Proportional Representation (PR) is the favourite alternative to remedy the glaring defects of the First-Past-The-Post system of electing representatives (deputies, MPs). Discussion of second rounds (as in France) and voting by listing preferences (like the Alternative Vote, rejected in a UK referendum in 2011) has abated.
Otherwise there is much advocacy of so-called direct democracy, with frequent referenda, with the Swiss constitution as the template. In actual fact, the Swiss model is a blend of representative (or parliamentary) democracy with advisory referenda. Switzerland has a sophisticated electorate which has matured over many decades, and its system would not be rapidly transferable to electorates which exhibit an ingrained and widespread habit of not voting on the issue on the ballot paper but, instead, of abusing the vote to express opinions on quite unconnected matters.
There are several – partially related – objections to PR. The first is that it depends on political parties, rather than individuals, as the sole vehicle of political opinion. Political parties aggregate thinking on disparate issues and present the electorate with a package or bundle (in Latin: “Fasces”).
This aggregation facilitates group-think. A citizen who is dissatisfied with the composition of the package has the option, theoretically, of joining a party and influencing its policy choices or choice of candidates. In actual fact, social dynamics are such that this involves engaging in what is diplomatically called compromise and, less diplomatically, horse-trading. It is time-consuming in the extreme, and the prospects of even minor success are remote. It is, in diverse and perverse ways, power that plays, not the force of reason or reflection. Pressure groups and lobbying come to the fore to distort policy. Hence citizens are normally deprived of precision in the voting booth. Often they must vote for the least bad party.
A second objection is that PR works by default with party lists. These have the effect that, unless party support collapses entirely, the electorate cannot vote out leading politicians (i.e. a decrease in party support can only vote out those lower in the list: you cannot vote directly against the leadership). Proportional Representation is hierarchical without sufficient transparency on the formation of the hierarchy. It favours incumbents irrespective of performance.
A third – and crucial – objection relates to the thresholds regularly applied for representation under PR. This can be seen starkly in Germany, where no party winning less than five percent can obtain representation, but also in the elections to the European Parliament. It can be argued that it is this that has resulted in the dead-end (or consensual) politics characteristic of the Federal Republic since before unification. More gravely, similar considerations apply to the European Parliament.
Under PR, each party is incentivised to maximise its share of the vote and is therefore bound to make itself nearly all things to nearly all men. This is a recipe for populism, understood as the gross simplification of issues and reduction of policy to just a very few issues (the economy, taxation, environment, immigration, crime, welfare). It is, incidentally, obvious that representation for these issues needs to be voted on separately, as advocated by Fuzzy Democracy.
If there is to be PR, then the threshold rule needs to be exactly reversed – by not counting any proportions over five percent. This way established parties have no incentive to pander to the electorate. They can advocate necessary, but unpopular policies without fear of losing extra votes.
This is not, of course, an adequate solution. The adequate solution is Fuzzy Democracy.
It will be objected that having a dozen or score of parties would lead to it being impossible to form an executive or “strong and stable” government. But there is mostly no need for government to be unitary. Policy in one grand area of political concern does not always have much connection to that in others, and it is only the fixation on party “loyalty” or tradition that imagines otherwise. The demand for such unity leads to horse-trading and the widespread disrespect that politics and politicians suffer from. It is anti-democratic.
Of course, disallowing votes over the five percent as advocated above means disenfranchising some voters. But this is what happens already. Under FPTP, there is no voice for the losers. The “winner” wins only be accumulating more votes than the single runner-up, whether by many or only slightly more votes. All those who voted for other candidates, however numerous – and they might well constitute a real majority – go empty-handed. It is not the case that their vote counts for rather less. It counts for zero. This is de facto disenfranchisement.
Society is made up of minorities, not majorities. Hence democracy must not be the de facto suppression of minority voices in favour of an artificial majority. Such majorities are provisional and informal coalitions. Tiny minorities may be seen as trace elements, essential for the proper functioning of the body politic and, indeed, society. They are correctives and cures, like therapy and medicine, which does not mean that they should rule the roost. They receive protection enough through the corrective of civil rights.
Here are some guiding principles of democracy, which is to be understood as a form of governance and not – not! – simply as a liberal dispensation. Such as interpretation is an abuse of language because it leaves us without a proper (or at least a short) word to describe a system of universal suffrage to select or de-select the government. Hence democracy is distinct from plutocracy, military dictatorship, corporatism, hereditary aristocracy and paternalism such as in the form of technocracy (EU?). Democracy is moreover the form of government that allows government to be changed without recourse to violence, including the implicit violence of street demonstrations or, arguably, civil disobedience or the blackmail of strikes which persistently target essential infrastructure for political ends.
(i) Every citizen who wishes must be allowed a formal voice; and
(ii) This voice must be not be so lacking in precision as to be vacuous. That means, among other things, that there must no disenfranchisement through the back door as happens when completely disparate issues are bundled such that many voters must regularly vote against one of their convictions in order to vote in favour of another.
(iii) Voting must not become onerous, i.e. it must not be too frequent or too complicated.
Exactly what is too frequent or complicated is, in part, a cultural matter. But, with very many citizens being news addicts, voting once or twice a year for discrete assemblies would not be excessive. Turnout alone is not a measure of democratic legitimacy because it fails to account for the attention individual voters pay to the matter at hand.
Alternative vote schemes, i.e. with ranking of preferences, easily do become complicated since people might be unduly exercised about their second, third and fourth choices. They are also complicated because of the counting mechanisms involved, all of which involve technicalities.
A key objection to referenda, at least on non-constitutional matters, is that they would inevitably become overly frequent. There is also the distortion that easily arises because of the phrasing of the referendum choice. Indeed, how the question is formulated is itself often a matter of dispute.
In summary, compared with Fuzzy Democracy, Proportional Representation fails several tests of democratic legitimacy. Fuzzy Democracy puts parties in their place and enables greater precision in the polling booth. This said, all the popular vote can decide is a direction of travel, without detail, as the bottom rung in – or else a check on – a series of processes which at times may be adversarial and at others imbued with a culture of compromise.