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Proportional representation just isn’t worth the hassle
Recently in the UK, electoral reform has appeared on the agenda, the Labour Party hinting that it may change the UK’s First-past-the-post (FPTP) system, should it win the next election. Beyond the argument that election results should reflect voter preferences, supporters assert that proportional representation (PR) would reduce inequality. According to a new report from Compass, a centre-left think-tank, majoritarian systems such as FPTP disregard the preferences of most voters for redistribution, perpetuating economic injustice.
A recent paper in the prestigious Comparative Political Studies journal makes a similar argument. Examining the introduction of proportional representation in New Zealand in the 1990s, Górecki and Pierzgalski find that PR improved the electoral fortunes of the left, promoting income redistribution.
I am unconvinced. Popular arguments overstate the causal role of PR. As Górecki and Pierzgalski observe, many scholars argue that majoritarian systems reflect unequal initial conditions, path dependency consolidating this relationship. Of course, Górecki and Pierzgalski address these issues, but I have reservations about their quasi-experimental approach. This involves multiple assumptions and comparisons with other countries, many of which can be queried. And the rising prominence of the cultural dimension of politics, marked in the majoritarian Anglosphere, undermines the premises of such arguments.
Ultimately, I appreciate that PR might reduce inequality, but am scarcely confident about this. UK voting reform would not take place on a blank slate. As scholars agree, the UK has a political economy which perpetuates unequal outcomes, institutions such as the prominent finance sector, corporate short-termism and liberal labour market being associated with this. These are centuries old and might react to a new electoral system in a way which reestablishes traditional equilibriums. As ever, unforeseen consequences are possible.
Beyond these points, there is a very good reason to oppose PR; after Brexit, the UK is tired of institutional change. Brexit has reconfigured the institutions of the UK political economy, entailing a level of disruption unseen since the end of the Second World War. The pandemic compounded this. UK institutions may be resilient – as I suggest above – yet Brexit involves a new developmental trajectory, engendering changes to multiple social and economic spheres. In many areas, policymakers are flying blind.
Would PR involve as much upheaval as Brexit? Admittedly, it would not. Despite polarized views on the issue, temperatures are cooler and, were there to be a referendum which mandated change, its implementation would be simpler.
Would PR involve considerable disruption? Almost certainly, it would. A referendum might produce allegations of malpractice. The result may be close and its implementation contested, clogging up politics for years. Effects would be unknown; as with Brexit, politicians would navigate unknown terrain.
There are related questions for Labour. The UK has multiple challenges, many associated with Brexit and Conservative misrule. Should Labour assume office after the next election, they will have limited political capital, particularly with a small majority. Given the challenges which will confront the party, it seems unwise to commit resources to PR. The issue might define the entire parliament, distracting from the areas in which a Labour government might make a real difference, at a comparatively low cost. As we have seen, positive outcomes are far from guaranteed.
Fortunately, Labour leader Keir Starmer may be close to this position and the reality of governing might force this on Labour. Famously, parties have least incentive to pursue electoral reform when they are in power.
Of course, this verdict is subjective. As a Burkean, I am suspicious of major change and recognize that others have different opinions. Yet at the current time, this position has much to commend it, reflecting the disruptive influence of Brexit and (to a lesser extent) the pandemic. We might apply it to other domains. There may be a good case for rejoining the EU in 15-20 years, but it is presently weak, reflecting potential for disruption.
Many citizens are tired of change. As political obsessives, politicians and commentators can find this difficult to grasp. But the tumult of recent years, much of it the responsibility of politicians, has produced a desire for stable government. Ironically, the appeal of Starmer’s Labour partly rests on this. PR may well have advantages, yet these might be for a day in which the country’s foundations are more stable.
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