Why Muslims shouldn’t fear proportional representation

Recently I’ve seen a discussion on Facebook in which one Muslim brother said we should not be so keen on proportional representation because it’s likely to lead to the BNP getting seats, which they don’t under our present system because the need to come first in a constituency to get one seat. He said that they got a fairly large share of the votes, which would lead to them getting several seats if we had a genuinely proportional system. In fact, not all systems of PR allow this.

The only systems which allow total proportionality, even allowing tiny parties to get the number of seats that their vote merits, are the party list systems found in Israel and the Netherlands. In these, you don’t vote for individual candidates but for a party, and those most favoured by the parties are more likely to get elected. There are other obvious disadvantages to this system, such as that candidates most popular with the electorate, who may be the “free thinkers” within the parties, are likely to appear further down the list.

This system is not likely to be considered at all in the UK. It’s used in Israel no doubt because it allows Israeli settlers to vote and be represented in the Knesset without the government having to designate constituencies in the settlements, which would cause them more problems with the international community given that the settlements are on occupied land. What’s more likely to be used is something called “Alternative Vote Plus” (AV+) which combines single-member constituencies, with a preferential vote system and a separate body of MPs elected through a party list. This is worrying, because it would allow some tiny extremist parties to get seats. It should be resisted. In many ways it’s worse than the present system.

There is another system which delivers some degree of proportionality and keeps out the tiny parties, which is the Single Transferable Vote, in which you have large constituencies with, say, five members or so each. You vote for candidates, not for a party list, in order of preference, and it stands to reason that you would need to get a fairly large share of the vote to get even one of five seats. Nick Griffin got 14.6% of the vote, which is less than 20%. The BNP candidate in neighbouring Dagenham got 11.2%.

Significantly, where the BNP have islands of support as in east London, those constituencies would be combined with several others. The neighbouring constituencies include Ilford South and East Ham in which the BNP did not bother to field a candidate, and other places in which they got only about 4% of the vote. This would drag their share of the vote down to less than 10%. In Stoke on Trent, supposedly one of their major targets, they got on average 9% of the vote in three of the four seats in the Stoke-Newcastle conurbation (in Newcastle under Lyme, they did not put up a candidate). In STV, the whole area would be one constituency, and the BNP would likely not get a seat even then.

As I said in my last post, it would also cut other extremist parties at the knees, such as by stopping Sinn Fein denying whole tracts of Northern Ireland representation in Parliament. It maintains the link between an MP and his or her constituency, and gives people a choice of who to talk to if they need to talk to an MP; some MPs do not hold surgeries, some are too conformant to their parties’ lines to actually take into account the views of their constituents, and some might not entertain certain of his constituents because of their colour or whatever (which might well happen if a BNP candidate gets enough votes under the present system, and potentially this could happen with even 30% if nobody else gets more than that).

One argument against PR is that people will vote for parties they think might win a seat which they are more likely to do under PR than under the present system. However, this holds true for other minority parties and not just for the likes of the BNP. It is possible that some might find themselves in a position to decide which major party to coalesce with to form a government, but some small parties could only coalesce with one of the major parties and thus could not play “kingmaker” as, say, the Liberal Democrats might. Experience on the Continent shows that major parties do in fact form coalitions with each other, such as the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany (known as grand coalitions), not just with minor parties. In any case, not all minor parties are extremist anyway; there are some regional interest parties, the Greens and others which hardly merit being hobbled in the same way as we would advocate for the BNP. Muslims could form their own parties, which would have a better chance of getting candidates elected under these systems, and we would not have to rely on Asian careerists in the Labour party.

Our system is broken, and it keeps power in the hands of two parties which are not trusted by a large section of the electorate anymore. It delivers seats to parties based on their distribution of votes, not their proportion; it delivers an absolute majority to a party with 35.3% of the vote in one election (2005) but not to a party with 36.1% in the next (2010), 258 seats to a party with 29% of the vote but 57 to a party with 23% (Labour and Lib Dems, respectively, in the most recent election). In 1951, Labour won more votes than the Tories, but the Tories won a majority in Parliament simply because of where votes were distributed. That just is not fair. We need an alternative to stale “New” Labour versus the neo-cons and inexperienced wannabe grandees of the Tory party. That’s all we’ll get under the present system.

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