Wrong issue, wrong lesson to take from the British election

Don Newman on the perils of proportional representation.

Those who would like to change the first-past-the-post electoral system in Canada and the United Kingdom are all in a tizzy at the moment over the results of the British election.

That is because, on May 6, voters gave no party a clear majority in Westminster, creating what the Brits call a hung Parliament.

The results have given the third-place Liberal Democrats the decision on who should be the next British government. Never mind that they achieved only 23 per cent of the vote. Never mind that they actually lost three seats in the election night counting.

British Conservative Leader David Cameron isn't keen on proportional representation but hasn't ruled it out yet in the minority government negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. (Reuters)

The Lib Dems are big believers in proportional representation to replace the first-past-the-post system, in which winners can claim many ridings with only a fraction of the total votes cast.

And you can see why. Every British election they get more votes than anywhere near the comparative number of seats.

The system's fault

Liberal Democrats see that as the fault of the voting system, not their own fault for being unable to attract as many votes in as many different parts of the country as Labour and the Conservatives.

But now that they have the whip hand, so to speak, they aim to do something about it. Hence the negotiations that have been dragging on since last Thursday's vote.

If Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats choose to support the Tories, their combined numbers would give Conservative David Cameron more than enough seats to control Parliament.

Adding Clegg's 53 seats to Labour's 259 doesn't get you over the magic majority number. But it would give those two parties more seats than the Conservatives and could keep Labour in office.

 British election results  
  Seats % vote
 Conservatives 306 36
 Labour 258 29
 Liberal Democrats 57 23

So far, the Conservatives have offered Clegg what has been called a significant proposal of changes the two parties could work on together. But, significantly, Cameron has not — at least not yet — offered proportional representation.

Labour's departing leader Gordon Brown, on the other hand, has been known not to favour PR in the past.

But, in an indication of just how desperate Labour has become, Brown has been promising the Lib Dems an immediate referendum on PR if only Labour can stay in office.

This is fair?

Let's hope Labour's ploy doesn't succeed. Because the cold reality of what is going on in Britain today should be enough to kill any notion of PR in that country. And hopefully kill it in this country, too, where supporters of the change have organized themselves into something called Fair Vote Canada.

But let's stick with Britain for a moment, because the manoeuvring and backroom deals are revealing what is most unfair and unseemly about proportional representation in the first place.

Consider that if Labour holds on to power because of third-party support then the party that actually received the most votes and the most seats in the election will have no say in how the country is run.

The Conservatives will (again) be the official opposition. How fair is that?

Moreover, the party that received the fewest votes and the fewest seats of the three main standard bearers, the Lib Dems, will effectively be calling the shots (and likely writing the referendum rules) on an important policy issue that fewer than one out of four voters supported on election day. How fair is that?

'Crisis' time

The British press has been calling the inconclusive, hung Parliament result a crisis.

Well, Britain, if you move to proportional representation get ready for a crisis after every election. Because PR produces minority Parliaments almost automatically.

That's why smaller parties like PR. It means their support is needed to form a government and they are often over-rewarded with parliamentary power beyond their public support. Just look at Italy or Israel.

People who want to change the current British and Canadian system say it over-rewards certain parties, too. And they are right, it does.

But it tends to over-reward those that get the most support.

Ask yourself, in an imperfect world, which is fairer: To over-reward parties with the most support or those with the least?

That is one of those questions that, just by asking it, you also give the answer.

Change happens

Opponents of first-past-the-post say it prevents smaller, newer parties from growing and playing an important role in a nation's political life.

Well, don't tell that to Preston Manning. In the 1993 election, he managed to get himself and 51 other Reformers elected to Parliament. They went on eventually to absorb the Progressive Conservative party, changed their name and are now in their fifth year in power, with a minority government.

And don't tell Lucien Bouchard who did even better in 1993. His Bloc Québécois took 54 seats in 1993 to become the Official Opposition.

What Manning and Bouchard did under the current electoral system changed Canadian politics forever. And Britain has not been immune to that kind of change either. Consider the division over conscription in the First World War.

The leadership fight between David Lloyd George and Herbert Asquith opened the door for the Liberals to be replaced by Labour as one of the two dominant British political parties. Again, via the first-past-the-post system.

Today in Britain, the machinations are fascinating as the parties jockey for power.

But, in my view, changing to PR would be a mistake at any time. And changing to it to buy off third-party support underlines what is wrong with the system that would be brought in. To do so in those circumstances would be unconscionable.