First-past-the-post (FPTP) gives a single government larger control than they would proportionally be afforded – essentially a bonus for securing the largest majority of any party. This is a strong way to ensure that the winning side is able to pass laws and act as a functional government, but it’s incredible how little it can represent the beliefs of the people it presides over.
In a hypothetical country with four left-of-centre parties and one right-of-centre party, 60% of voters could split their vote equally such that 15% of their votes go to each party on the left, while the remaining 40% vote for the right-wing party. The results under first-past-the-post would be a victory for the right-wing party, even though the left-wing majority in the country have far more in common with each other politically than the new government in power – if there were only a right or left-wing party to choose from, the left-wing party would have likely won. Because these voters dared to select who they support most, they have lost their chance to participate in democracy.
Continuing the example, once the results are in and the left-wing parties have lost, the best way for left-wing policies to be enacted in future is either for one of these parties to drop out of future elections, or for voters to act as if they have. This way, more votes will go to a left-wing party, even though those voters would prefer to vote for their prior party. In some way, this is not dissimilar to proportional representation – the issue arises when the time comes for change.
If our “coalition left” party, containing 60% of voters, attempts to form a new, more left-wing party that takes half of their voter base, the right-wing party would win again while making no attempt to appeal to new voters. Fear of granting the opposition a victory stifles the growth of new parties, and this uncertainty around being able to secure a majority could even paralyse a party that may be more popular than the current two. A new perspective will never be allowed to develop under this system, while proportional representation would let voters express their true opinions on each party.
What will they lose if PR was the norm?
The question one must ask when a politician opposes proportional representation is: “What will they lose if PR was the norm?”. You may notice that it never seems to be the two major parties pushing for it – at least not while they have a chance at winning control. Strictly focusing on what best suits them and their party, FPTP makes certain that a two-party system will emerge, and voters are forced into strategizing around which party is closest to their beliefs while still having a chance at winning. Yet we’re told to fear proportional representation for its complexity? If voters are entrusted to navigate FPTP just to have their vote matter, they will be able to list their favourite choices in order.
Now that FPTP has been established to be a problem, a discussion must be had on how it can be amended. The two parties benefitting from FPTP won’t take an action that weakens their power. Can voters be convinced en masse to switch to a new party that promises PR? Though it’s unlikely, it is possible – but it leads to a commitment problem. This party would become the new beneficiary of the system, and must act against its adjusted interests to pass PR. It is doubtful that the average voter trusts any party’s leader enough to follow through on such a promise.
Pro-democracy means pro-proportional representation
What will it take for PR to become the standard? Whether it’s truly altruistic politicians, or a new, single-issue party to push it through, one thing is certain: being pro-democracy means being pro-proportional representation. If you worry that proportional representation will weaken your party’s power, you are only interested in democracy when it lets you win.