About The Author
James Forder is Tutorial Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. He was the co-author, with Chris Huhne, of Both Sides of the Coin: The Arguments for the Euro and European Monetary Union.
His new book, The Case Against Voting Reform, looks closely at the flaws in an alternative vote system that will be considered in the referendum on 5th May, such as the likelihood of real power for the British National Party, and makes the case that the current system remains the fairest option.
He summarises his argument in this exclusive summary.
The Author At Foyles
The debate about proportional representation has gone on and on for years in an almost unchanged form. Especially since the 1970s, when the Liberal vote jumped, the current system has often been called 'unfair' and 'outdated'. As things have turned out, we are having a referendum on the 'Alternative Vote' - not a system of PR at all, and not even one that is much like PR. But still, most of the old-time PR supporters are now supporting AV and that makes it look as if much of the impetus for the current campaign comes from the idea that PR is a good thing.
The trouble is that, lengthy as the debate has been, even the opponents of PR have hardly ever presented the serious arguments against it. Certainly they tell us that it results in 'weak government' and that there is a special magic about the single member constituency. But the reformists can find examples of countries with PR that have effective government and AV even preserves single member seats.
There are much better arguments against PR than these, and a good many of them also apply to AV. For one thing, a question practically never asked is 'what do we mean by 'fair votes'?' The reformists take it for granted that it means making party representation in Parliament proportional to votes cast. But that is a very limited conception. Here is one reason: Parliament does not, in reality, decide much. It is the government that decides things, and it is very unusual that it does not get its way on anything important. So, shouldn't 'fair votes' mean that party representation in the Cabinet is proportional to votes cast?
A change in the electoral system will not bring that about, but would 'proportional Cabinets' be desirable anyway? What it would amount to is that there would always be an all-party coalition. Some people find it possible to imagine that would be a good thing since it would mean something like 'everybody working together'. Think again. It means the politicians working together, and the voters having no effective choices.
That thought points to the real trouble with coalition government. It is not that they are 'weak' or 'unstable'. That may or may not be true - I should think it depends on the coalition. More to the point is the issue of the quality of democracy that we get. Coalition government impairs democracy in a number of ways, but here is one. It puts the final decision as to who forms the government in the hands of the politicians, and has them take it after the election. On the crucial question then, PR and AV disempower the voters. They are not 'more democratic', they are anti-democratic.
These sorts of ideas point to the fact that before we even start to think about what electoral system we want, we should give serious attention to the question of what elections are for. Some people think they are all about the voters selecting the policies they want implemented. But that hardly happens. When we get into the details of the argument, a much better picture emerges. That is simply that we select the people who are going to decide the policies. If that is - as I argue - the essence of democracy, it is absolutely essential that elections put voters in charge. We want a system which - as often as possible - means that when the votes are counted, we know what government we have. Then, and only then, it is the voters who are choosing the government.
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