Proportionally Better or Worse?

Surprise surprise, there are quite a few graphics around showing the perceived unfairness of the UK’s voting system following Thursday’s General Election. The chances of any type of PR being implemented for Westminster are remote – if nothing else, there’s little or no incentive for the party in power to change the system that’s elected them. That won’t stop supporters of some of the other parties – Lib Dem, UKIP and Green in particular – from pointing at their vote share and arguing the case again.

I have some sympathy for them, but at the same time it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” – PR would quite possibly have delivered a Tory/UKIP coalition based on the stats, and a lot of the people complaining may well have seen that as their worst nightmare. However, all of the parties need to recognise that PR is a system that can damage as easily as promote them.

One of the things is that PR would see a lessening of the impact of Tactical Voting. Currently, the fate of the country is decided by a number of key marginals – the majority of seats rarely if ever change hands. And in those marginals, there will be a tendency for tactical voting to be encouraged – virtually every party in second place in a marginal will have produced election leaflets saying “Only X can defeat Y here” – clearly saying that even if you don’t actively support them, you ought to vote or Party Y, your natural enemy, will be elected instead. It’s a fairly standard tactic. So Lib Dems might historically pick up a lot of prospective Labour votes in places where they were seen as the only effective alternative to the Conservatives. and some prospective Tory voters who wanted to keep out Labour in other places. UKIP are somewhat different in that they have effectively been a Protest Vote – “we don’t like any of the others so we’ll show them by voting UKIP”. They have built on this somewhat, but Nigel Farage has been very keen to promote himself and UKIP as the party to vote for if you’re fed up of mainstream politics and politicians.

Introduce PR, and the Tactical Vote is less significant. What effect would that have on the smaller parties? Would the Green Vote increase as people felt they would actually have a voice? Would the Lib Dems find their vote squeezed even more, or would it grow as they gain the Lib Dem supporters who’ve voting tactically elsewhere? If UKIP have to engage with mainstream politics, will they have to change their stance? Would the people in the Labour Heartlands like the North-East who voted UKIP continue to do so if they think they could gain real power? The answer is that no-one is really sure – but I’m fairly confident that the share of the votes we saw last week wouldn’t have been quite the same under PR. So to argue for it on the basis of last week’s results is very much a flawed argument.

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