Should there be a referendum on Proportional Representation?

The Liberal Democrat Party has been campaigning for many years to make the British electoral system more representative. The current 'first-the-post' voting system tends to over-reward the larger parties: so that their parliamentary representation far exceeds the national proportion of the votes cast for these parties.

This offends against the British sense of justice - although the larger parties are quite content with the arrangement, since it tends to reinforce their positions as potential governing parties. The Liberal Democrats have pointed out in vain that if Britain had a national proportional voting system, the 1992 election would most likely have resulted in a Labour/Liberal Democrat Coalition, instead of the current Conservative government.

As the Labour Party now enjoy a very substantial lead in the opinion polls, they seem less interested than ever in changing the electoral system. However, their present popularity could diminish, as their leader prudently recognises. If this happens, the Labour Party might be tempted to promise to introduce a national proportional voting system - to encourage Liberal Democrat voters to switch to them in the general election.

Although the Labour Party seems reluctant the endorse the use of referendums, it would seem appropriate for an incoming Labour government to ballot the British people before making such a profound constitutional change. There is more at stake here than a change of voting system.

Good Government ?

There are many national proportional systems of elections in existence in the world. They are invariably the result of an attempt to make the electoral representation as fair as possible, although some are biased is favour of minorities. There are single transferable voting systems, alternative voting systems, party list systems and many combinational systems.

In all cases they may produce a fair representation in 'parliament', but this does not necessarily mean an equally fair representation in 'government'. In fact, most of these systems tend to produce coalition governments which are either too divided to govern properly; or so united, that they remain in power for decade after decade. This latter development usually leads to substantial corruption.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the major British political parties are wary of national proportional systems of elections. While such a system could lead to their retaining power for decades, it could also lead to a career of virtual perpetual opposition.

However, this does not have to happen. It all depends on whether the system adopted is a Minimum PR system, or a Maximum PR system.

The Liberal Democrats are supporting a type of national proportional system which would maximise their chances of getting into power. This is the normal "minimum" PR system. Under such as system, a coalition can be formed out of any of the parties which achieve parliamentary representation.

Maximum PR

The alternative "maximum" PR system would probably be more attractive to the major parties. Under Maximum PR, there would be a constitutional provision which prohibited the formation of a coalition government which included parties which were smaller than any larger opposition party.

This constitutional provision is designed to ensure that small, unpopular and unrepresentative parties, do not gain power at the expense of larger, more popular and more representative parties.

For example, suppose an election resulted in 40% for the Conservatives, 35% for Labour and 20% for the Liberal Democrats. A "Minimum" PR system could allow either a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, or a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition.

By contrast, a "Maximum" PR system would ensure either a Conservative/Labour coalition - the most representative; or a minority Conservative government. The latter would depend upon Labour or Liberal Democrat votes to carry out its governmental program. Either way, this system tends to maximise popular representation in government.

Maximum PR would also encourage an increased use of referendums. A coalition government could use a binding "Swiss style" referendum to determine any aspects of government policy which the coalition partners could not agree upon.

In addition, a minority government could call for a mandatory referendum on any policies, which it felt had broad popular support, but which were being blocked by the opposition parties. In this way, a minority government could still be effective, despite its minority status.

The Alternatives

Firstly, there is the status quo. It does have a lot of advantages. It's a simple, straight forward system which tends to mean that the most popular party gains power. The system also tends to favour parties which are popular throughout the country, rather than those which are very popular in some constituencies and very unpopular in others. As such, it tends to favour relatively moderate broadly based political parties.

In addition, it allows parties to carry out their policies unhindered by political compromise - so that the electorate can judge the value of their policies over a period of time. Finally, the 'alternation effect' which is typical of such systems, tends to deny a single political party decades of power - and this tends to prevent large scale institutional corruption.

Secondly, there are indirect systems of government employing various electoral methods to achieve fair representation. Under such systems, the MP's are responsible for all levels of representative government. As such, the primary election simply puts them on the first rung of the governmental ladder, i.e. local government. The 'local government' MPs then vote for a proportion of their colleagues to who represent them in national or supranational parliaments. This process is repeated to the highest levels of government.

This system has the advantage of ensuring that the MPs who are elected to the higher levels of government are the most competent, experienced and representative. This tends to result in good management of public affairs and broad representative government - particularly at the upper levels.

Popular Sovereignty

Thirdly, there are systems of government which allow a much greater degree of popular involvement than the present day British system. There are countries which hold regular referendums on a wide variety of different policies. Others allow for the recall of MPs who fail to perform to agreed standards. Yet others allow citizen initiated referendums, which require a certain percentage of the population's support to ensure a referendum.

At present, all parliamentary bills have to be submitted to the Queen for Royal Assent. This is purely formal - and 'assent' is always given. And yet in a democratic age, should not 'assent' be sought from the people? The British electorate could go to the polls every year to approve, or disapprove of parliamentary legislation. Not all would go; but the interested and concerned could be trusted to prevent any irresponsible legislation from reaching the statute book.