Proportional Representation is a style of electoral system. It is not an electoral system itself. There is no way of electing people through the system of proportional representation. Instead there are electoral systems that can provide proportional representation. Some other styles of electoral system are simple plurality, majoritarian and hybrid (a mixture of the lot).

The main concept behind proportional representation is that each vote made counts. So if Joe Bloggs votes for a certain party that party will gain a little bit of power through the appointment of a representative. So Joe's vote would have directly gone towards the election of this candidate even if his fellow electorate did not agree with him.

Let me explain in more detail. Consider the alternate system that we in Britain enjoy (said with copious amounts of sarcasm). When electing MPs the electorate toddle off to the voting booths to vote for a specific party be it the Conservatives, New Labour, Liberal Democrat or even the Monster Raving Loony party. Now consider the aforementioned Joe Bloggs and his well grounded belief in the ideals of the Monster Raving Loony party. In the current system in Britain (which uses the simple plurality style) when Joe Bloggs votes for his party his vote gets added to the totals in his constituency. If there are enough votes (a plurality where a candidate gets one more than the others) then that candidate (representing that party) will be elected. This means that everyone who did not vote for the same party that Joe did will not have a representative for their views. Instead they will have a representative for Joe's beliefs deciding things for them. So, for example, where I live in Cambridge I have a Conservative MP even though my beliefs are strongly opposed to the Conservative ideal.

Now in a proportionally representative system (such as STV or List) this would be different. Joe's vote would mean that a representative of his would gain power but also other people in his constituency will also gain representatives. This means that the constituencies in proportionally representative systems are multi-member (in one constituency there are lots of seats to be had by the various candidates). So there would be several representatives per constituency and some of these would represent some sections of society and others would represent other sections of society. This is done in proportion so if a constituency has an electorate of 66% hippies and 33% facists then the amount of representation would mirror this as best as it can. In some places there is just one big constituency of the nation such as in Israel.

Surprisingly enough different electoral systems manage this with differing amounts of success. For example, STV manages to avoid the wastage of votes and creates the widest variety of candidates/parties while List tends to be the simplest way of creating a proportional government which directly mirrors the voters' choices.

It is important to note that proportional representation often leads to coalition governments. Since so many parties can gain little amounts of power it is very unlikely that just one will gain sufficient power to form a government with enough power in the legislature to pass legislation. Some people criticise proportional representation because of this since it can lead to a government with constant in-fighting. However, it is necessary to note that in times of peace there is very little need for a powerful government. It is usually more important for the government to debate a topic enough and come to compromises so that legislation takes into account the views of the most people (a very utilitarian view of my own but nevermind).

Advantages of a Proportional System

First and foremost the people have a large choice of parties/candidates to vote for. This means that there are a wider selection of candidates from differing parties which can represent different sections of society. It would also hopefully remove the now ever present conglomeration of median politicians who try there best to be completely neutral to appeal to the largest number of voters (see Median voter theorem).

So as opposed to the U.S. two party system and the U.K.'s three party system, a proportional system would make it possible for people to vote for smaller parties who wholely represent their views. At the moment in the US and UK small parties rarely get much support because people do not see them standing a chance to gain power. For example, in the 1989 British European elections (elections to vote MEPs to the European Parliament) the Green Party gained 15% of the vote nationally yet gained no seats. In general elections it is often seen that the Liberal Democrats rarely gain many seats even though their votes amounted to 18.3% of the electorate in 2001 wining them only 52 out of 659 seats. If you do the maths (or let me do it for you) 18.3% of 659 is around 120 seats (I have rounded down, you don't get half seats). This is compared to New Labour who gained 40.7% of the vote but gained 413 seats (40.7% of 659 is around 268 seats). As you can see even though the Lib Dems have a rather large amount of voter support their marginal power is quashed by the strong majority that New Labour wields. With proportional systems power is distributed more evenly meaning that in the 2001 election the Lib Dems would have gained 120 seats and Labour 268 seats. This would lead to Labour needing the Lib Dems' support to pass things through Parliament. People would then see that other smaller parties (or individual candidates), who better match their ideologies, would actually be able to gain some power. Their vote would count.

The second advantage (though already extensively mentioned) is that small parties would gain strength. When a party tries to form a government it would require support from smaller parties to gain a majority. This means that they would have to listen to the views of others possibly meaning more compromises but more importantly more internal debate. In Britain at the moment the party with the leading majority does not need others to rule and therefore does not need to heed their advice. It has been mentioned (by my politics teacher and I) that as far as Parliament is concerned, debate is just something to pass the time between tea breaks and to appease the media with soundbites. Proportional systems would force debate since legislation would have to meet the acceptance of a large proportion of the populace.

As a secondary aspect, voter confidence would hopefully be strengthened by the increased proportionality and democracy. People would see that their vote will alter the structure of government and therefore how they are governed. This should aid in the fight against voter apathy that is prominent in the US and UK (in the UK general election 2001 the lowest voter turnout was recorded with a pitiful 59.4%).

Disadvantages to a Proportional System

The most often cited disadvantage is that a proportional representative system leads to weak government. Since coalitions are often created there is the possibility to great arguments forming in the government which causes it to fall and a new election being needed. Now I personally don't see this as a bad thing since it means that the government is more dynamic, evolving to meet the views of the people as they alter with the changing times. However, this is not always wanted in a time of crisis. When an war is imminant you do not want the government sitting in its chamber bickering over the colour of the pens in the pen holders. You want a decisive leader to make a decision quickly to deal with the situation before it gets worse.

It is also important to note that independent candidates are not possible in this sort of system. If 95% of the vote goes to a candidate and the other 5% goes to a number of other candidates it is impossible to give that independent candidate 95% of the representation. However, with a hybrid system such as Additional Member System or it is possible for an independent candidate to stand as the additional member.

It can also be claimed that coalition governments can be controlled more easily by a radical party. A famous example is the Weimar Republic and its hijacking by Adolf Hitler's N.S.D.A.P.. After the Munich Putsch failed Hitler adopted a plan of using the system to get his way. Since the system implemented was a proportional system (similar to what Germany has now) the party was able to gain a small amount of support and then use this to hold the coalition government hostage. Since the government would need their support over certain issues it was possible to weedle more power out of the system. This, in conjunction with propaganda and other shifty policies, led to the election of Adolf Hitler as chancellor etc.. (see other nodes for more details on this).

Another offshoot of the coalition government is that the compromise and negotiation over legislation can lead to a bill which no one really wants. Instead it is made up of bits and pieces which appease different people but no one is truly happy over. This leaves bills which are an horrible mish mash of ideologies.

It can also be said that the constituency link between a representative and his/her constituents is lost in the multi-member constituencies. With British MPs and USA's Congressmen there is a link between them and the people who voted them into office. They are in the assembly to voice the views of the people in the chamber when debating. This often means going back to the voters to ask their opinion. So in England, MPs often hold surgeries every week to answer voters' questions and listen to their problems/ideas. With multi-member constituencies it is said that this link is weakened and so direct democracy is even more damaged.

Though these criticisms seem quite good it is important to note that it requires extenuating circumstances for this sort of thing to occur. We also all hope that we are more politically aware and so would not be subdued by propaganda etc.. Many PR systems run rather well with the current German system as well as the Netherlands' systems.


Some examples of proportionally representative electoral systems are: There are also some hybrid systems which incorporate certain proportionally representative elements, for example: Electoral Reform In the UK

Though some of these systems are used in many countries (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Éire, Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands to name but a few) it does not look like it is going to come to England anytime soon. The Liberal Democrats have been pushing for electoral reform (mainly for STV) and though New Labour said that they would look at it (they did with the Jenkins report which was pushed aside after it was published) since they thought that they may need the Lib Dems' support. When it turned out that Labour had gained a huge majority in the 1998 general election the Jenkins report (which pushed for PR to be introduced) was more or less swept under the carpet (though some of the recommendations were used when Scotland and Wales were given devolution). Its no wonder really that good ol' Tony didn't get rid of the old system since it brings him so much success in the elections.

Surprisingly enough the Conservatives are strongly against any form of electoral reform.

Even more surprisingly I am in favour for PR if any of you really care...


Sources:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/vote2001/results_constituencies/default.stm
Contempory British Politics, Third Edition, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins.
British Politics In Focus, Second Edition, Roy Bentley, Alan Dobson, Maggie Grant and David Roberts.
The New British Politics, Ian Budge, Ivor Crewe, David McKay and Ken Newton.

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