I’m with Jarndyce: it makes no sense to use the situation in Germany as an argument against proportional representation in Britain.
A letter to the Guardian by one Mathieu Capcarrere of Canterbury, Kent, perfectly captures what I have been thinking since reading all those rants about how Germany’s system of proportional representation is to blame for its current political uncertainty:
Maybe the problem with Germany is that it is actually a democracy. As a reminder,the share of UK’s vote in the 2005 election were: Labour: 35.3%, Conservative: 32.3%, Lib Dem: 22.1%, Other: 10.3% … Which is pretty close to what everyone calls a catastrophic result in Germany.
Indeed. In a parliamentary democracy where the electorate elects the legislature, which in turn must agree on an executive committee to form the government, there is nothing wrong with the sort of difficult horse-trading that is currently preoccupying the Bundestag party groups.
I can’t understand why some people like, for example, Brian Barder or Tom Watson MP, think an electoral system that forces “a clear and decisive result” is preferable to one that leads to a weak executive forced to compromise. The latter, it seems to me, is a more accurate reflection of the will of the electorate when they return results like those in Germany — and Britain.
Both Tony Blair and Angela Merkel lead parties that have the support of a minority: Labour’s 35.3 per cent is nearly the same as 35.2 per cent the CDU/CSU took in Germany. Yet the almost identical minority result guarantees Tony Blair a clear Parliamentary majority, while Angela Merkel won’t be able to form a government unless she is willing to water down her policies until they are acceptable to enough parties to reflect a majority of the electorate.
Forcing compromise on a plurality party with no democratic mandate to govern is, after all, is the role of the small “kingmaker” parties that PR opponents worry about.
The problem with blaming PR of the situation in Germany, moreover, is that it’s a testable hypothesis that falls flat when confronted with the facts.
Only half of the Bundestag owes its seats to state party lists and proportional representation. The other half of the chamber are actually British-style constituency MPs. A quick glance at the official results released by the Federal Returning Officer shows that an entirely first-past-the-post election would have led to more or less the same outcome.
If we simply ignore the half of the Bundestag that is elected by PR, and concentrate on the 299 MdBs elected by direktmandat (ie, the first-past-the-post constituency MPs), the composition of the new Bundestag would look like this:
SPD: 145 seats
CDU: 105 seats
CSU: 44 seats
Greens: 1 seat
Left: 3 seats
FDP: 0 seats
This would give the conservative CDU/CSU bloc a four-seat lead over the SPD. But with the Left and Greens likely to lend their four votes to an SPD opposition rather than a CDU government, we’re back to a hung parliament.
Some quick readers will have realised by now that 299 isn’t divisible by two. There’s one constituency seat open due to the death, during the campaign, of a neo-Nazi candidate in Dresden 1. The byelection there is on 2 October. The CDU incumbent in that seat won by just 2.5 per cent in 2002 with the proto-Linkspartei PDS taking 20 per cent in hird place.
In an entirely FPTP German election the 2 October by-election would become a circus like no other: the balance of power in Berlin would depend on the outcome.
If, in this bizzaro-world, the CDU won Dresden, Merkel would form a government with a one-seat majority. If, however, the SPD or Linkspartei took the seat, there would again be a hung parliament with all the same arguments as exist in real-world Germany today. A minority government would be the likely outcome. New elections would only be a matter of time.
Proportional representation did not cause the current situation. The voters did. Democracy is a bitch, huh?
Update: See also DoctorVee.
Update: The same argument applies in New Zealand.