Did Proportional Representation put the Nazis in power?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 5th June 2015

Probably the first time many of us heard of Proportional Representation (PR) was in a school classroom studying the Second World War.  For some people this may have been the last time they heard about other voting systems, and the bizarre myth that it was a proportional voting system which caused WWII – not things like, say, crumbling empires, xenophobia and economic collapse.

The myth about Germany is fairly easy to debunk. Germany returned to a PR system after the Second World War. It has delivered over 60 years of stable coalition government, with less Chancellors since 1945 than we have had Prime Ministers. You can also look to all the other countries around the world who have used PR for decades without succumbing to extremists – such as the vast majority of European countries. Weimar Germany is obviously a fairly unique historical case, defeated in war, wracked by revolutions and attempted coups.

There are a number of different proportional systems, but all of them ensure that parties have to achieve a reasonable share of the vote (ranging from 0.7 per cent support in the Netherlands to 10 per cent in Turkey) before they get a seat. If people vote in sufficient numbers for a party under PR, their voice will be heard. This is democracy – and it applies to parties across the spectrum. If you disagree with a view, you challenge it democratically – whether on the doorstep or in Parliament. You don’t challenge it by rigging the system.

Of course our system, First Past the Post, can also let extremist parties in, as seen by the BNP’s former presence in Barking, Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and other urban areas. In fact it is only under First Past the Post that parties with small levels of support can get complete control. The BNP gained all the borough council seats in parts of Burnley despite getting nowhere near a majority of the vote. In fact, in the 2015 General Election we saw the UK electoral record break for the lowest vote needed to get a MP elected, at 24.5%.  Only under First Past the Post can 24.5% of the vote translate into 100% of the political voice for an area. This is because our system works on a winner-takes-all basis, and the amount of votes you need to be a winner is only one more than next competitor, rather than an actual majority of the vote.

While obnoxious parties can get represented under PR, it is virtually impossible for them to gain control. In Germany’s July 1932 election, the Nazis secured 37.27% of the vote, a higher percentage than our current government enjoys –yet they still couldn’t form a government. Hermann Goering argued in his war crimes trial that, under the British system, with 37.27% of the vote the Nazis would have won every seat in the Reichstag at this election*. As they couldn’t take full control legally, the Nazis simply arrested all the Communist deputies and changed the rules to make it easier to pass the Enabling Act in 1933.

Apartheid South Africa was actually created when the Reformed National Party won the most seats in 1948’s first past the post election, despite winning fewer votes than their main opponents.

Unlike the unique setting of Germany in the 1930s, British people are not on the whole extremists. In normal elections voting for extremist parties is often a sign not so much of popular support for their values, but as an indicator that voters want to make a protest against the political system. When millions of people are marginalised and artificially excluded, anger can bubble up into things much worse than a Parliamentary seat.

Designing a system (like FPTP) to make sure that these votes are wasted is only likely to increase cynicism about politics. As we have seen with the complete collapse of the BNP, winning representation is often a step towards political defeat for extremist parties. The public scrutiny that comes with being in office quickly exposes the inadequacy of their politicians and policies. Once this is made clear and once their views are challenged, the electorate are more wary of parties that claim to offer easy answers in future.

Technically, different proportional systems have different ways of ensuring that you don’t end up with a massive fracturing of the party system. Party List PR generally uses a threshold – a certain amount of votes that a party need to gain before they get representation.

Single Transferable Vote is particularly well suited, as candidates still need reasonable levels of support locally (20% in a four seat constituency) and it is impossible to split the moderate vote. This is because voters rank candidates in order of preference under STV; therefore people can choose to use their lower preferences to help other democratic candidates defeat anti-democratic candidates.

While Godwin’s Law is still likely to persist in arguments about electoral reform, it’s pretty clear that ‘letting extremists in’ is one which doesn’t hold much water. Challenging views in a peaceful Parliamentary chamber is much better than having to challenge it on the streets when people feel excluded.

You can find out more about the Single Transferable Vote or read our full report on PR Myths.

*The Nazis were actually the largest party in 27 out of 35 electoral regions in July ’32

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