The Pros and Cons of Proportional Representation

Proportional Representation (PR) is an electoral system in which parties gain seats in direct proportion to the number of votes they receive. Currently in Britain we don’t have PR, and instead have a “first past the post” system: by which a party wins an election by achieving a simple majority. However, many people think that a system of proportional representation is fairer, or some have mixed views on the subject. A variety of these views are collated below.

PROS

  • PR gives minority parties and independent candidates a much better chance of being elected and provides the possibility of ending the “ruling dynasty” of the three major parties, which would allow new and different voices to be heard and give more people the chance to make a difference.
  • The current system is unrepresentative and gives all political power to one party, however small its majority might be. Under the first past the post system, many MPs are elected to Parliament despite 75 per cent of their constituency voting against them.
  • PR frequently produces coalition governments, which means that more voters can be represented under one government.
  • Under PR, those supporting Labour in a “safe” Conservative seat, or vice versa, would not be wasting their vote. This would mean that the parties would could appeal mainly to their core supporters (possibly allowing them to remain truer to their fundamental policies), rather than trying to crowd-please the 200,000 or so swing voters in marginal seats.
  • There would be a higher turnout at the polls under PR, as the electorate would come to realise that their votes really counted.
  • Proportional representation is used by the majority of the world's leading democracies. Only a few countries, including the UK, the US, India, Canada and France, still have elections that are decided by plurality voting systems.
  • In the UK, we already use PR for the European parliament elections and for London Mayoral elections. So we have no reason to fear the system.
  • Solid, centrist policies will result. As PR seldom results in one party holding an absolute majority, it requires governments to compromise and build consensus.

CONS

  • PR makes it easier for extremist parties to gain seats.
  • The coalition governments that PR often produces can be weak and indecisive due to the different parties each trying to get their own way.
  • Under first past the post, MPs serve the constituency they campaign in, making them more inclined to tackle important local issues.

So will our electoral system change? Probably not any time soon. The simple fact of the matter is, for better or worse, most of the time those that win the elections in our current first-past-the-post system benefit from it and so have no incentive to push for an adoption of proportional representation. However, those that might be more inclined to support PR are frequently influenced in this view by not often being able to win an election with the first-past-the-post system and so are not able to gain the power to change the system anyway. As Dr Paul Mitchell (Associate Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics) notes: “Those that have the will don’t have the way, and those that have the way don’t have the will.”