Badmouthing PR

OK, so it’s now a couple of days late to post a reaction to election night coverage, but I’ve got exams coming up, so meh.

Thursday night saw me and two of my more politically minded friends (one LibDem, one Labour) in Queens’ College JCR watching Dimbleby and co. fill time before the results came trickling in. We eventually got bored/depressed at about 3.30am.

In the time before this, however, what annoyed me more than the results themselves (Aaaagh, Shrewsbury’s Lib Dem mayor lost his seat!) was the way in which, in reference to both the Scottish and Welsh elections, PR was painted in such a horribly biased way. Time and again some politician or other was allowed to ascribe to PR the idea that “what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts”, or some other such twaddle.

Two points need to be made here, and they need to be quite carefully teased apart from one another.

1. PR means, in theory, that what you will end up with in Parliament is a number of seats that reflects the percentage of the vote you got. It is not some sort of arcane and mysterious process which throws out results that nobody could predict, as Rhodri Morgan was allowed to suggest, unchallenged, in his interview, in order to duck questions.

2. What does make the system which Wales and Scotland have been saddled with confusing is not the idea of PR itself, nor the idea of FPTP constituency MSPs/AMs. The convoluted processes come from trying (about as succesfully as might be expected, I suppose) to fuse them together.

What irked me was that neither of these points came through at all in most of what people said about the results. A viewer who had little background knowledge of electoral systems (and why the hell should people need to have such knowledge to protect themselves from the establishment misinformation on the subject?) would come away with the impression that PR was the deranged dream of somebody who gets off on making processes as opaque as possible.

In addition, we have seen a spate of presentations of the view that PR is “designed to produce messy results“, or that “Different voting systems and confusing ballot papers robbed tens of thousands of people of their chance to vote“, not only on the BBC but in all quarters, including those who might be expected to be sympathetic to PR (that first quote is Mike White in the Guardian). It seems to be going largely unchallenged, which is irritating.

Of course these are valid perspectives, but currently, if anyone is voicing the counter-argument (that PR reflects public opinion more accurately, builds consensus, and leads to much greater levels of both scrutiny and careful consideration of legislation), then I’m not looking in the right places.

In the long run, this bothered me a hell of a lot more than the idea that the Lib Dems are facing a bit of a squeeze (tell us something we didn’t know; it’s not every day that the government does something as stupid as Iraq).

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