The real problem with proportional representation

Simon Jenkins’s column in today’s Guardian implies that under PR the Left would end up with a political settlement just as distasteful to us as the present coalition. His basic assertion, superficially plausible, is that

The vilification of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, by his party for “breaking” various election promises is absurd. It flatly contradicts a Lib Dem belief in proportional representation and its handmaid, compromise.

Of course in a proportional system coalitions would become the norm, and parties would not be able to put their entire manifesto into practice. But even if we retain first past the post (FPTP), our recent electoral dynamics strongly suggest that we’re going to have a string of hung parliaments in coming elections (as John Curtice shows here), so this is no argument against PR as such. The obvious representational difference is that in a proportional system the numerical balance between the parties better reflects the votes of the electorate, and it seems fair to assume that the Lib Dems would surely have had a greater effect on coalition policy if there’d been more of them. The question is whether that would materially alter much. Jenkins’s appeal to ‘compromise’ suggests that there’s a real difference of fundamental principles at stake, but it’s increasingly clear that that is not the case.

What neither FPTP nor PR can hope to change is the problem of the parliamentary political system itself. Every main party in the UK is committed to a late capitalist, free-market, liberal economic ideology. No party subscribes to the economics-Nobel-prize-winning view of Paul Krugman and others that there is no economic necessity to cut a budget deficit that is historically low. Today it is literally impossible to vote for a party that rejects or even serious questions the fundamental principles of free-market capitalism, and parliamentary democracy is itself a structural support to this universal neoliberal market agenda. No vote can change the consensus and every vote supports it.

PR is therefore at best a fairer way to reach a hopeless final situation: the problem with it is not that it leads to compromise, but that it makes no structural difference whatever to political or economic life.

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