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Saturday, November 22, 2003
You only want stability when the government is getting it right

In my Politics class this week, proportional representation was discussed. I won't bore anyone with the usual litany of arguments for and against, but there was one rather instrumentalist defence of the system proposed without any real opposition (I was put on the pro-PR side) that I think deserves a critique.

This case was that PR ensures stability to a country in its economic affairs. Without the great electoral swings you often see under plurality systems of voting, it is easier to think into the future and know there will be a large element of continuity. There will not be very different policies even a decade or two from now, and one can plan ahead on that basis.

Well, it is certainly true that PR forces the sort of consensus that ensures economic policies - like others - really stick, changing only slowly and rarely. But this is only a good thing when those policies are themselves beneficial. It's all very well praising a country that has a basically sensible approach to policy for the way in which its political system works to preserve that approach even after quite considerable shifts of public opinion reveal themselves at election time. But what if the policies themselves are wrong and the relative immunity of coalition governments to elections and parliamentary swings ensures that the damaging approach the government is pushing forward is not reversed? Stability when things are going well is a very fine thing. But the other side of that coin is stability when policies mean a stagnating economy that is harming most people. In those circumstances, the last thing a country needs is an electoral system that puts huge obstacles in the way of voters kicking the existing government out of power in the way that they were able to do here in 1979 and 1997.

The great difficulty in all proportional voting systems for those without a natural inclination to put their trust in politicians is the way they produce coalition governments that, once solidified, become very difficult to remove. PR virtually inoculates leading politicians against the decisions of the voters. This may seem a good thing when the economy is growing, unemployment is low and there is no great desire to rock the boat. But it is a disaster when things are going badly wrong to have a voting system that makes a straightforward change of government very difficult and a complete reversal of policy near impossible. I would gladly trade a little stability when things are good for the ability to make decisive and necessary changes when things are bad.

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