Proportional representation flatters to deceive

Proportional representation is a seductive alternative to the pitfalls of first past the post. But PR's flaws probably outweigh its benefits, as the cases of Germany and Italy can illustrate

It's not what goes in it's what comes out
Tim Hedges
On 28 February 2019 05:14

It comes around every few years, like recessions, white Christmases or exculpatory speeches from Michael Heseltine. There is talk in Britain --- so far only murmuring -- of proportional representation.

I remember being on a panel in the early 1990s organised by Charter 88 to discuss this. It was a time when everyone seemed to agree it was a good idea and called it ‘Fair Votes’.My view then, and it hasn’t changed, is ‘go and look where it is operating and see if you like it’.

France, America and Britain do not have PR, whereas Germany and Italy and many others do. Well, it is hard to know where to start with Italy, which has had full PR, full First Past the Post and now has a hybrid system like Germany’s.

The first problem you come to is the list system. Under almost all PR systems there is a party list and how well you do in the vote determines how many of your list are sent to parliament.

So the MP’s loyalty is not to the electors but to whomever put him on the list, high enough up so that although he is standing for the Ecological Transgender Beekeeping Party he still gets a paid job.

There is no question here of writing to your MP with a grievance, since even if one were appointed for your town and you could find out who it was, you know he wouldn’t give a stuff about you and your problem. Why should he?

Many will remember the late Helmut Kohl who, after what we shall call a misunderstanding about party funding, was voted out by his electorate. The next morning he was back in parliament, chatting to his friends. As well as standing for direct election he had also stood on the Party List system and being a big cheese floated into a job. Fair votes?

Now Italy has produced a new twist on the system. There are three types of election: local, regional (there are twenty regions, such as Lombardy or Tuscany) and national. Matteo Salvini’s Lega (formerly the Northern League) campaigns under its own name in local elections and of course for national elections is grouped with the 5-Star movement, with which it forms a government.

But in Regional Elections the Lega forms part of the centre-right grouping, which has associates such as The Brothers of Italy and shy, retiring Silvio you-know-who. And they have been very successful.

At the beginning of February there were regionals in the Abruzzo where Brothers of Italy, pushed on by Salvini and Silvio, won a crushing victory with a swing of nearly 20%. This week was Sardinia where the associate du jour, the Sardinian Action Party, won easily with 48% of the vote.

Salvini claims to have beaten the centre-left on the last six occasions. Different slogans, different banners but always his smiling, bearded face underneath. People are beginning to ask where all this is heading.

Important to note, here, where Salvini’s national partner, 5-Star, is headed. In the last national elections, only a year ago, 5-Star has 32% of the vote. Now they are polling at around 22%. In Sardinia 5-Star had 42%; in the regionals they got 11%.

The euro elections are coming in May. Salvini and his group are far ahead in Italy. He might even be the most popular politician in Europe. For Brussels this could be an upheaval. For Italy, an emboldened Salvini could ditch 5-Star and call for new elections.

The centre-right’s time has come. When Silvio retires Salvini will be his heir. When your party is strong, you tend towards a First Past the Post system. Having achieved power I would not put it past him to change the electoral system to keep him there.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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