Proportional representation and the “empowered” backbencher?

Proportional representation would encourage more people to vote, properly reflect the wishes of all the electorate, encourage more women and minorities to run for office and, most importantly, restore power to MPs and electors. Then the backbenchers would no longer be restive, but empowered.

From a letter in the Calgary Herald by Mark Hambridge, president, Fair Vote Calgary.

Now, I am all for PR, in general, and agree with most of that, until the last point. But this kind of over-claiming really is not helpful. Is there any evidence that backbenchers in PR systems (with parliamentary executives) are more “empowered”–which I assume means more able to dissent from the government when their party is a member thereof? I do not think so.

It is likely that leaders use the threat of “my backbenchers won’t go for it” in intra-coalition negotiations with leaders of partner parties. But that is not the same thing as “empowered” backbenchers. Or at least I don’t think this is what the letter-writer has in mind.

7 thoughts on “Proportional representation and the “empowered” backbencher?

  1. I can’t think of any examples, probably because their aren’t any, but I could see the right type of PR providing for intra-party competition if Canada moved to larger, multi-member ridings with STV. Doesn’t Fair Vote usually push STV?

  2. Fair Vote Canada (Mark is the president of the Calgary chapter) supported STV in the B.C. referenda and MMP in the Ontario and Prince Edward Island referenda. Rather than be a pro-STV or pro-MMP organization, FVC’s position is to support proportional representation as a principle and evaluate each system that’s put forward on that basis.

  3. There is at least one case. Doug Lowe became premier of Tasmania in 1977, largely because of securing 2 quotas in a seven-member district.

    The ability of electors to rank the candidates may not lead to greater independence as backbenchers, but it certainly gives electors much greater influence over the composition of party caucuses. Lowe went on to achieve an extraordinary result 2 years later when he secured over 51% of first preferences or 4 of the 7 quotas in his district.

    • I (of all people, given my research agenda!) don’t dispute that STV and OLPR and various other systems give voters a greater influence over the composition of party caucuses than closed lists do (and FPTP is just a closed list consisting of one candidate for one seat). But that’s a totally separate question of what those elected do once in the legislature, and whether having a personal voting constituency makes them more “independent” or “empowered”.

      And note that the Fair Vote argument that I was responding to does not say “provided it’s STV” (or MMP or OLPR, or whatever). It just says PR empowers the MP. Now, I know it was just a letter to the editor, but still, the claim made is not supported by any evidence I am aware of.

  4. I had some recollection that in The British Constitution Now (1992), Ferdinand Mount suggested that both semi-fixed-terms for the Commons and proportional representation (he preferred the former) would reduce the power of the Executive over its backbenchers. (Professor Glanville Williams held a similar view in relation to fixed terms: he saw dissolutions as a means by which the Cabinet could keep its unruly troops in line).

    Inasmuch as SMDs plus a fully-dissoluble maximum term both give the incumbent Prime Minister a wide range of potential election dates at his or her fingertips, many of which will (unless the PrM is Julia Gillard) promise to give the PrM’s party an absolute majority of seats as long as it polls a plurality, however low its absolute percentage… the two institutional features do work together. Dissolution is not as useful a tactic if the PrM has to consider not only “Are we outpolling the Opposition?” but “How many voters actually support us?”

    Conversely, SMDs are less help to the Executive if the Awkward Squad who missed out on Ministerial leather are guaranteed their seats for the next N years and are immune to threats from the PrM that their terms might be cut short on the ground that “the current Parliament is unworkable”. For a US President, pretty much the entire Congress (even his own party) is one giant 1922 Committee.

    I was surprised that Mount conceded even this much in favour of PR as his 1992 book was on balance unfavourable towards PR. Even more surprised to read more recently (“Hung Parliament: I was a fool to fall for electoral reform. Ferdinand Mount says he was taken in by political parties whose intentions turned out to be dishonorable,” The Telegraph, 11 May 2010, that Mount claims to have been converted to PR over the years only to have his delusions shattered by the dirty tricks pulled by Nick Clegg & co, when the Lib Dems… err… actually, I’m not completely sure what Mount is angry about, since he seems to take it as indisputable that a majority in 2010 wanted Labour out, yet that’s what the LibDems went with. Perhaps (reading between the lines here) he is angry that Clegg even considered the idea of a Lib/ Lab pact and thus delayed the rightful accession of Mr Cameron by a crucial week or two.

    Likewise his statement that “we have seen exactly the kind of post-election maneuverings that would be standard under PR” is not really true, since if the UK used PR, voters in 2010 would have known a hung Commons was a possibility and would have given more attention to Clegg’s coalition plans before rather than after the election. If the UK used a preferential system (STV or AV), the flow of preferences would have “concentrate[d] the politician’s mind on how the voters actually voted”. No one in Australia seriously expects the Greens to support a Liberal Premier or the Nationals to put a Labor Prime Minister in office. (Independents are more opaque, true, but since AV ensures they never get elected in Australia, the problem is theoretical).

    But what’s the point? You are never going to get a Thatcherite to put aside or even revise their stock mantras by asking them to acknowledge the experience of countries like Australia or New Zealand. Where reality clashes with a soundbite from Hermens’ book or a Thatcher speech, reality must give way.

    Anyway, I have tried to track down Mount’s precise words from 1992 but I don’t have a copy of his book at hand and the Google Books search doesn’t turn it up. It’s possible I might have confused him with Vernon Bogdanor on this point but VB would have been much less lukewarm on the merits of PR.

  5. Thinking that I must have misrepresented Ferdinand Mount, I re-read his 2010 Telegraph piece (linked @5). It emerges that among the “desperate and squalid antics” he objects to, item #1 on the bill of indictment is that “one of the first actions of a Lib-Lab coalition would have been to install the alternative vote system without a referendum.”

    Which is ironic since one of the most often-hammered arguments in No2AV’s campaign was that the very cost of holding a referendum was – in and of itself, apart from the merits of the cases pro and con – enough reason to vote “No”.

    I posted a few comments here and there around the webz asking whether No2Av would have been happier if AV had been enacted without a referendum, by ordinary Act, at much lower financial cost, but oddly enough could not find one single AV opponent who admitted that they’d have considered that path preferable. Funny that. You’d almost think they were making the “cost” argument in bad faith. But surely there’s no way that supporters of a voting system that encourages voters to lie about their true preferences in an election (“I’m really a Conservative supporter, but they can’t win, so I’m pretending that UKIP is my first choice so that at least Labour won’t get in”) would, err, lie about their true preferences in a referendum.

    Did those billions of pounds ever get refunded to the humidicrib and body armour budget, after the votes were counted and AV was rejected?

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