voters. But the other side of this coin is the fear of political fringes: it’s not just friendly Greens, but also (far) right-wing parties who are likely to benefit. Under a system of PR, UKIP would have 83 seats, instead of just one (see this page to see the skewed FPTP results of 2015). One safeguard is to establish an electoral threshold — five per cent for Bundestag elections. Parties who fail to achieve five per cent of the popular vote don’t enter parliament (although winners of the constituency (first) vote can still take up seats as individuals). The threshold is therefore a barrier to the really small, fringe parties; although established parties can also unexpectedly fall by the wayside. But it’s possible to make exemptions from the threshold, especially to ensure representation of certain population groups in parliament. For example, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the SSW, a party that represents Danish and Frisian minorities, is not subject to the five per cent barrier. While this affects only regional (state) elections, a country could decide to adopt a similar exemption in national elections to help meet the criteria of demographic representation.    

doesn’t PR produce coalitions?

Proportional systems such as MMP are designed to produce coalitions. Indeed, that’s precisely why Germany elects the Bundestag this way — to avoid the concentration of power. Depending on your own perspective, coalitions can be a blessing or a curse. But the German model shows that coalitions can be very stable indeed, and emphasises  more consensual politics, rather than the adversarial style familiar in systems dominated by two large parties. On the other hand, while the consensual approach might seem refreshing, it can lead to blandness. As parties signal their coalition preferences/intentions, the result can be policy convergence and ‘variations on a theme’, rather than a wide range of political ideas3. Again, you might consider that to be a good thing — more moderate politics — or (my own opinion) a bad thing — narrower policy choice.

does the tail wag the dog?

Do small parties punch above their weight? Blackmail their larger partners by threatening to leave the coalition unless certain policy demands aren’t met? On the whole, I’d say no. First, Germany shows that during the coalition’s lifetime, junior partners tend to be faithful rather than promiscuous, especially at national level. Another concern is that, in a parliament dominated by two parties, a small ‘kingmaker’ party exercises power disproportionate to its modest share of seats. For years, Germany’s market-liberal FDP switched allegiance from the conservative CDU to the social democratic SPD and back again, effectively deciding who ran the country. However, since the number of parties in parliament has increased — which is likely under PR — so has the number of (theoretical) coalitions. The Social Democrat-Green government held together for two terms, and the CDU might just as easily do a deal with the Greens (in fact, my bet is on a CDU-Green federal coalition next year).

Second, it’s often the smaller coalition partner that has to accept compromise. The German Greens put environmental sustainability on the mainstream political agenda, but also underwent a dramatic transformation. By the time the Greens entered national government in 1998, they were a very different party indeed; politically, organisationally and strategically. Meanwhile, the UK’s Liberal Democrats certainly couldn’t be accused of exerting excessive influence on the ConDem coalition; neither did they call time on it, despite predictions to the contrary.

isn’t PR a gift to the far right?

Proportional representation shouldn’t be held responsible for the rise of the far right. It’s true that those of us on the left are alarmed to see mainstream parties accommodating far-right populism (while Germany’s Left Party, for example, seems to be a voice in the wilderness). But I suggest that the disproportionate influence of a small, right-wing party like the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) isn’t (just) a product of proportional representation; while institutional factors are important, the framing and language of political ideas in the media and in public discourse are also immensely powerful4. The way to counter right-wing populism isn’t to make the electoral system less representative (the right thrives on alienation and disengagement). The most effective, sustainable answer is to change the focus and language of debate and (my favourite phrase) ‘reach out’ to disillusioned (non-)voters. 

to sum up…

MMP is a road-tested, two-vote system that minimises electoral foregone conclusions and wasted votes, both of which are disincentives to vote. The German model safeguards against multiple tiny parties entering and fracturing parliament, but the threshold can be lowered or waived to ensure democratic representation of particular demographic/geographic sections of the population. On the other hand, it’s not immune to top-down influence over candidate selection and can exert a centripetal influence on parties and policies, leading to a narrowed policy choice. MMP’s greatest strength, however, is its combination of constituency and proportional representation. I think it meets the Canadian Greens’ criteria pretty well and would be a viable model for the UK.

A final thought, though. People can be disengaged from the democratic process no matter which electoral system is in place. Again, German turnout rates illustrate this, not just among the young, but also the poor. So while PR is a step in the right direction, parties still need to find a way of making policies that address people’s concerns and offer solutions to their needs. Getting out of the parliament bubble and listening to people would be a good way to start.


1 Sometimes a party wins more direct mandates in a federal state than the second vote entitles it to, in which case it keeps those extra seats (‘overhang seats’). But to maintain proportionality, additional seats are allocated to other parties as compensation. As a result, the number of seats in the parliament can vary from one legislative period to the next.

2  The regional electoral system consisted of multiple votes, all of which could be given to one candidate if preferred. It was only because of this rule and the candidate’s popularity among the public that the candidate was elected to parliament.

3 See the blog ‘The faces of the Labour Leadership Conflict’, parts one and two for an explanation of cartel party theory and its impact on policy supply.

4 Oliver Nachtwey and Tim Spier wrote an excellent article on ‘Opportunity Structures’ and how institutional factors, political actors, unmet policy demand and, especially important, the framing of debate combine to produce the ideal opportunity for a new party. The article focused on the Left Party, but makes interesting reading in light of the far right’s recent gains, too. (Political Opportunity Structures and the Success of the German Left Party in 2005; published in Debatte, Volume 15, Issue 2,  2007, pages 123-154 here)





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