Does Proportional Representation give too much power to small parties?

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 23rd June 2015

It’s sometimes claimed that under proportional representation (PR), tiny parties have a lot of power, as they get to decide who to go into coalition with and therefore who forms the government. Under First Past the Post (FPTP), these people say, the party that the biggest share of the vote gets to be in power.

Analysis of what actually happens under coalition governments however shows that the idea that the ‘tail wags the dog’ is not borne out by the facts. The smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015, get to achieve some of their objectives, but the programme for government is by and large more closely based on the manifesto of the larger party. The larger party has most of the executive appointments and therefore more of an opportunity to use the power of government in line with its philosophy.

Of course proportional representation doesn’t automatically mean coalition governments. If a majority of the public support one party, such as the SNP in Scottish Parliament, that party gets to rule alone. If a single party doesn’t gain support of the majority, but shares a policy with a smaller party and together that policy is supported by the majority, there’s a fair case to say it should be implemented.

Often it is perfectly clear where a small party stands, and if the electorate does not want it to be in government they can vote against it. For instance, Norwegian voters opposed to the Socialist Left Party’s presence in government had only to vote for one of the centrist or centre-right parties which were against the party in the last election in 2013. Small parties that overplay their hand and use their power unwisely, as many believed the Free Democratic Party tried to do in the last German government until 2013, are generally punished by the electorate in the next election (in the FDP’s case ending up outside parliament for the first time in its history). A similar case could be made with regards to parties that go into coalitions that are apparently unpopular with their electorate, with the Liberal Democrats being arguably punished for this in 2015.

People who make the argument that small centre parties rule the roost under PR usually run out of examples after mentioning the FDP in Germany (a party that has served only one term in government since 1998, and which now does not even have seats in the Bundestag). The idea of a small party holding the balance between two big parties is an outmoded picture in many countries, including Germany and Britain. What sort of coalition is formed will depend very much on the context of politics at a given time, and deeper differences between political culture in different nations. Politics in most countries, even in Britain, is decreasingly about a simple left-right spectrum, and agreement on different issues can be found in the most surprising places.

In the Netherlands recent governments have included the Labour Party (PvdA) in a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDA), the CDA with the right-Liberal VVD, and even Labour in coalition with the VVD. These arrangements ensure moderate governments, with policies supported by the majority. Arguments against coalitions have not caught up with the reality of multi-party politics and the decline of the two party left-right monoliths.

Unrepresentative coalitions are actually a problem with large First Past the Post parties, such as the Conservative and Labour parties, who both have different wings fighting for control of the party. Unlike a coalition under proportional representation, in First Past the Post the public has no say in the structure of these coalitions – which side has the biggest say within each big, broad-church party. Supporters of the right-wing of the Conservative party who live in a constituency with a centrist Conservative MP have little way to support the right of the party. Under most PR systems however, the party system is much more diverse, with a greater variety of more specific parties that can more closely match individuals’ views – after all, there’s no ‘wasting your vote’ under a truly proportional system.

First Past the Post (FPTP) also creates problems with a small swing-group deciding who is in government. Because election results depend on the outcome in a small number of marginal seats, and the number of voters who might change their mind in such seats is itself smaller, election manifestos and campaigns are crafted to appeal to this group who were estimated in 2005 to consist of only 800,000 electors out of 45 million. This small group of voters has an effective veto over a wide range of policies on taxation, public services and climate change. They are, in effect, a ruling minority but without the stated policy positions that a small party would have – simply because of where they are in the country.

The Labour Party’s vote, for instance, went up 1.4% points in the 2015 election, yet they lost 26 seats. This is because the vote went up in seats they had already won, meaning the votes of these new supporters were wasted. Labour could make itself more popular still in these areas, but can only win an election by attracting a small number of effectively ‘elite’ voters, i.e. those in ‘swing’ seats (hence the image…).

As we’ve seen, under proportional representation small parties gain political power based on their share of the vote. Under First Past the Post meanwhile, a small group of people who happen to live in seats not nominated by any party get to dictate the manifestos and polices of the government, while voters have little control over which policies get precedent within the broad churches of the two main parties. Once again, with first past the post, geography is more important than democracy.

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