Pale, Male, Stale

Glen Newey · Notions of Representation

The shade of Earl Russell, ‘Finality Jack’, still moves among us, and his name is Clegg. The deputy prime minister’s brief in the new administration is political reform, whose compass, he promised in yesterday’s statement, will be wide – as wide as Russell’s vaunted ‘final’ settlement of 1832. Clegg describes the electoral system as ‘broken’. The Electoral Reform Society branded the general election result ‘unrepresentative’. The criticism is invited by the umbrella labelling of the electoral reform statutes of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 etc. as ‘Representation of the People’ Acts.

The complaint that the system is unrepresentative is levelled indifferently at the simple plurality voting system (‘first past the post’), and at the remaining ‘pale, male, stale’ demographic in the House of Commons. These two complaints are distinct. Clearly proportionality defangs the first charge, of unrepresentativeness, or at least those forms of PR that make seats won directly proportional to votes cast. But it doesn’t fix the Commons’ dominance by middle-aged white males.

Under the present regime, party activists get to decide who stands in winnable seats – though local activists often grumble about HQ-favoured candidates being ‘parachuted in’. But this goes for many versions of PR too, such as the Additional Member system. Indeed, these strengthen the hand of party bosses, who (as in Germany) can in effect nominate their favoured slate of successful candidates in rank order.

In fact the very idea of ‘representative’ government needs a closer look, partly because the word represent itself needs it. Represent can mean ‘resemble’ or ‘stand for’. My bungled grisaille of a horse ends up looking more like the queen. What or whom does it represent? A picture of a cactus can represent a cactus by, for example, looking like one. Or something can represent by standing for something else (‘and the pepperpot is the Holy Ghost’).

The Commons doesn’t look, physically, like anything much except itself. Of course, that idea of representation may be somewhat literal-minded. The representation could be structural: say, by requiring that the relative strength of parties in the House mirror the quota of votes cast for them in the election.

On one side, PR’s opponents say that ‘hole-in-corner’ policy deals thrashed out in coalition talks, such as the ones last week, forge a programme that no one voted for. On the other, fans of PR argue that simply plurality means, in principle, that a party can get a mandate for its full manifesto programme on 35 per cent of the popular vote, or 21 per cent of eligible voters, as Labour did (given the 61 per cent turnout) in 2005.

Neither case is fireproof. Each relies on an unargued notion of representation. Both assume that the democratic ideal would be to have a full programme mandated by more than 50 per cent of the electorate, whose wishes it would then represent. What is the content of the proposal put to the people; and who decides that? Who decides who decides?

Anyway, manifestoes are typically pick-and-mix wish-lists cooked up by party activists and finessed by grandees mindful of electoral obliteration. The idea that these wonkish portmanteaux represent, in toto, a consummation devoutly wished by those who elect the party’s candidates to Parliament is mildly touched.

If so, it’s beside the point to say that coalitions are bad because they yield programmes nobody voted for, or that simple plurality is bad because it yields a programme that (say) only 21 per cent of people voted for, so that salvation lies in the Borda count, or a refinement of D’Hondt. Unlike cacti or the queen, there is not some thing already out there, the will of the people, for the electoral system to depict. As with tactical voting, the electoral system itself shapes the manifest wishes of the people.

That’s not to say that nothing is any better than anything else (‘let’s make the country into one giant constituency, with a single Tory MP’). But reform relies less on abstract ideas of representation than on pragmatic and ad hoc factors. Cleggie seems to have succumbed to Earl Russell’s Hegelian moment.


  • 20 May 2010 at 2:14pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    To me, that pepperpot looks more like God. The Holy Ghost is an institutional glass salt cellar with a silver screw top and Jesus is the ketchup.

    When I went to school, they said that government by referendum was impractical. Now that we have computers it really isn't. Shouldn't Britain abolish parliament, elect a cabinet (by email) and vote by computer on everything the government proposes? Either that, or think of new reasons not to have referendums.

    • 20 May 2010 at 5:28pm
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Great. You propose turning the entire population into the government.

    • 20 May 2010 at 6:15pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ pinhut
      Okay, that's a good reason.

    • 20 May 2010 at 7:20pm
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Come back tomorrow.

    • 25 May 2010 at 9:01am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      What was it that Bert Brecht wrote? If the government is disatisfied with the result they should find a new people.

  • 20 May 2010 at 4:16pm
    semitone says:
    Wouldn't PR in the Commons effectively cement the LibDems as the party of perpetual government, in coalition with either the Tories or Labour? The only three ways to avoid this would be: 1)a minority government (unlikely to last a full term, and the LibDems would have some leverage anyway), 2)a red-blue coalition (yeah right), and 3)an overall majority of votes (50%+1) for one party, which means everyone is so sick of the Libs being in power they just refuse to vote for them and decide to give this great nation the strong, stable government it deserves. In which case the Libs become the victims of their own success.

    I still think some form of PR is a great idea for the House of Review, though. My favourite is Hare-Clark - it solves the parachute problem.

  • 20 May 2010 at 7:56pm
    alex says:
    If politics were a game of chess, and the pepperpot a piece, what moves would it be able to do?

  • 20 May 2010 at 9:59pm
    ober says:
    Don't think it's right that PR for the Commons need cement the Lib Dems in power. It looks very likely that no one party would gain an overall majority under PR, but that needn't mean the Libs always holding the balance. As Glen Newey says, the electoral system shapes how people vote, and it is likely that PR (depending on the system chosen) would encourage some longer-term realignment among the parties - though one can only speculate as to what form this might take. Would the social democratic element of the Lib Dems splinter off to rejoin Labour, leaving a smaller and less statist Liberal party along continental lines? What would happen to the Green vote? Quite possible, anyway, that other coalition constellations would be viable. A major criticism of PR used to be the example of the swing position held by the FPD in Germany, but this is no longer the case - the last three German federal governments have had different coalition partners (Red-Green, Grand Alliance, Black-Yellow). There is no reason why a four- or five-party system couldn't develop for Westminster governments under PR.

  • 24 May 2010 at 10:05am
    ski says:
    In Ireland we use the STV version of PR (which as you know is way more proportional than AV, though not 'fully' proportional either. It is hard to imagine a fully PR version, or at least one that is workable). Anyway, in Ireland our Labour party is the half in our two and a half party system. It typically picks up 10-15% of the seats. But it is emphatically not the party of permanent power. In fact, Labour has been in power as a partner in a powersharing coalition for only 10 of the last 30 years, five of the last twenty years, and not at all in the last ten years. Furthermore, and the two big British parties who dream of permanent power take note, one of our two main parties, Fianna Fáil, have been in power (mercifully in coaltion and not a majority) for about twenty three of the last thirty years and all of the last thirteen years.

    During all of their time in coaltion Fianna Fáil have been the major party in the coaltion and mostly get their way anyway - though their junior partners have reined them in occasionally.

    All of our TDs (Members of Parliament) are elected in constituencies (none from a list) yet the party machine, with few exceptions, decides who runs where. Clientelism is not just a problem, but is chronic and debilitating. Parish pump politics is one of the major blights on our system which we cannot seem to bring outselves to address. (Some would cite the smallness of the country as a big factor, but there is a cultural cause too - we in Ireland expect our TDs to have pull in our favour, even for petty issues like getting planning, where they usually end up corrupting the proper process.)

    Despite PR, our system is Pale, Male, and Stale too. Only about 14% of our TDs are women, fewer I think than have been returned to the commons in your recent election.

    PR does have the advantage of giving a proportional voice to minority views - our Green party is currently a coaltion partner and has certainly been instrumental in ramping up our poor performance on areas such as planning, home insulation, and other green issues.

    Having said that, in my opinion the quality of a system of governance, in terms of how effectively it delivers for the nation, is a function of many complex factors. A representative electoral system is one issue, but there are probably more important issues too - such as corruption/sleaze, party funding, media influence, systems for transparency and accountability, and so on.

    • 25 May 2010 at 8:59am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ ski
      There was a completely fair system of PR in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Parties were elected when they obtained 1% of the vote and there were up to thirty parties in the Reichstag at any one time. Coalitions were the rule, but every one was subject to the pressure of its members and the resignation of a minister lead to another election. No Chancellor lasted more than a year or two and the last in the series was a guy named Hilter. PR must always be defined with the instigation of the 5% rule.

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