Last weekend Germans voted to elect a new Government. By this weekend, they will still not have one and there is every chance that they will not have one for several months. Every so often, I respond to constituents who argue for electoral reform in this country, usually involving a form of proportional representation, and I generally reply that, whatever the theoretical attraction of proportional representation systems, in practice they do not tend to deliver strong governments which can deliver what they say they will and that, in practice, they do not deliver the more democratic outcomes that are claimed for them in theory. What is happening now in Germany is, I think, a useful example.
The first point is the one I made at the beginning of this article – that there will likely be no German government for some time. In the UK, under our ‘first past the post’ system of voting, new governments tend to take over immediately, with a mandate to begin governing straight away. Proportional representation systems tend not to deliver immediate governments but rather fragmented results that lead to complex negotiations to form coalitions, such as those underway in Germany. The most successful party in the German elections secured a little over a quarter of the available votes and is likely to need the support of at least 2 other parties to govern. You might think the compromises necessary to achieve that are worthwhile, but they will not be reached with the involvement of the electorate, but by politicians in private. Whatever caused you to vote for one of the parties involved may be jettisoned in the construction of a coalition agreement and the final coalition treaty in Germany may bear little resemblance to what anyone voted for. It is true that Governments sometimes fail to keep their promises throughout their term of office, but that is a different thing to changing the bulk of them before they even begin. I certainly do not think it can be argued to be a more democratic concept.
Then there is the question of where real power in coalitions lies, and where it ought to lie. Multi-party coalitions will involve political parties whose level of public support is low, but whose influence in coalition negotiations is high because they are needed to make the numbers work. That will mean the inclusion of policies few voted for in a programme for government. Again, I do not see this as a more democratic outcome.
No system of voting is of course perfect, and there is more than one version of proportional representation, but those who argue for change to the UK’s system of voting on the basis it will make things fairer need to recognise not just theoretical merits but also practical outcomes, including in places like Germany.